In decision theory and general systems theory a “mindset” is a set of assumptions, methods, or notations held by one or more people or groups of people that is so established that it creates a powerful incentive within these people or groups to continue to adopt or accept prior behaviors, choices, or tools. This phenomenon is also sometimes described as mental inertia, “groupthink,” or a “paradigm” and is often difficult to counteract its effects upon analysis and decision making processes. A mindset can also be seen as incident of a person’s “Weltanschauung” or philosophy of life.
According to Carol Dweck (2006) individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of “where ability comes from.” Dweck states that there are two categories (growth mindset versus fixed mindset) that can group individuals based on their behavior, specifically their reaction to failure. Those with a “fixed mindset” believe that abilities are mostly innate and interpret failure as the lack of necessary basic abilities, while those with a “growth mindset” believe that they can acquire any given ability provided they invest effort or study.
Dweck (2012) argues that the growth mindset “will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life”.
In a 2012 interview, Dweck defined both fixed and growth mindsets:
“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” (2)
A large part of Dweck’s research on mindsets has been done in the field of education, and how these mindsets affect a student’s performance in the classroom. The growth mindset is clearly the more desirable of the two for students (Scott, et al, 2013; Yeager & Dweck, 2012) In particular, an individual’s mindset impacts how they face and cope with challenges, such as the transition into junior high school from elementary school or losing your job (Dweck, 2006). According to Dweck, individuals with a “growth” theory are more likely to continue working hard despite setbacks. Individuals’ theories of intelligence can be affected by subtle environmental cues. For example, children given praise such as “good job, you’re very smart” are much more likely to develop a fixed mindset, whereas if given compliments like “good job, you worked very hard” they are likely to develop a growth mindset.
According to Aldhous (2008), while elements of our personality – such as sensitivity to mistakes and setbacks – can make us predisposed towards holding a certain mindset, we are able to develop and reshape our mindset through our interactions (p. 44-45). In multiple studies, Carol Dweck and her colleagues noted that alterations in mindset could be achieved through “praising the process through which success was achieved,” and by “having [college aged students] read compelling scientific articles that support one view or the other“(Cimpian, et al, 2007) or teaching junior high school students “that every time they try hard and learn something new, their brain forms new connections that, over time, make them smarter”(Dweck, 2007). These studies all demonstrate how framing and discussing students’ work and effort play a considerable role in the type of mindset students develop and students’ conceptions of their own ability.
Dweck’s research and theory of growth and fixed mindsets has been useful in intervention strategies with at risk students, particularly in challenging subject areas (Scott, et al, 2013), dispelling negative stereotypes in education held by teachers and students, understanding the impacts of self-theories on resilience, and understanding how process praise can foster a growth mindset and positively impact students’ motivation levels. (Veronikas, 2004, Retrieved 10/31/2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindset)
Traditional math problems often encourage students to quickly work toward one solution, but “open tasks” can teach the same content while giving students more opportunities to struggle and interact with math concepts on a deeper level. That’s why math teachers who emphasize mindsets advocate for teaching through “open problems,” which challenge students to explain a concept rather than quickly identify one solution. And open problems allow students to understand how math concepts relate to each other, rather than merely understanding how to use an algorithm the teacher prescribes. It’s not that getting the correct answer doesn’t matter, Montoy-Wilson said. But open problems emphasize that the process of arriving at the answer matters too. “It’s pretty scary in terms of what we want for our future to think of kids who only know the algorithm and not why it works,” Montoy-Wilson said. “When you just focus on getting to the answer, you really rob kids of grappling and working on that sweet spot. You don’t want to scaffold or carry the load too heavily for your kids.”
In an Education Week, November 16, 2015 article “Growth Mindset: Clearing up Some Common Confusions,” Eduardo Briceño clarifies some of the misunderstandings of growth mindset research and practice:
Confusion #1: What a growth mindset is
When we ask people to tell us what the growth mindset is, we often get lots of different answers, such as working hard, having high expectations, being resilient, or more general ideas like being open or flexible. But a growth mindset is none of those things.
It is the belief that qualities can change and that we can develop our intelligence and abilities. The opposite of having a growth mindset is having a fixed mindset, which is the belief, that intelligence and abilities cannot be developed. The reason that this definition of growth mindset is important is that research has shown that this specific belief leads people to take on challenges, work harder and more effectively, and persevere in the face of struggle, all of which makes people more successful learners. It is hard to directly change these behaviors without also working to change the underlying understanding of the nature of abilities.
Confusion #2: To foster a growth mindset, simply praise children for working hard
A body of research has shown that telling children that they’re smart and implying that their success depends on it fosters fixed mindsets. When these children later experience struggle, they tend to conclude that their ability is not high after all, and as a result they lose confidence, so our praise has the opposite effect of what we intended. On the other hand, praising hard work or strategies used, things that children control, has been shown to support a growth mindset.
This research was designed to learn more about one of the ways to support a growth mindset, not to identify all there is to fostering a growth mindset. When people newer to the growth mindset framework initially learn about this research, they sometimes conclude that we should simply praise children for working hard. But this is a nascent level of understanding. First, exhorting students to work hard would be an attempt to directly change behaviors without changing the underlying belief about the nature of abilities.
Second, students often haven’t learned that working hard involves thinking hard, which involves reflecting on and changing our strategies so we become more and more effective learners over time, and we need to guide them to come to understand this. For example, a novice teacher who sees a student trying very hard but not making any progress may think “well, at least she’s working hard, so I’ll praise her effort,” but if the student continues to do what she’s doing, or even more of it, it’s unlikely to lead to success. Instead, the teacher can coach the student to try different approaches to working, studying, and learning, so that she is thinking more deeply (i.e. mentally working harder) to become a better learner, and of course the teacher should do the same: reflect on how to adjust instruction. “It’s not just about effort. You also need to learn skills that let you use your brain in a smarter way. . . to get better at something” (Yeager & Dweck, 2012).
Third, cultivating growth mindsets involves a gradual process of releasing responsibility to students for them to become more self-sufficient learners, and praise is a communications technique that tends to be more helpful earlier in that process of building agency. Later on, adults can ask students questions that prompt them to reflect, so that they’re progressing down the path toward independence.
Fourth, praise and coaching are not the only, or most powerful, ways to foster growth mindsets. For example, another method is modeling lifelong learning and making it visible, which gets us to the next confusion.
Confusion #3: Growth mindset is about changing young people, not adults
Some recent criticisms paint growth mindset work as solely focused on the students and not the adults. This is a misunderstanding of what growth mindset efforts are about. In our work with educators, we encourage the adults to start with themselves. If we don’t work to shift our own mindset about ourselves and our students, then we won’t work to change many other important things in the system necessary to improve education. Furthermore, our efforts to foster growth mindsets in students are likely to fail because we will say and do things that reflect our fixed mindset beliefs, which students will notice. We must deeply explore mindsets within ourselves and then gradually work to develop our own growth mindsets and our habits as learners. This means authentically working to become better at what we do throughout our lives, including how we teach and how we create contexts that help students thrive, and making our learning process visible to one another and to students.
We encourage the schools we serve to train teachers early in their growth mindset efforts, involving reflections and discussions on adult beliefs and continuous improvement practices. We provide professional learning resources to help them do so. Dr. Dweck and other mindset researchers speak about the importance of fostering a growth mindset in adults and have researched the mindsets of educators, managers, leaders, and other grownups. Growth mindset research is about learning how we humans can all become more motivated and effective learners, not about how we can change students but not ourselves.
Confusion #4: All that matters is what’s in the mind
Another confusion about mindset is that the only determinant of success is our mindset. But that’s not the case. Context, culture, environment, and systems matter. For one thing, people’s mindsets (as well as other beliefs and behaviors) are strongly shaped by the people around them. Beyond that, people’s destiny is not only a function of what’s within them, but also of what’s around them. A lot of the early mindset research studies focused on individual’s minds because they were seeking to understand how humans work. But mindset researchers recognize, research, and speak about the importance of shifting culture, context, and systems, and both researchers and practitioners actively work on that aspect of change efforts.
Confusion #5: Improvement is all about changing beliefs and not doing anything else
Related to that, another confusion we see, also reflected in recent commentaries, is that growth mindset work is solely about fostering the belief that we can improve, but not about changing the educational system or actually doing anything about that belief. Carol Dweck has talked extensively about changing learning tasks, testing practices, and grading systems. Too many tasks and teaching approaches are superficial, irrelevant, unengaging, and not learner-centered. We do need to change these tasks, the curriculum, and the pedagogy. We need to change the idea that school is about testing rather than about learning. We also need to better tackle broader issues such as childhood trauma and lack of exposure to early reading. People who dive deeper into growth mindsets learn about how important these issues are and how we might begin to address them, and a growth mindset helps them take on the challenges. As David Yeager and Gregory Walton point out:
Mindset] interventions complement—and do not replace—traditional educational reforms. They do not teach students academic content or skills, restructure schools, or improve teacher training. Instead, they allow students to take better advantage of learning opportunities that are present in schools and tap into existing recursive processes to generate long-lasting effects . . . Indeed, [Mindset] interventions may make the effects of high-quality educational reforms such as improved instruction or curricula more apparent (Yeager & Walton, 2011).
As with anything else, the deeper we go into mindsets, the deeper our understanding becomes. Over time, more nuanced questions arise, such as about the relationship between mindset and performance, results, failure, potential, assessments, mistakes, and many other things. For example, early on a teacher who is learning about mindset may start oversimplifying mistakes as always being ‘good’, but this can confuse learners, as mistakes are not always something we should seek to do. With time we start distinguishing stretch mistakes, sloppy mistakes, aha-moment mistakes, and high-stakes mistakes.
Research has shown that developing a growth mindset is beneficial in a variety of contexts, from education to the workplace to interpersonal relationships to sports to health. It leads people to take on challenges they can learn from, to find more effective ways to improve, to persevere in the face of setbacks, and to make greater progress, all of which we need to further cultivate in education. Furthermore, there is evidence that its benefits are most pronounced for people who face negative stereotypes, such as underserved minorities and females in STEM, and as a result growth mindset efforts can narrow the achievement gap.
Growth mindset is a seemingly simple concept, but there is a lot of nuance to the framework and its applications. I hope that this article helps clarify common misconceptions. We invite people to continue diving deeper into this body of work and engage in explorations together. We welcome further feedback because it takes a village, or more precisely, all of us, to foster better learning.
Eduardo Briceño is the Co-Founder & CEO of Mindset Works, which he created with Carol Dweck, Lisa Blackwell and others to help people develop as motivated and effective learners, including educators. Carol Dweck is still on the board of directors, but has no financial interest in or income from Mindset Works. The ideas expressed in this article are entirely Eduardo Briceño’s.
Growth Mindset Application
Teachers Seize On ‘Growth Mindset,’ But Crave More Training
By Evie Blad
September 20, 2016
As enthusiasm about “growth mindset” spreads across schools, researchers who popularized the idea are concerned that teachers might not have the resources or understanding to use it effectively in their classrooms.
And teachers themselves seem to be well aware of the gap between knowing about growth mindset and having the skills to incorporate it into their classroom strategies.
- 77 percent said they were familiar or very familiar with growth mindset, but
- 85 percent said they wanted more professional development in the area
Growth-mindset research suggests that students will be more engaged in learning when they understand that their talents and intellectual capabilities can strengthen through effort and strategy. That’s counter to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that such skills are inherent and unchangeable. Students with a fixed mindset are less likely to respond to mistakes by developing strategies to improve in the future, research suggests.
Mindset researchers are now faced with a balancing act:
Encouraging educators to seek a deeper understanding of the concept without squelching the enthusiasm that got them interested in the first place.
“We’re really at the critical juncture of whether the idea will be effectively adopted or whether it’s going to get discarded,” said Jacquie Beaubien, a senior program manager for the Project for Education Research That Scales, or PERTS, a Stanford University research lab that investigates practical ways to put mindset research to work in K-12 schools.
Without effective, research-based practices, teachers may abandon growth mindset as just another buzzword or fad, Beaubien said. That’s why the Stanford lab is offering online training modules for teachers, creating a diagnostic tool to determine if their classroom practices are supported by mindset research, and assessing their professional-development needs around the subject.
In its survey of teachers, the Education Week Research Center found that:
53 percent of respondents said that their use of growth mindset was a very important factor contributing to academic achievement, ranking it below others such as:
- Teaching quality, and
- School climate
An online poll of a national sample of more than 600 teachers who are registered users of edweek.org was conducted in May.
Demand for Practical Training
It’s not uncommon for teachers to want more practical training in how to use mindset research, even if they are very interested in the concept, educators noted. Many teachers didn’t learn about this approach to student motivation in their preservice training, instead picking up on it from:
- Articles, and
- Discussions with peers
As a result, Stanford researchers working with focus groups found that those teachers often have misconceptions about the research. Among them:
- Equating a growth mindset with a general sense of optimism,
- Emphasizing sheer effort instead of teaching students to develop new learning strategies, and
- Focusing on how they communicate with students rather than adapting broader classroom practices
“They become very focused on labeling students’ behavior and not really probing what’s driving that behavior,” Beaubien said, adding that some teachers mistakenly identify a student with a lack of interest in a subject as someone who has a fixed mindset and a fear of making mistakes in front of his or her peers.
Just 35 percent of teachers surveyed by Education Week’s Research Center said their training and professional development had included strategies for collaborating with other teachers on incorporating growth-mindset concepts into their classroom practices, which researchers have identified as an important way to develop strong and meaningful approaches to using their work.
Respondents did demonstrate an understanding of mindset research. A majority identified the kinds of student praise that would be more likely to nurture a growth mindset. (The Education Week Research Center consulted a panel of experts on the subject to formulate that question).
And a majority of respondents reported using on a daily or weekly basis practices that experts have linked to promoting growth mindsets – such as praising students for effort. Fewer respondents said they used practices known to lock in a fixed mindset, such as praising students for their intelligence, on a daily or weekly basis.
When asked how they integrated growth mindset into their teaching practices, 33 percent of respondents said they did so by praising students for taking risks and persevering, the most popular answer.
Less popular among respondents were other strategies that researchers say promote growth mindsets:
- Using formative assessments,
- Self-evaluation, and
- Assignment revisions
- Encouraging multiple strategies for learning
- Supporting peer-to-peer learning
Leaders of ongoing schoolwide and districtwide professional development in mindsets say those deeper changes to classroom practices are necessary to help students learn how to respond to mistakes.
Staying Informed Is a Challenge
Another problem identified by the Stanford lab – high teacher-turnover rates in high-poverty schools – makes it difficult to keep a teaching staff informed about the concept. That’s especially problematic because researchers have found that while students from low-income families are less likely to have a growth mindset, their learning is affected more dramatically than their wealthier peers’ when they adopt the approach to learning.
Some districts, both high- and low-income, have worked to address that churn effect by making mindsets part of ongoing discussions and working groups.
In Baltimore, what the Stanford researchers call a “mindset revolution” started when two teachers became interested in the concept and formed a group of peers in their school to read books and share effective strategies for putting it to work in classrooms. That effort has remained teacher-led as it expanded to other schools, said Tina Jablonowski, the district’s coordinator of new-teacher support and development.
Two years ago, she incorporated growth-mindset discussions into the district’s new-teacher-induction program, which includes summer training and follow-up with a mentor for the first few years in the classroom.
“Teaching students how to learn and take risks and really think through their learning process was something that we didn’t do in the classroom,” Jablonowski said. “We see students who struggle, and it’s almost like they’re paralyzed because they don’t want to fail.”
An understanding of mindsets gives new teachers a way of thinking about all kinds of classroom practices, including how to grade, organize student groups, and conduct classroom discussions, she said.
That’s been true in the school system in Marshing, Idaho, said Ken Price, the director of the district’s 21st-century learning-center site. After a district wide training about mindsets, teachers began applying what they learned to every area of their work, even classroom management.
A 5th grade teacher put signs in her room describing traits like honesty and kindness. She encouraged students to pick a trait they wanted to improve in themselves and to identify ways to do so. She shared her own answer, talking about past mistakes and regrets. “When an adult shares their vulnerabilities and their hopes, then kids say, ‘Hey, that’s OK for me to do, too,’” Price said.
While the growth mindset concept is intuitive to many teachers, it takes time and collaboration to incorporate it into classroom practices, he said. “We don’t have to do this perfectly all at once and we don’t have to be comprehensive all at once.”