I sat down recently with one of my daughter’s past teachers who has moved into the administration realm to design a new kind of high school for our area. She works on the cutting edge of education. So, naturally, I picked her brain for new research and approaches coming down the pipeline. She introduced me to the fascinating idea of fixed-versus-growth mindset based on decades of study by psychologist, Carol Dweck. After speaking to her, I researched more in-depth and found myself amazed again at how our brains work.
What is a Fixed Mindset?
A fixed mindset means that we see ourselves, the talents, intelligence, personality, and so on that we possess, as being static. Essentially, we have a certain level of ability at birth that determines the rest of our lives.
Studies reject this supposition by showing our brains can and do grow through challenge and failure. This idea leads to the use of a growth mindset that asserts what you are born with is only a jumping off point for the learning potential within your life time. In fact, in the long run, motivation can be more important than initial ability.
What does this mean for students?
It means we need to stop telling them things like, “You’re so smart!” Studies show that those praised for fixed things like intelligence or natural talent want to maintain that image and therefore choose tasks they know will be easy rather than those that will challenge them. When forced to try something difficult, these students lose motivation and begin to feel stupid. They lose all desire to learn.
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We need to start focusing on the process with statements like, “You must have worked so hard on that!” Students who have been praised for their efforts begin to see challenges as a learning opportunity and work harder in these situations. They more frequently choose the more difficult task in order to grow their brains and, in fact, perform higher in grades and motivation than their peers, regardless of academic or social background.
One of Dweck’s experiments illustrates this point well. Her team gave a large group of students a test. Half of them were told something along the lines of, “Wow, you did really well. You must be smart at this kind of problems.” The other half heard something like, “Wow, you did really well. You must have worked really hard on this.” All the students then took a test guaranteed to be too difficult, so they all failed. Finally, they took a third test. Those in the “worked really hard group” were able to shake off the Test 2 failure and score 30% higher than on the first test. Those in the “you must be smart” group lowered their scores by 20% and many of them even lied about their scores. Such varied results were brought about by the work of a single sentence.We need to start focusing on the process with statements like, “You must have worked so hard on that!” Students who have been praised for their efforts begin to see challenges as a learning opportunity and work harder in these situations. They more frequently choose the more difficult task in order to grow their brains and, in fact, perform higher in grades and motivation than their peers, regardless of academic or social background.
A growth mindset can be confusing in a world dominated by report cards and GPAs. These should be viewed as a reflection of where students are in that particular part of the process rather than a statement on their life’s potential. School is not about proving how smart you already are. It’s about learning, trying things and maybe failing.
So what you can do?
Good news, it’s never too late! Studies show that college students and even adults benefit from the knowledge that our brains can continue to grow. Children at any age can change their mindset with a simple explanation of what is possible. If you change the message you send by focusing on your child’s process and effort rather than results, you will help them be able to overcome set-backs in the future, as well as continue to love learning far beyond the walls of their schools.
Salman Khan, founder of The Khan Institute, believes so much in this idea that he created the #YouCanLearnAnything movement along with this video. You can read his reflections on teaching his 5-year-old a growth mindset in The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell my Son He’s Smart.