An extract from an article that first appeared in Education Week on 22 September 2015. Reprinted with permission from the author.
For many years, I secretly worked on my research. I say ‘secretly’ because, once upon a time, researchers simply published their research in professional journals – and there it stayed. However, my colleagues and I learned things we thought people needed to know. We found that students’ mindsets – how they perceive their abilities – played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). And when students learned through a structured programme that they could ‘grow their brains’ and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better. Finally, we found that having children focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits. So a few years back, I published my book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Dweck, 2007) to share these discoveries with educators. And many educators have applied the mindset principles in spectacular ways with tremendously gratifying results.
This is wonderful, and the good word continues to spread. But as we’ve watched the growth mindset become more popular, we’ve become much wiser about how to implement it. This learning – the common pitfalls, the misunderstandings, and what to do about them – is what I’d like to share with you, so that we can maximise the benefits for our students.
A growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches – not just sheer effort – to learn and improve. We also need to remember that effort is a means to an end to the goal of learning and improving. Too often nowadays, praise is given to students who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment: ‘Great effort! You tried your best!’ It’s good that the students tried, but it’s not good that they’re not learning. The growth-mindset approach helps children feel good in the short and long terms, by helping them thrive on challenges and setbacks on their way to learning. When they’re stuck, teachers can appreciate their work so far, but add: ‘Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.’
Recently, someone asked what keeps me up at night. It’s the fear that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement. In other words, if you want to make students feel good, even if they’re not learning, just praise their effort! Want to hide learning gaps from them? Just tell them, ‘Everyone is smart!’ The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them. It is about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.
A few years ago, my colleague in Australia, Susan Mackie, detected an outbreak of what she called ‘false growth mindset’. She was seeing educators who claimed to have a growth mindset, but whose words and actions didn’t reflect it.
At first, I was sceptical. But before long, I saw it, too, and I understood why. In many quarters, a growth mindset had become the right thing to have, the right way to think. It was as though educators were faced with a choice: are you an enlightened person who fosters students’ well-being? Or are you an unenlightened person, with a fixed mindset, who undermines them? So, of course, many claimed the growth-mindset identity.
How can we help educators adopt a deeper, true growth mindset, one that will show in their classroom practices? You may be surprised by my answer: let’s legitimise the fixed mindset. Let’s acknowledge that (1) we’re all a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, (2) we will probably always be, and (3) if we want to move closer to a growth mindset in our thoughts and practices, we need to stay in touch with our fixed-mindset thoughts and deeds. If we ‘ban’ the fixed mindset, we will surely create false growth-mindsets.
My colleagues and I are taking a growth-mindset stance towards our message to educators. Maybe we originally put too much emphasis on sheer effort. Maybe we made the development of a growth mindset sound too easy. Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too.