“Hurray! You made an A on your test! You’re so smart!”
“It’s a good thing you like to write because it’s obvious there is no math gene in this family!”
“She is such a gifted singer, but her whole family is musical, so it just comes naturally.”
“Oh great… Derek pitched a perfect game. Now I’ll never get a chance to be the starting pitcher again.”
What do all these quotes have in common? They all represent a fixed mindset. The statements suggest that achievements are credited to characteristics that are present and unchangeable, or “fixed.” Examples such as these are often used to illustrate the difference between a growth mindset vs. fixed mindset in our lives, but what exactly does that mean?
What is a Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset?
Stanford University professor and researcher Carol Dweck coined the term “mindset” to reflect how we tend to think about ability. Simply stated, it is how we view potential in others and ourselves. There are two different types of mindsets: a fixed mindset and growth mindset.
A fixed mindset is believing that talent, intelligence, and ability are set and unchangeable—genetically determined or a gift that you either have or you don’t. However, research in the field of neuroplasticity has demonstrated that the brain has the ability to strengthen synapses and change over time, thus challenging past beliefs and showing that mindset is much more nuanced.
Building on the concept of neuroplasticity, those with a growth mindset believe that through effort and perseverance we have the ability to improve and grow in any area to which we set our minds. Growth does not discount the existence of innate talent. Instead, it recognizes that natural talent undeveloped due to lack of effort will never reach its full potential. In general, those with less “natural ability” that work diligently will ultimately achieve more than those “gifted” who do not cultivate their skills. A dichotomy does not exist between those that have a growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. The reality is that we are all on a continuum and are some combination of the two.
Why Is Mindset Important?
Our mindset has a significant impact on how we view and react to a variety of situations throughout our lives. Those with a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges, while those with a growth mindset tend to embrace them.
Additionally, people with a fixed mindset view mistakes as failures, while those with a growth mindset view them as opportunities to learn. A fixed view causes us to become defensive when receiving criticism, but a growth view helps us learn from the feedback of others. Oftentimes those with a fixed mindset feel threatened by the accomplishments of others, while those with a growth mindset find the triumphs of others inspirational.
While there has been some debate as to the true effect of a growth mindset vs. fixed mindset in the classroom, a global study in 2018 indicated a correlation that those with growth mindset traits have higher academic achievement.
Deciding to develop a growth mindset is one thing, but how can we actually do so?
How to Develop a Growth Mindset in Your Children
Whether a growth mindset leads to significant academic success or not, it can definitely create a more positive outlook on life. Fostering a growth mindset vs. fixed mindset requires more than just one action—it requires dedication to creating a supportive environment.
1) Identify Your Mindset
Before you can become intentional about encouraging a growth mindset in your own children, you first need to identify your own mindset. Think about your answers to the following questions:
- What happens when you are facing something challenging?
- What happens when you experience criticism?
- What happens when you witness success in others?
Do you recognize a pattern of either pessimistic (fixed mindset) or optimistic (growth mindset) reactions to these situations? Did your answers vary? Perhaps you tend to have a growth mindset in some areas but a fixed mindset in others. Recognizing these patterns in ourselves helps us to better identify when our learners may be struggling.
2) Adjust Your Language
Once you have identified your general mindset tendencies, you can address how to develop a growth mindset in your children. The words we speak into childrens’ hearts and minds are powerful in forming their mindset.
Fixed mindset vocabulary includes words like “smart,” “quickly,” or “easy.” These focus on static traits or results only. Instead, focusing on effort and progress will begin planting the seeds for a growth mindset. For example, you might tell your student, “I really liked the way you didn’t give up on that math problem you were struggling with and tried different approaches to figure it out.” Genuine, constructive feedback encourages tenacity and perseverance.
In addition to providing feedback to your children in your verbal communication, it is important to help them develop growth mindset vocabulary in their own self-talk. If you hear them say something like, “I’m so stupid!” after a mistake, help them take a step back, evaluate what went wrong, and form a plan for the next attempt. Then highlight the opportunity for learning that the mistake provided. Separate the action from the person by stating that it may have been a “silly mistake,” but that does not reflect who they are as a student.
3) Use the Power of “Yet”
Consider the subtle but powerful difference between the following:
Can you play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano? “No.”
Can you play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano? “Not yet.”
While “no” has a finality to it, “not yet” conveys the expectation of potential. I may not be able to do it right now, but I will someday!
4) Teach Kids to Love Learning!
To develop a growth mindset in students, help them to value learning for learning’s sake alone and not for a grade. Fostering this love of learning will not only help develop your child’s growth mindset, but also their intrinsic motivation. A child who is passionate about learning needs little motivation to do so!
One way to do this is to challenge your children. Once they’ve completed a math problem, encourage them to see if they can find a different way to solve it. Provide fun puzzles to complete. Ask them open-ended questions that require them to dig deeper into their thinking. Adding an element of play into learning will help students look forward to their studies.
Knowing that neuroplasticity studies show that the brain has the ability to change and adapt over time, it is never too late to make changes in your own life. What steps towards developing a growth mindset will you commit to today?