Moving from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset
If you have heard of the phrase “growth mindset”, you are not alone. Recently there has been a surch in educators and parents using the growth mindset as a way to encourage performance in young people. The idea behind it is logical: nobody is born with a set skillset but everyone can develop, or grow, their skills to a level needed to function or beyond if so wished.
30 years ago, Carol Dweck put forward a theory that children’s learning behavior and beliefs had a lasting impact on their learning outcomes. She suggested that those with interests in performance get discouraged by hardship, while those interested only in learning seek out challenging tasks in order to learn more.
Dweck’s paper also proposed that those with learning goals persisted despite failure and continued to have faith in their abilities, while those with performance goals were often easily discouraged upon encountering failure and doubted their abilities. Dweck coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe each of the aforementioned learning and intelligence beliefs, respectively.
Many students tend to give up when they encounter failure and hardship in studies because they believe that it means they are simply not good at the subject, or that they lack the level of intelligence necessary to excel at the subject. This is what is referred to as a fixed mindset. However, students can also have what is referred to as a growth mindset, which states that the brain is capable of overcoming the challenges it faces in new areas of learning. It is possible to develop a growth mindset, and doing so can help a student overcome the hurdles they face in learning and develop the necessary skills to persist.
While it’s heartening to see the sheer volume of parents and teachers keen on helping their children and students, many aren’t applying the growth mindset methodology correctly. For most, a growth mindset seems to represent effort or praise. But effort means nothing if it’s merely being used to try out the same techniques that didn’t work for the student in the first place. Another misinterpreting of the growth mindset is that praising a young person for trying anyway will encourage them, when in fact it is often redundant. Praise in itself is positive, but not when it’s being used to cheer up a child who has encountered difficulties. Instead, the student needs to be encouraged to find different strategies that actually work, rather than aimlessly repeating efforts that didn’t work the first time and won’t work the second time.
Failure is okay. Effort is a big part of the growth mindset but it’s not always going to result in success, and that’s completely fine. Praising a child for trying even if they failed is meant well, but what about improving the learning curve? It’s important to acknowledge the child’s efforts and make sure they understand where they are going wrong. Here, language is important. For example, if a child has done poorly in a test, despite their best efforts, telling them “Good job! You tried your best.” is confusing; in the long run, it can lead them to believe that you have low expectations for them. Instead, “I can see you’ve tried very hard. Let’s see how you can improve for next time to do even better,” can help a child recognize what they are doing wrong so that they can learn from their mistakes. It also conveys to them that learning is a continuous process and that there is a real opportunity for improvement. It’s equivalent to telling them: “I know you can do it, and it’s okay if you get stuck, but you need to try first. If you do get stuck, we’ll try a different way of looking at it.”
Finally, it’s important to understand that a growth mindset isn’t just beneficial to children, it’s equally applicable to adults as well. It’s important to extend the same kindness to yourself. Many adults who had a fairly successful academic childhood will have grown up with a fixed mindset, as this was the social norm at the time. As adults they might struggle when it is a natural time to change careers, adapt to change or when their own children are not “performing” to their expected norm. Those that weren’t as successful in their younger years and managed to “prove themselves” later on, will quite often have a natural growth mindset towards themselves and others. Unfortunately, there are also adults who grew up in the era of the fixed mindset and never managed to get see their own personal growth as a positive, or even an option. Working with a coach can help you develop a growth mindset for yourself and then apply that to those around you.