There’s more to a ‘growth mindset’ than assuming you have it

November 23, 2015

Professor of psychology Carol Dweck talks about her research at a recent symposium on learning at Stanford.

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck coined the phrase “growth mindset” as the belief that you can develop your abilities, and then watched as the term took hold as a meme for motivation on playgrounds and in classrooms across America.

Now she’s worried about its misapplication: Teachers who use growth mindset as a shorthand without understanding it; parents who attempt to teach a growth mindset by haranguing kids to try harder; schools that assume they can measure growth mindsets by asking teachers and students to grade how they handle adversity and solve complex problems.

Less than a decade after the publication of Dweck’s “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” research by her and others is flourishing, gamers are creating growth mindset games and school districts are paying attention to what are often referred to as “soft skills,” such as social emotional learning or non-cognitive skills like perseverance and self-control.

But with popularization comes the risk of oversimplification. Dweck explained what growth mindset is and isn’t at a recent Education Writers Association seminar, “The Hidden Value of Motivation,” at Stanford.

Praising a child’s intelligence, Dweck explained, creates a “fixed mindset” – the belief that how smart they are governs what children can and can’t do. So when they become stuck on a problem, children tend to give up, concluding they weren’t born bright enough or are just not good at math. Dweck said that’s self-defeating because children then become “less resilient in the face of obstacles.”

Its opposite, a growth mindset, while it may appear a truism on its face, can become a powerful motivator. Teaching children that the brain works like a muscle that gets stronger with practice reinforces persistence. Encouraging students to visualize brain synapses firing when they overcome challenges is not merely a metaphor: Brain studies that Dweck and other speakers cited showed surges in brain activity when students respond to mistakes.

A body of research confirms that a growth mindset can improve performance, Dweck said. A 2012 study of all Chilean 10th-graders by Stanford colleagues showed students with a growth mindset significantly outscored peers with a fixed mindset in math and reading, regardless of income. A study of how mothers praised children between ages 1 and 3 showed there was an impact on learning that the children retained years later. Those children who received more “process praise” commending effort, relative to other forms of praise, were more likely to work hard, confront challenges and better deal with failure – traits of a growth mindset – in 2nd grade.

But the growth mindset movement has pitfalls, too. Prodding students to increase effort alone, telling them they would have done better if they had tried harder, isn’t enough, Dweck said. Without suggesting learning strategies when students are stymied and judiciously offering help at the right time, a student may feel more incompetent if more effort doesn’t work. Telling students to “keep trying and you’ll get it” does not instill a growth mindset, Dweck said. “I call it nagging.”

Teachers who heap encouragement on students may assume they have adopted a growth mindset. But, Dweck said, “growth mindset is about closing the achievement gap, not about making low-achieving kids feel good in the moment but not learn in the long run.”

Teachers who incorporate a growth mindset also provide critical feedback and give students an opportunity to revise their work. They create a classroom where students are encouraged to take on challenges, try new strategies and acknowledge and explain their mistakes, she said.

Teachers must be in touch with themselves, too, and look for their own “fixed mindset triggers.” Do they feel dread when faced with a challenge, frustrated when they struggle with a problem, defensive and discouraged when they face criticism and setbacks? Do they assume that students who are struggling to learn have a fixed mindset and blame the children’s parents?

Most people, Dweck said, have neither a fixed nor a growth mindset; they’re a hybrid, and different situations and challenges bring out qualities of one or the other.

Teachers must work hard to create a growth mindset and a classroom where it thrives, Dweck said. “It requires a constant journey,” she said.

In her own words: Carol Dweck writes about the popularization of growth mindset in a recent Education Week commentary.

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