Growth Mindset And Its Influence On Your Students’ Success
November 25, 2021
Earlier last year, when the pandemic had forced every one of us to work and learn from our homes, the transition was difficult. At my home, we all had a lot more time on our hands. We were left scratching our heads on how to keep ourselves occupied. We eventually bought a hula hoop to entertain ourselves. My brother got it from the get-go. With little practice, I managed to get the hang of it.
When my dad told me he wanted to try it, my brother and I were skeptical if he could succeed. And we made sure that we let him know that. Our comments didn't seem to faze him, and he got to practice. I saw him looking at tutorial videos and practicing regularly. He would practice in the mornings as part of his workout routine, during his breaks from work, or when he had any minute to spare. Well, what do you know! He got better and better at it. At one point, he could do it better than us. The incident reinforced in me an important lesson — effort can get you where you want to go. It was around that time I read the book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, and the concept of a growth mindset vs. fixed mindset gave me a lot to think about. And the takeaways from the book are what I would like to discuss with you today.
Carol Dweck is a Stanford psychologist known for her work on mindset. Here is her definition of mindset to start with.
What is a fixed mindset?
Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence, personality traits, and talent are fixed traits, and it alone is enough to succeed. They find ways to prove their ability and put little effort into developing it.
What is a growth mindset?
On the other hand, individuals with a growth mindset believe that their abilities can be developed through effort, strategies, and help from others. They have a zeal to continuously learn, and that pushes them to accomplish.
An example of the two mindsets
A student gets a bad grade in a subject. In a fixed mindset, the student is shattered and thinks of themselves as a failure. But with a growth mindset, though upset about the bad performance, the student thinks they need to work harder to score better. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Are you starting to see where Dweck is heading with this? We all have a fixed mindset towards some aspects of our lives and a growth mindset towards others. Take a minute to assess which mindset you are in. Also, what kind of mindset do you observe in your children or students?
Why is mindset important?
Irrespective of what phase we are in our lives, we are all students. Each of us has goals we want to achieve, and we are constantly striving to achieve them. And in our journey, we are riddled with both successes and failures. How are we looking at our failures? Are we letting it define us, and in turn, hindering us from achieving our potential. Or are we getting too comfortable in the bubble of our successes that we do not want to try new challenges?
Some of us are also parents, teachers, and coaches whose mission is to help children succeed. Are we mentoring them in the right direction?
Mindset influences our perception of our talents and abilities and consequently impacts the quality of lives we lead. Let's delve a little deeper into some of the influences to understand why having the right mindset is important.
On success and failure
Growing up, we learned to take our first steps, say our first word, and progress to do a whole bunch of amazing things. Even great minds like Einstein and Beethoven put the effort to continuously learn and improve, leading them to become who we know today.
"Most often people believe that the “gift” is the ability itself. Yet what feeds it is that constant, endless curiosity and challenge seeking. Prodigies or not, we all have interests that can blossom into abilities." (Dweck)
Learning is essential to growth, yet we all have moments of great hesitation. We think to ourselves, "what if I am a failure," and simply don't try. I had so many such moments like that in college and the sheer fear kept me from stretching and understanding my potential. As teachers and parents, we can help kids think differently.
"In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential." (Dweck)
In a fixed mindset, when we fail, we turn that into an identity. We consider ourselves failures. However, in the growth mindset (despite how painful the experience of failing is), we see ourselves as learning. In the growth mindset, we take charge of the processes that bring success and that maintain it. And this is the mindset we want to adopt and pass along to our children.
Schools use test grades and assessments to make assumptions about students' intelligence. Those who get high numbers are considered intelligent. And the others, just the opposite. When in a fixed mindset, we assume that about our children. Worse, students believe this about themselves.
In a fixed mindset, students who are doing well think they are born with the ability, and they can make it on only their talent. They are unwilling to put in any effort. And when faced with poor performance, they conclude they simply don't have the ability. In one study, when a student was asked what they would do if they got poor marks in a test, they said they would study less for the next test and would even consider cheating (because it came down to protecting their self-esteem).
"From the point of view of the fixed mindset, effort is only for people with deficiencies. And when people already know they’re deficient, maybe they have nothing to lose by trying. But if your claim to fame is not having any deficiencies—if you’re considered a genius, a talent, or a natural—then you have a lot to lose. Effort can reduce you." (Dweck)
Here is how students with a growth mindset differed. They didn't think that a test could measure how smart they were or how smart they would be when they grew up. They understood that it takes time for potential to shine.
Children’s mental health is a growing concern. Dweck ran a study where students were encouraged to keep an online diary, answering questions about their moods and how they were dealing with their problems. Here is what her team had found.
The students with the fixed mindset showed higher levels of depression. They overthought their setbacks and labeled themselves as a failure. The more depressed they felt, the more they refused to try. Neither did they study what they needed to, hand in their assignments on time, nor did they keep up with their chores.
The students with the growth mindset were also depressed and felt miserable about the various problems in their lives. But how they reacted differed vastly. They forced themselves out of bed and tried their best to function like how they normally would. When things derailed, they were ready to ask for help. The more depressed they felt, the more determined they became to take action to confront their problems.
On praise and positive labels
We all take pride in our kid’s achievements. Before we get ahead of ourselves and gush about how amazing they are, we must understand why praising their ability (instead of their effort) might do them more harm than good.
All children need to be appreciated when they do a good job. But what we focus on when we appreciate them impacts how they approach new challenges. In a study, her team observed two sets of students who after completing a series of problems were praised. One group was told something like, “Wow, you got [say] eight right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” The other group was told, “Wow, you got [say] eight right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”
As predicted, the first group after being praised for their talent were pushed into a fixed mindset. They were hesitant to try harder problems as they feared that failure to solve them would question their talent. Their performance plummeted even when they were given easier problems to solve than before. The second group, whose effort was praised, continued to love solving problems, especially the more hard ones. They believed difficulty translated to them having to put more effort. Their performance also improved. They used the hard problems to sharpen their skills and when they returned to solving the easier problems, they did it better and faster than before.
On negative labels and stereotypes
Children are often stuck with labels by teachers, peers, and parents.
"He is not as smart as his brother."
"That one there, she is difficult."
We have been both at the giving and receiving end of such judgments. Dweck believes, as teachers, by holding onto such labels, we are focusing on where a student is and not on where a student could end up. She observed that in classrooms where teachers practiced a growth mindset, students from both the high and low ability groups ended up performing equally well. Here, teachers taught with belief that all children could develop their skills and found a way to reach the students in the low-ability group.
Dweck suggests that a growth mindset shifts the thinking from “Can I teach them?” to “How can I teach them?” and “Can they learn?” to “How will they learn best?” This mindset when passed along to the children encourages them to rely on their efforts and strategies instead of on their abilities alone.
Negative labels are even more detrimental to stereotyped groups. For example, women are generally stereotyped as bad at math and science. In a fixed mindset, there is a constant worry of confirming the stereotype. Dweck observes, “The fixed mindset, plus stereotyping, plus women’s trust in other people’s assessments of them: All of these contribute to the gender gap in math and science.”
I relate to this because back when I was in high school, we were put into different classes based on our performances on a series of tests. While I managed to end up in the ‘smart’ class, I also ended up being the only girl in class. The constant stereotyping that I, being a girl, am naturally bad at science derailed my performance. It also created the feeling within me that I didn’t belong there. I was in a fixed mindset and gave into the inferiority complex.
Over the years, I had learned to adopt the growth mindset and it taught me to fight back. There is no permanent inferiority. If I am performing poorly, then I simply have to try harder and do what it takes to catch up.
“I am simply saying that a growth mindset helps people to see prejudice for what it is—someone else’s view of them—and to confront it with their confidence and abilities intact.” (Dweck)
On setting expectations and giving feedback
We all want what is best for our children. But is our aspiration for them coming in their way of learning and their interests? Here is an example for us to think over.
Sam shows a knack for swimming from a young age and is encouraged by her parents to pursue it. However, over the years, she has not been enjoying it as much as she used to. Sam would like to pursue her other interests. Since her parents and teachers feel that swimming will lead her to a bright future filled with success, she is afraid to quit.
“When parents give their children a fixed-mindset ideal, they are asking them to fit the mold of the brilliant, talented child, or be deemed unworthy. There is no room for error. And there is no room for the children’s individuality—their interests, their quirks, their desires, and values. I can hardly count the times fixed-mindset parents have wrung their hands and told me how their children were rebelling or dropping out.”
Dweck explains that by teaching a growth-mindset ideal, children are pursuing things that excite them. They are growing, laughing, and learning.
Similar to how setting unrealistic expectations can harm a child's growth, reassuring them with empty and insincere praises can harm them as well.
She suggests that parents and teachers should set high but realistic expectations and provide constructive feedback that is going to help students get where they want to be. Kids with a fixed mindset often construe feedback as judgment. So we must be careful about how we frame the feedback that we provide. Are we insinuating that their mistakes are worthy of judgment and punishment, or are we seeing it as an opportunity for suggestions and teaching?
Here is an example mentioned in the book of what a father says to his daughter after she had failed to win first place in gymnastics.
“Elizabeth, I know how you feel. It’s so disappointing to have your hopes up and to perform your best but not to win. But you know, you haven’t really earned it yet. There were many girls there who’ve been in gymnastics longer than you and who’ve worked a lot harder than you. If this is something you really want, then it’s something you’ll really have to work for.”
On relationships and friendships
Children, as they transition from one phase of their lives to another, must learn to build and maintain relationships. Romantic relationships are especially difficult to navigate as they stumble upon new emotions for new people. An aspect of relationships that even adults struggle to cope with is rejection and heartbreak. Once again, the right mindset can shift how you deal with these complicated feelings.
Dweck through multiple studies says that individuals with the fixed mindset felt they were unlovable after experiencing rejection. And the perceived judgment made them angry and bitter. Naturally, revenge was at the forefront of their mind and they wanted to inflict the same hurt back.
People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, wanted to forgive and move on. They too were hurt by what had happened but they believed they had their whole life ahead of them. So they wanted to heal, learn from the experience and move towards their future.
Another dimension to relationships that nobody ever teaches you is how to build lasting and satisfying relationships.
In a fixed mindset, just like how they believe their abilities are fixed traits, people also believe that their qualities are fixed, their partner’s qualities are fixed, and the relationship qualities are fixed. They cling to the idea that if it was meant to be, then their relationship would naturally succeed. They shouldn’t have to work to make it work.
In her book, Dweck quotes John Gottman, a foremost relationship researcher: “Every marriage demands an effort to keep it on the right track; there is a constant tension . . . between the forces that hold you together and those that can tear you apart.”
No relationship is devoid of problems. It requires partners to communicate openly and honestly. It requires discussing rather than assuming and being open to sitting down to resolve conflicting wants. A growth mindset enables you to learn these important relationship skills that in turn allow both partners to grow.
This can be applied to other relationships in our lives as well, including friendships. With a growth mindset, one is happy when their friends succeed rather than feeling threatened by it.
By teaching growth mindset to our children, we are enabling them to build genuine relationships with those around them.
Similar to rejections in relationships, rejections within the school environment, among their peers, leave a devastating mark on the students. Often, students are bullied and ostracized. While it is easier to understand the fixed mindset in bullies, it is also important to understand how a fixed mindset victim reacts to bullying.
Dweck gives the example of the Columbine school shooting. Both the boys who were shooters had been mercilessly bullied for years.
“They had been judged and they wanted to judge back. That’s what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters, did. They judged back. For a few long, terrible hours, they decided who would live and who would die.” (Dweck)
Students with a growth mindset do not take the bullying personally. Instead, they understand it as a psychological problem of the bullies. They are, in fact, open to educating bullies to become better people.
Schools, in recent times, have taken bullying to be a serious issue and are taking measures to prevent it. As part of the school culture, promoting the growth mindset school-wide can be one of the measures that can be taken.
How to develop a growth mindset in your students?
There is no one way to inculcate a growth mindset in children. Also, adopting a growth mindset is a journey. Here are some suggestions on how you can develop a growth mindset in your classrooms or at home.
- Praise children’s effort and process adopted to reach their goals. Instead of saying something like, “Wow, you are so smart!” Change it to, “Good job. The study plan you made helped a lot. You should continue to do something similar for the next test.”
- Encourage students' curiosity and instill a love for taking on challenges.
- Set challenging but achievable expectations of their performance. Encourage them to ask for and act on feedback.
- Celebrate growth by addressing mistakes (learning opportunities) made and rejoicing the corrections and improvements.
- Create an evaluation process that not just tells students their results but also identifies areas of improvement. Sit with the students and parents to understand how to address these concerns and strategize learning plans to help students succeed.
- Learning causes new neural pathways to strengthen. And the neural pathways which are used infrequently become weak. Help students understand the neuroplasticity of the brain so they can tell for themselves why effort and learning are important.
- Engage with parents and teach them how to deal with their children’s setbacks. In doing so, children can learn to do the same.
- Help students change the way they talk about themselves. When students say things like, “I’m not good at this topic” teach them to say, “I’m not good at this topic yet.”
The power of mindset is a simple but groundbreaking idea, and it is applicable to every one of us whether we are students, parents, teachers, or coaches. While the blog summarizes the concepts discussed by Carol Dweck, I recommend that you read the book to understand it better. I would also be happy to hear from you about your stories on mindset and the strategies that you have adopted in your classrooms and at home. If you do have something to share, please write to me (firstname.lastname@example.org).