We all bring something to school that doesn’t fit neatly inside backpacks or briefcases but is very important for academic success: A set of beliefs about students’ ability to learn and grow. These beliefs are a more powerful predictor of student success than test scores but aren’t always obvious.1They show up when we listen closely to how students talk about school. For example, “I don’t want to take that class; I am bad at math,” is quite different from, “I really struggled on that last math exam; I need to figure out some new study strategies.”
Statements like these illuminate a student’s mindset—either “growth” or “fixed.”
The degree to which a student possesses a growth or fixed mindset shapes their resilience in the face of obstacles, their enjoyment of learning, and their willingness to take on new challenges.2 According to renowned researcher Carol Dweck, Ph.D., people with fixed mindsets believe their intelligence and abilities are hardwired traits and that talent is what leads to success, not effort. In contrast, people with growth mindsets believe that abilities can be developed through persistence and hard work.
But it’s not all about the students.
Educators’ beliefs are inextricably linked to those of their students. A fixed mindset might show up in educator self-talk like, “The students might doubt that I am a good teacher if I show that I don’t know something” or in quick assessments about a student’s potential, “That student seems beyond my help.”
The good news is that both student and educator mindsets themselves are not fixed. For example, evidence shows that even small interventions can shift a student’s beliefs and boost achievement. Dr. Dweck’s now famous experiments on the influence of praise demonstrate the powerful relationship between feedback and mindset.
Many have hoped to boost young people’s confidence by praising innate qualities like intelligence or talent. While this kind of praise can feel good in the moment, it ultimately undermines confidence and reinforces a fixed mindset. In contrast, process praise, or praising students for their effort and perseverance, reinforces a growth mindset and increases motivation.3
Still, simply rewarding effort is not a silver-bullet solution. Without other strategies, it risks yielding a “growth mindset lite” mentality and can frustrate educators and parents.
One parent summed it up like this, “My daughter is working hard, and I am proud of her perseverance, but at the end of the day her performance isn’t necessarily improving. Do I just keep praising her for her work? This doesn’t seem to be working.”
Mindset is not about effort alone
Dr. Dweck has been actively reminding educators that mindset is not about effort alone. She emphasizes that “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.”4
We need a variety of tools and strategies to develop a growth mindset, and we need more than praise in our toolkit. Here are a few strategies that parents, educators, and youth serving professionals can start using today:
Look at your own mindset.
Perhaps the most influential way to teach growth mindset is to model it and to acknowledge when we get “stuck” in fixed mindset thinking ourselves. Dr. Dweck reminds us that we are all a mix of both growth and fixed mindsets, so pay attention to your own fixed mindset impulses.8
Teach young people about their brains.
Don’t keep the latest science a secret. Remind them that their brains can grow. Evidence shows that students who understand how their brains grow and develop are more likely to adopt a growth mindset.5
Set learning goals, not just performance goals.
Learning goals focus on acquiring new skills or knowledge, while performance goals focus on achieving measures of performance (like scores or grades). Students who embrace learning goals are more likely to have a growth mindset.6
Growth mindset isn’t just about working hard; it’s about thinking hard, too.
This means reflecting on which learning strategies work and which ones don’t — and being willing to switch strategies and try new things to improve performance. Try asking, “What else can you try?” instead of simply praising hard work that doesn’t seem to be paying off. Check out this feedback tool from Mindset Works for specific ideas.
Critical feedback isn’t off limits.
Growth mindset doesn’t mean that you only offer positive praise, but be careful how you deliver tough feedback. Criticizing a young person’s character reinforces a fixed mindset (and undermines your relationship). Offering feedback about the process reinforces the idea that a different set of choices could lead to a different outcome.7
Plan your response to, “I can’t do this!”
Children say this for all kinds of reasons. This resource from Edutopia has some great ideas for how to respond.
Normalize mistakes and struggle.
Sspecially those that result from pushing themselves to try challenging things. Check out this video to view this in action in the classroom.
Differentiate between stretch mistakes and sloppy mistakes.
Celebrating mistakes that result from being too tired, too distracted, or too lazy can backfire. Instead, encourage young people to glean lessons from sloppy mistakes. For example you might suggest that it is time to get more sleep or reduce multitasking during homework.
Don’t forget about the system.
Keep in mind that it isn’t appropriate to rely on a young person’s mindset alone to overcome persistent institutional barriers that get in the way of their success, or worse yet, blame a young person’s mindset for institutional failure. Growth mindset is no substitute for tackling issues like institutional racism, gender stereotyping, and special education reform in our schools.
About the Authors:
David Walsh, Ph.D., is an award winning psychologist, best-selling author, and international speaker. In 1995, he founded the internationally renowned National Institute on Media and the Family, which he led until 2010. In 2011 he founded Mind Positive Parenting to translate cutting edge brain science to everyday practice for parents, teachers and other professionals.
Erin Walsh, M.A., is a dynamic, knowledgeable speaker who has addressed a wide range of audiences on topics related to brain development and raising resilient young people in the digital age. Erin was instrumental to the development of the MediaWise movement and enjoyed working with her father, Dr. David Walsh, for 10 years at the National Institute on Media and the Family before creating Mind Positive Parenting together in 2010.
- Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Penguin House.
- Dweck, C. (2007). The perils and promise of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34-39. Access at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct07/vol65/num02/The-Perils-and-Promises-of-Praise.aspxIbid.
- Dweck, C. (2017). Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset.’ Education Week. Access at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html
- Blackwell, L., Dweck C., & Trzesniewski, K. (2007). Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263.
- Dweck, C., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. (2011). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning. Paper prepared for the Gates Foundation. Access at: https://ed.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/manual/dweck-walton-cohen-2014.pdf
- Kamins, M. & Dweck, C. (1999). Person Versus Process Praise and Criticism: Implications for Contingent Self-Worth and Coping. Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 835-847.
- Op Cit. Dweck,C. (2017)