Growth mindset is the belief that intelligence, talents, and abilities can be developed. People guided by a growth mindset believe they can improve through hard work, use of effective strategies, and help from others when they need it. Fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence, talents, and abilities are more or less set in stone and cannot be improved. This is the core message to take away from decades of research by Carol Dweck.
When interesting research is transformed into workable solutions for educators it faces the risk of being oversimplified and can become a quick fix recipe or a magic silver bullet for education. And if the research is not easily transferred into everyday practice, we, as teachers, might abandon the concept and jump on another bandwagon. When research is criticised from other researchers we might forget that this is the nature of research itself – to question results, refine theories, and make the research even better and more solid. Research such as Visible Learning, Assessment for Learning, and Mindset have all found its way into schools. They have sometimes been reduced to one-size-fits all concepts with ranking tables, Two Stars and a Wish exercises and motivational mindset posters.
If the concept of mindset is presented as a choice of black and white it might lead to misuse. When the growth mindset idea became popular it soon became something that teachers just assumed that they should have (or always have had). So of course they wanted to give or equip their students with it.
This has made Dweck respond by asking teachers to act accordingly when encouraging a growth mindset in their students (see my articles listed at the end).
Some major issues have been:
- Praising effort alone. If students are using the wrong strategy, effort might not be of any help and might make the student feel helpless. If you are working hard – but not learning – you shouldn´t keep doing the same thing! The ultimate goal of applying effort is learning and making progress. In this situation we need to talk about change of strategy as the next step – not praising ineffective work!
- Using it as a new label. Some schools want to use tests to see what mindset their students have. The risk with measuring is that it more or less consciously entails a risk that you will start to label students and blame lack of progress on students having the “wrong mindset.” In the past, maybe students were labelled “weak” or maybe “low ability,” now the new labels are: “He/she has got a fixed mindset.” Labels limit learning!
Other misunderstandings include equalling the important mindset message that the brain is plastic and malleable to using anything that contains ‘brain gym.’ Or that mindset theory claims that talent is irrelevant – while my reading of mindset research rather shows that talent is a starting point – however not a prediction of success in itself.
Regardless of what mindset your students have, your classroom culture should communicate mindset messages through how you group students, what form of tasks are given, and what sort of questions are asked. I think we can leave testing for research purposes and instead use the time to create a trustful and challenging classroom culture.
A classroom where students AND teachers:
- seek challenge – because it is interesting and consider easy tasks as boring
- value putting in effort and connect it to strategies for progress and learning
- see mistakes as useful feedback and don’t hide mistakes
- construct and work with meaningful, multifaceted problems where multiple strategies can be used
What has become more obvious is that it is more fruitful to see the two mindsets as a continuum. As an example you can have different views of your abilities in different areas. I might think that I’ll make a lot of progress learning to play golf but might at the same time see myself as hopeless when it comes to learning Maths. “I’m sporty but I’m not a Maths person.” So we are more of a mixture of mindsets.
We also need to understand that beliefs can change – in either direction. If you get a lot of fixed mindset message in the form of personal praise or hear that genetics is everything, you might start avoiding challenges and become anxious and defensive. To face this Dweck has brought up the strategy to devote time to recognise and acknowledge such negative signals and put them in a mindset perspective. I think we might gain to talk and think in terms of “being in a mindset” rather than to “have a certain mindset.” Watch out for triggers that bring out your own fixed mindset thoughts. This could be when a lesson goes wrong or when your students’ weren’t paying attention and you get a feeling of incompetence. How do you act then? And all those posts by ‘successful teachers’ writing about ‘successful lessons’ on the Internet. Do you feel you can learn something or do you think it is not for you?
One way of looking at this development of the understanding of the mindset concept is through The Learning Challenge. We started off with a clear idea of mindset as a simple black and white choice but soon entered the pit when we found the concept to be more complex – and at the same time promising – than we first understood. Bit by bit new research and experiences from practice will help to construct new meaning and understanding of how to work with motivation in our classrooms – and a way out of the Pit.
So let’s follow the mindset research as an important piece in understanding our own, as well as our students’, motivation. Let’s not treat it as a quickfix to education with only flashy prefabricated motivational posters! Dweck and her colleagues are determined and have given high priority to finding out how to best make use of mindsets in the school context. And perhaps I can suggest that we focus on teaching our students how to change mindset only after we’ve looked at our own beliefs and how they affect our classroom culture.
After all, as Dweck says: “… the path to a growth mindset is a journey, not a proclamation.”
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