Growth Based Mindset

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has spent decades studying achievement and success. She has developed the concept of a growth-based mindset, summarized here:

Fixed Mindset Growth-Based Mindset
Belief Intelligence and talent are static. They’re something you’re born with: you have it or you don’t. Intelligence develops with effort. The brain is like a muscle that can be trained.
Goals To look smart in every situation.
To never fail.
To push myself and try new things.
To take on new challenges.
Success Proving I’m smart or talented. Stretching to learn something new.
Evaluation of a new situation Will I succeed at it or will I fail?
Will it make me look good or bad?
Will it allow me to grow?
Attitude to challenges I avoid challenges.
I stick to what I do well.
I embrace challenges.
I persist when things get tough.
Response to setback I’m a failure. (identity)
I give up.
I failed. (action)   I’ll learn from it and move on. I’ll try harder next time
Effort Why bother? It’s pointless. Effort is the key to mastery.
Criticism Ignore criticism or deflect: “It’s not my fault.” Learn from criticism: how can I improve?
Success of others I feel threatened by it.
If they succeed, I fail.
I find lessons and inspiration in other people’s successes.
I feel good When it’s perfect. When I win. When I try hard. When I figure something out.
Results They plateau early. Never reach full potential. They achieve ever-higher levels of success.

Mindsets in the classroom:

Students were given a test. Then some of the children were praised for their intelligence: “that’s a good score. You must be smart.” Some were praised for the process: “that’s a good score. You must have worked hard.” The kids were then asked what they wanted to do next, and they were given the option of something easy where they wouldn’t make mistakes or something challenging where they might make mistakes but would learn something important. Those who were praised for intelligence chose the easy task. Those who were praised for effort chose the hard task they could learn from. Later, they gave everyone a very hard test – the kids praised for intelligence lost confidence and lost their enjoyment of the task and later lied about their scores. The kids who were praised for the effort and the process stayed confident, worked hard at the problems and remained engaged and didn’t lie about their results, because they felt they had done as well as they could on a hard test.

In other research, by Dweck and Blackwell, a group of low achieving students attended a class that taught that intelligence, like a muscle, grows stronger with exercise. As they learned to believe that intelligence was something they could learn, rather than something they could never achieve if they weren’t “born with it”, their motivation increased. They worked harder. When they had difficulty, instead of saying “I’m just not smart enough”, they would say that they needed to work harder or smarter. Their math scores improved, and continued to improve in the following year.

Another example of where these mindsets play out is in the math classroom. 3 out of 10 American describe themselves as “bad at math.” This leads to the belief that “I will never be good at math, so there’s no point in even trying.” Parents and teachers often reinforce this perception. Research shows that while genetics and inherent intelligence can help children initially score well, over time the kids that do best in math are the ones who work hard, have good study habits, and enjoy doing math.

To help your child develop a growth based mindset:

  • think about how you praise them: praise effort, not talent. Praise process not product.
  • pay attention to how you talk about your own abilities… do you say “I’m just no good at…” or do you say “this is hard for me right now, but if I keep trying I think I’ll do it”
  • think about how you respond to their failures and frustrations. Do you let them give up, or encourage them to keep trying? Do you say things like “I know it seems hard now, but I also know that the more you practice, the better you’ll get.”
  • encourage them to tinker: play around at something – try and try again until you get the result you were hoping for

Learn more about growth mindsets at http://www.whatkidscando.org/resources/spec_growthmindset.html and Mind-sets and Equitable Education: http://www.principals.org/Content.aspx?topic=61219

Read more on math at “The Myth of ‘I’m bad at math’” at www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/the-myth-of-im-bad-at-math/280914/ and “’I’m not a math person’ is no longer a valid excuse” at www.businessinsider.com/being-good-at-math-is-not-about-natural-ability-2013-11

If you’re in the Seattle area, you can attend a lecture on the Growth Mindset by Tracy Kutchlow on Wednesday, April 29. Learn more here.

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