What is The Growth Mindset?

The ‘growth mindset’ movement is the newest way psychologists think education can be changed for the better. It has been taking the U.S. by storm, and it’s about to hit the shores in the U.K. So before it hits, let’s look at what exactly a ‘growth mindset’ is and why the idea is proving so popular.

The idea originated with Carol Dweck, an American psychologist, and its gist is that increased effort generally leads to success. Now, this might not be news to a lot of people. But there’s more to it than that. Dweck divided learners into groups with ‘growth mindsets’ and ‘fixed mindsets’, which is the difference between believing in effort or innate ability driving success.

Basically, Dweck believes that a growth mindset can benefit the way we learn and improve by helping us overcome setbacks, like a low test score (or, in the adult world, missing a promotion). Because of how popular this idea might become- it’s already been dubbed the next self-esteem movement [1]- a British study called Changing Mindsets will test just how effective these ideas are in an actual classroom setting.

So, since we’re still a little ahead of the curve, let’s dive right in and find out how to create a growth mindset, both in the classroom and in adult life too. Bear in mind, though, that this isn’t an exhaustive list. For more hints and tips, feel free to check out the links at the bottom of the page!

1. Praise effort rather than success or failure

This point is first for a reason. It’s the most crucial part of creating a growth mindset. Whenever you have to give feedback to a class or a colleague, please do your best to focus on the effort they put in, rather than homing in on whether the particular task ended as a failure or a success.

An encouraging effort is the cornerstone of a growth mindset. According to Carol Dweck’s website, telling kids that they’re intelligent or naturally gifted encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work encourages growth. This leads to negative long-term results instead of honouring the effort they put in instead [2].

Try to keep criticism positive

Of course, sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes a couple of students misunderstand their homework assignment, or a project runs on for far longer than anticipated. But when things do go wrong, it provides us with an opportunity to grow and improve, and we have to take that chance.

By keeping criticism positive, we can encourage rather than discourage future success. Laura Reynolds, an author at InformED, described her experience. After giving a nerve-racking presentation on killer whales, she was harangued with negative feedback about her skills and ability in front of the entire class! [3]

This experience put her off public speaking for years to come, she says, although she has since become a teacher. But giving ‘constructive feedback’, and recognising that failure and success can both cost the same amount of time and effort, avoids this problem and encourages future improvement.

3. Think of both effort and production

To create a growth mindset, we should focus on effort, but not at the expense of the actual end product. The useless effort, expended for its own sake, is a drain on time and resources. This point is most usefully applied in work and is probably less relevant for school-age learners.

Whatever effort we put in, it has to have a direction, a particular goal, or a meaning for it to have any use. Take, for example, an accreditation you might be able to take at work: it might look good on your CV, but does it help you do your job better? Will you get any reward, like a raise or a promotion for doing it? If not, what purpose does it serve? You would probably be better off finding something else to put your time into.

This is trickier to get right in schools since how can we accurately judge what was wasted effort and what wasn’t? Kids deserve something of a free pass here. So long as they’re putting effort into achieving some goal, they’re on the right track.

4. Acknowledge imperfections

The way that we acknowledge imperfections is fundamental. For instance, take a school pupil who is fantastic at creative tasks- painting or playing the guitar- but isn’t so good at logical problems like algebra. It’s easy to imagine that they might criticise themselves or even face criticism from their family: ‘If you’re so good at drawing, why can’t you do well in maths?’

The best thing to do here is to acknowledge that some people prefer specific tasks over others. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be good at maths, but that they don’t enjoy it as much as their creative pursuits. There’s nothing wrong with that, and their efforts to do their best in each subject should be equally rewarded!

5. Remember: there is no such thing as a pure growth mindset

Last but not least, try not to get too caught up in the fad. Carol Dweck herself says that it is impossible to embody the growth mindset completely. Every one of us will always be partly fixed in our old ways of thinking, no matter what we do to try and remedy that. But don’t let that dishearten you because it’s completely natural!

Dweck says that teachers are at risk of ‘banning’ the fixed mindset, which she completely disagrees with. In an article on the subject, she said that ‘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.’ [4] So, rather than avoiding it, a fixed mindset is essential to cultivating a growth mindset.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/10/growth-mindset-research-uk-schools-sats

[2] https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/

[3] http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/giving-student-feedback/

[4] http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html