The work of the psychologist Carol Dweck has brought the idea of growth mindsets into public consciousness. Roughly, Dweck has proposed that two types of mindsets exist: fixed and growth. Individuals may possess only one, a combination of the two or they may find themselves operating from a growth mindset in certain areas of their life and from a fixed mindset in other areas.
The two mindsets are constituted by different features. I will sketch these in loose form here. For a more detailed explanation of Dweck’s ideas, follow this link. Fixed mindsets view failure as a negative thing, see challenge as something to be avoided and, most significantly, see basic qualities as fixed or innate. So, for example, a fixed mindset operates under the assumption that intelligence is an immutable monolith, something decreed at birth, forever to remain as the gods determined it.
Growth mindsets work from very different premises. They view challenge as something to be welcomed – a learning opportunity. They see failure as something which can be learnt from. And they do not believe intelligence, or talent for that matter, is fixed or innate. Instead, they acknowledge the capacity inherent in all of us for growth and development; for learning and for progress. As you might imagine, this mindset is far more conducive to success – both in school and beyond.
This is not to say that people operating with fixed mindsets are unable to achieve success. They are, and in fact they often do. What is likely to be the case though, is that this success will feel more fragile and will be more closely tied to a sense a self in which success is seen as a function of pre-existing, determined abilities rather than effort, application and the concomitant developments these bring.
Growth Mindsets and the Classroom
Let us look at an example through which we might illustrate the difference between fixed and growth mindsets.
Two basketball players, Tom and Chris, start out playing for the same team. For whatever reason, Tom is the better player to begin with. He is more athletic, has more sophisticated fine-motor skills and is more reliable at scoring.
As time progresses we discover that Tom has a fixed mindset and Chris has a growth one. Tom believes he is good at basketball because he was born with talent. He does not see a correlation between hard work and progression. When he encounters challenges – for example, playing out of position – he shies away from them, preferring to return to the areas where he knows he can succeed. He describes himself as ‘that kind of player.’
Chris does not mind making mistakes. When things go wrong he analyses what happened and thinks about how he will avoid such situations in the future. He notices how he improves over time and enjoys working hard because of the later benefits this brings. When his coach makes suggestions or presents him with challenges, he thinks about them and enjoys having to change and adapt, taking pleasure from the experience of problem-solving. He relishes playing out of position because it gives him the chance to learn new things.
A year passes. Chris is now an integral member of the team; unrecognisable from the player he was twelve months ago. Tom is in and out of the squad. Sometimes he plays and does well but if things don’t go his way he reacts badly and has little impact. He is seriously contemplating giving up basketball, claiming that it isn’t the same as it used to be. Chris, on the other hand, is having trials for the age-group above his own. He’s learning lots from the experience.
In this brief vignette we have the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Possession of the former does not preclude one from achievement. But possession of the latter means success, growth and adaptation are much more likely to come one’s way.
Developing growth mindsets in our students is not an easy task. The nature of school life – something into which all pupils are habituated from an early age – means that many children grow up viewing failure as a bad thing. What is more, they are likely to avoid challenge as a result, preferring the perceived psychological safety which comes from sticking with what one knows (itself a usual corollary of the view that intelligence and talent are innate).
The task is a realistic one though and there are plenty of practical ways in which progress can be made. In 2014 The Growth Mindset Teacher’s Pocketbook will be released, which I have co-authored with Professor Barry Hymer. This presents a range of strategies you can employ in your classroom, as well as a deeper insight into the research surrounding mindset theory.
As a precursor to that, here are two simple tools you can start using straight away in order to begin cultivating growth mindsets.
First, talk to your students about the benefits of failure. Stress the connection between making mistakes and learning. Use examples from your own life for the purposes of illustration. For example, most of us have made mistakes while learning to drive, cooking or playing sport, only to subsequently learn how to avoid those same mistakes in the future.
Second, share growth mindset stories with your pupils. Tell them about your own experiences or the experiences of others. Good examples include Thomas Edison (the American inventor), David Beckham and Frank Lampard (who both trained tirelessly to maximise their success), Steve Jobs (the American entrepreneur) and Bradley Wiggins (the British cyclist). Stories like these serve to contextualise the notion of growth mindsets and give students a model they can copy and use in their own work.
Ultimately, growth mindsets take time to mature. By talking about them and helping pupils appreciate what they involve you will be well on your way to ensuring they develop in all the students you teach.