One of the most popular ideas floating around the world of education right now is the concept of the growth mindset and its opposite, the fixed mindset. In developing this concept, Stanford’s Carol Dweck has led the way, and I highly recommend her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. This idea is very important, so I’m going to take the time now to explore them in depth. We’ll reference back to this idea again and again in future posts.
In short, someone with a growth mindset believes that he can improve, while someone with a fixed mindset believes he is stuck at his current ability-level.1 These two opposing mindsets apply to our lives in a surprising variety of ways. It’s helpful to have a growth mindset with regard to your athletic skills, your artistic and musical abilities, your social skills, and your ability to focus, as well as your general intelligence and your scholastic abilities.1 All of these traits can be improved with effort.
Since effort is the way for anyone to improve, the belief that you cannot improve is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think improvement is impossible, you’ll have no motivation to try, and without effort, you’re guaranteed to stay stuck where you are. This is the essence of a fixed mindset: the notion that the mind is set in stone, unchangeable.1 This view is not only harmful and demotivating, it is also scientifically inaccurate.
A fixed mindset is the belief that your abilities and your intelligence will never change because they were determined by your genes and your past environment.1 Of course there are genetic and environmental factors that affect who people become, but the fixed mindset takes this grain of truth–that people are different–and turns it into an immovable boulder.
The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset: the belief that the mind can be improved.1 Growth-minded people accept that there are innate differences between individuals, but don’t believe their genes are as important as how they spend their time. They believe they can improve through increased effort and better strategies.1 As a result, they work hard, seek out better techniques, and steadily make progress.1
The growth mindset is the scientifically accurate view of the mind because the brain really is a dynamic organ, constantly rewiring itself2 and growing new neurons.3 Our minds are capable of incredible growth. This fact, I believe, is the single, most important fact that a person can ever learn because it inspires you to do the work that leads to growth.
If someone believes that improvement is possible, then he’ll be willing to work hard. As a result of his hard work, he’ll start to see improvement. The progress he makes will reinforce his initial belief that improvement is possible. Thus, having a growth mindset can kick-start a feedback loop of hard work and success:
How hard a student works has a lot to do with his long-term academic success, and it’s clear that having a growth mindset encourages greater effort.1
Persistence and Resilience
The other primary effect of having a growth mindset is that it helps students deal with challenges in a better way. Growth-minded students are excited by challenges and eager to learn, and they ask for help when they need it.1 They are persistent and resilient when they face difficulties.1 They see mistakes as learning opportunities, and they see failures as inevitable stepping-stones on the path to success.1 Finally, growth-minded students see criticism as valuable feedback that they can use to improve.1
Fixed-minded students, on the other hand, feel threatened by challenges, don’t want to think about their mistakes, and don’t ask for help.1 As a result, they give up quickly when things get difficult.1 Any challenges are signs that they’re simply not good enough.1 Mistakes and failures further prove that they’re not capable.1 They become afraid of trying difficult things, and they become deeply afraid of criticism.1
To everyone, mistakes are understood as information–as data–but the mindset one has determines what type of data is seen.
People with a fixed mindset see a mistake as evidence of their own inadequacy–a sign that they’re incapable. Since people with a fixed mindset believe that they will forever be who they are right now, any feedback that informs them of their “permanent” inadequacy is devastating. Thus, they become fearful of making mistakes and unwilling to look carefully at their errors, preferring to stick their heads in the sand, rather than face their mistakes head-on. Of course, without examining their mistakes, they can’t learn from them, so they end up repeating the same mistakes again and again, “proving” to themselves that they’re incapable of getting better. Since these errors are so emotionally difficult, they start to avoid challenges altogether.
Growth-minded people, on the other hand, see mistakes as information about what to avoid doing in the future. They might see the mistake as a sign of their own inadequacy, but it is a temporary inadequacy–one that can be corrected. Since they are eager to learn from their errors, they face them head-on, examine them carefully, and, as a result, learn a great deal from them. For students, this means less frustration while doing homework, higher test scores, and most importantly, better understanding of the material.
Again, the growth mindset is the factually accurate one: While mistakes don’t feel good, our brains actually grow the most when we learn from our mistakes.1 The willingness to make mistakes is critical to learning anything or creating anything new. That’s why the great teacher Marva Collins said, “If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything.”4
If, for example, a growth-minded student is working on a math problem with a coach, and the coach informs her that she’s made an error, she’ll look over her work and try to discover the mistake on her own. In doing so, she’ll be developing the critical skill of self-correction.
The response of a fixed-minded student in the same situation is very different: She will impulsively erase her work and start over, rather than looking at her work to see what went wrong. This desire to erase the attempt is really about erasing the error from her consciousness. It’s impossible to figure out at which step in the problem things went wrong if she erases the work from the page, so rather than learning from her error, she often just repeats it in her next attempt. This, of course, is very frustrating. Because her approach makes math homework consistently frustrating, the fixed-minded student will often become avoidant, leading to procrastination.
How to Shift Toward a Growth Mindset
By now it should be clear that everyone, especially students, should make an effort to shift toward a growth mindset. Luckily, there are many proven ways to both improve your own mindset and encourage a growth mindset in your children.
The simplest intervention is to utilize the word “yet.” Whenever you say “I can’t,” add the word “yet.” A lot rests on that one, little word. “I can’t” has a definitive and permanent feel to it. “I can’t yet” implies that you will eventually be able to do whatever it is you cannot currently do. It implies a growth mindset. If a student says, “I can’t,” you can playfully say, “Oh, you can’t yet?”1
The Dynamic Human Brain
It turns out that it’s not all that helpful to teach children explicitly about these mindsets and tell them to “have a growth mindset.” It’s far more helpful to explain how the brain changes as we learn, practice, and challenge ourselves.1 Older children can be taught the incredible science of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and even young children can understand the idea that their brain changes and grows.
I know this is true because we teach these ideas to students of all ages here at Northwest Educational Services. I know it works because when students come to understand the dynamic nature of their brain, their attitude changes. They handle challenges more resiliently when they know that their brain will improve in response to the challenges. They’re more willing to look at their mistakes when they’re told that their brain grows the most by learning from errors. They practice their skills more often when they understand that strong neural connections are formed through repetition.
For parents and educators trying to instill a growth mindset in students, the most important thing to do is avoid giving fixed-minded feedback. What follows is surprising, but I assure you that it is backed up by rigorous research.
When it comes to giving feedback, don’t praise intelligence. Instead, praise effort and strategy.
Praising effort and strategy increases motivation, resilience, and future success. Praising students for being “smart,” on the other hand, decreases motivation, encourages students to give up when they face challenges, and dramatically lowers future success.1
Likewise, when mistakes are made, emphasize that they are the result of chosen strategies, not inherent character traits. New strategies frequently lead to better outcomes, and learning from mistakes always does.1
Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy wrote the following in an article titled, The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart
“I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows.”
While we should praise strong effort and good strategy, we should especially praise improvements in effort and strategy. When a student shows an increase in the amount of work she’s doing, this is a critical turning point that should be encouraged. If she receives praise for increasing her effort, she’ll learn that working harder results in emotional rewards, and this will motivate her to work harder and harder.
The same is true for an improvement in strategy. If a student demonstrates the open-mindedness to proactively adopt new methods, this is also a critical turning point that must be encouraged. Realizing that the current strategy isn’t paying off is a very important skill. The willingness to change course after this realization is equally important.
Ask Better Questions
“If you ask a terrible question, you’ll get a terrible answer.” –Tony Robbins5
Our questions have built-in assumptions that, when we’re on autopilot, we take for granted.5 But these assumptions may not be true, realistic, or helpful.5 It’s important to recognize the assumptions built into our questions. If you ask a question like, “How have I ruined this?” then you’re assuming that the situation is beyond repair. But if you ask a question like, “How can I turn this around?” then you’re empowering yourself by assuming that a solution exists.5
Any question that assumes the current difficulty is the result of something permanent is a fixed-minded question. Here are some classic fixed-minded questions:
- What’s wrong with me?
- What personal trait do I lack?
- How can I avoid looking dumb?
- How can I avoid this type of challenge in the future?
- Whom or what can I blame?
Growth-minded questions, by contrast, assume that errors are the result of behavioral mistakes rather than character traits. Growth-minded questions are concerned with learning and improving rather than looking smart.
Growth-minded questions have the built-in assumption that challenges can be overcome.
Growth-minded questions sometimes include words that are normally understood as negative, such as “incorrect,” “mistake,” and “forget.” However, for a growth-minded student, these words do not represent bad things. Mistakes are opportunities for learning and improving, so they are seen as good things. Because errors do not feel emotionally threatening, growth-minded students are comfortable exploring them.
Here are some examples of growth-minded questions:
- What did I forget to do? (What should I remember to do next time?)
- What, specifically, did I do incorrectly?
- What did I do right?
- How can I avoid this mistake on my next attempt?
- What other strategies could I have used? (What strategy do I want to try next time?)
- How am I able to respond in a positive way, despite the circumstances?
Process vs. Outcomes
One way to make sure a student has a fixed mindset is to focus all your attention on her grades. When your attention is on her grades, she learns that grades are what matter, and she’ll begin to lose interest in learning the content taught in her classes. As a result, she’ll neglect the ideas, worrying instead about the points. Rather than figuring out how to get the answers, she’ll only want to know what the answers are. Ironically, this shift in attitude is usually detrimental to the student’s GPA.
Conversely, if parents focus their attention on the material a student is learning, she’ll be much more likely to develop a growth mindset. If the parents are curious about the ideas being taught in school, the student will learn to engage with those ideas. She may even become excited about learning the content. Rather than worrying about her grades, she’ll concern herself with figuring out what the content means. Rather than worrying if she’s getting the right answers every time, she’ll focus on understanding how to get the answers. It should now come as no surprise that this attitude usually leads to good grades. As usual, it’s best to keep your eyes on the process.
Perfect Does Not Exist
Perfectionism goes hand-in-hand with having a fixed mindset. The fixed-minded student believes that she shouldn’t try something unless she’s sure she can do it perfectly. Of course, she needs to try in order to improve, so it’s important to shift away from perfectionistic, all-or-nothing thinking. We’ll go into much greater detail on this topic in the future, but for now, please remember that “perfect” is an imaginary ideal that doesn’t exist and can never be reached.
Part of shifting away from perfectionism is just recognizing that every good thing we do is helpful. We don’t have to do everything right in order to improve. Minor improvements to such fundamental health practices as exercise, sleep, and diet result in measurable academic improvements.9,10 Furthermore, taking even tiny steps to improve the physical health of your brain improves your ability to focus your attention, persist through challenges, and retain new information.9,10
The fact that improvements to brain health are noticeably beneficial for students is a powerful example of the human potential for cognitive growth. A student with a growth mindset will actively take care of her brain and therefore see benefits, while a student with a fixed mindset will believe that it’s not worth the effort and therefore never earn these benefits.
Modeling the Growth Mindset
A very powerful intervention is for parents to model the growth mindset. For some, this means first changing your own mindset and then demonstrating it in front of your children. For those who already have a growth mindset, this might mean deliberately displaying it more often. In both cases, some acting on your part may be required.
If you’re thinking, “But I’m not good at acting!” please remember that acting is a skill that grows with practice. You’re not good at acting … yet.
As with most efforts to change behavior in children, the most success comes when parents lead by example. I don’t recommend talking about these mindsets with your children. Instead, my advice would be to have growth-minded discussions about challenges you’re facing, not with your children, but with other adults in front of your children. Your children will hear how you talk and they’ll learn from it. This is generally preferable because, as you probably know all too well, direct advice from parents often falls on deaf ears.
Parents should model resilience and persistence. They should use growth-minded language and ask each other growth-minded questions. They should talk openly about the difficulties they’re facing, mention that they sometimes feel like giving up, and demonstrate overcoming that impulse to quit.
Other Role Models
There are many examples of growth-minded people from real life who can help your children understand how success really works. The most successful people in the world were not born with the talent or genius they appear to have. If you look carefully at the biography of any world-class athlete, famous musician, or prolific inventor, what you’ll find is a story of massive effort, countless mistakes, devastating failures, and dogged persistence.6,7,8
In fact, it’s not uncommon for world-class performers to have put in 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice.”6 Deliberate practice means pushing your limits, trying that which you cannot yet do, and struggling with it.6 When the best musicians in the world practice, they sound terrible because they’re trying to play things that are slightly beyond their current ability-level.6 They don’t practice what’s easy; they practice what’s hard.
Growth-minded role models range from Michael Jordan to Abraham Lincoln, but I’d like to use Dr. Barbara Oakley as an example. She did very poorly in high school math, so, rather than pursuing a career that required math, she became a translator. Many years later, however, she decided that she wanted to become an engineer. In order to achieve this math-heavy goal, she had to learn how to learn. She learned skills and strategies that make it possible for anyone to succeed in math. Eventually, she became both a professor of engineering and an expert on the science of learning.9
Any student can learn the same skills that Dr. Oakley acquired on her journey from translator to engineering professor. In fact, she has a free online class you can take, called “Learning How to Learn.” For a more in-depth approach, please check out her fantastic book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra).
Dr. Oakley is just one of the many growth-minded people we can use as role models.
We’re Born to Learn Through Failure
It also helps to remember that we’re born with a growth mindset. Consider how a baby learns to walk: by falling over and over again. Babies aren’t quitters; they keep trying. This process repeats over and over again as we learn skills such as talking, riding a bike, reading, and math.
Sadly, most people lose their innate growth mindset because they’re raised in a culture that worships talent and genius and ignores the process that creates world-class performers. Thus, we’re fighting an uphill battle as we try to cultivate growth mindsets, but it should be clear by now that it’s a battle worth fighting.
My last growth-mindset tip is to reframe what “failure” means. Since failures are the most powerful way to learn, it’s actually good to fail. It’s good to be wrong.
We must also remember that failure is an action, an event. It’s not a permanent identity. If you fail at something, it doesn’t make you “a failure.” The only ways you can really, truly fail, are to give up or never try in the first place. If you keep trying, you’ll keep growing.
The Process is Slow and Difficult
Lastly, please have patience. Cultivating a growth mindset in yourself or in a child is not easy. No single intervention will suffice. It’s a long game that requires a multipronged approach. Click here for a deeper dive into what it takes to cultivate a growth mindset.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.
2 Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. Penguin Books, 2006.
3 Perlmutter, David, MD. “Neurogenesis: How to Change Your Brain.” The Huffington Post. November 2, 2010.
4 Collins, Marva and Civia Tamarkin. The Marva Collins’ Way: Returning to Excellence in Education. Tarcher, 1990.
5 Robbins, Anthony. Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny! Free Press, 1992.
6 Syed, Matthew. Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success. Harper Perennial, 2011.
7 Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Books, 2011.
8 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity. Harper Perennial, 1997.
9 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
10 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.
Title Image: _DJ_. “human brain on white background.” March 4, 2005. https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Image duplicated and manipulated; text added.
Feedback Loop: Loper, Chris. 2015.