Student Experience Research Network Blog

On November 11, 2015, learning mindset researchers joined journalists at the Education Writers Association’s conference on student motivation and engagement at Stanford University. In this series of blog posts, we’ll be synthesizing insights from each of the research panels and talks featured during the conference.

The second talk of the day featured Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University. Carol spoke about recent growth mindset research and new avenues of inquiry about how we convey mindsets about ability to students.

What is a growth mindset?

“A growth mindset is the belief that you can develop your abilities,” Carol explained. “That’s all it is. It has a lot of repercussions [in terms of how you behave], but it’s just that belief.” Engaging in challenges and persisting when you struggle can be a byproduct of holding a growth mindset, but the mindset itself is just this belief.

What is the relationship between growth mindset and deeper learning?

When you’re in a fixed mindset, you’re afraid of failing and being perceived as incompetent. Carol explained that certain experiences can trigger a fixed mindset, such as:

  • Stepping out of your comfort zone;
  • Experiencing effort and struggle; and,
  • Confronting setbacks and criticism.

These experiences can raise concerns that are troubling for individuals: “I might fail and people will think I’m bad at this,” “This is proof I’m not good at this,” or “I’m incompetent.”

The problem is that stepping out of your comfort zone, struggling with new tasks, and confronting mistakes and setbacks are critical to “learning deeply.” When people hold a growth mindset while processing a mistake, images of their brains show that the brain appears as though it is on fire—the person is actively processing the error and learning from it. When people consider a mistake while holding a fixed mindset, their brains look dormant by comparison—their primary reaction is “you’re incompetent; get out of here as quickly as possible!” Deep learning requires time spent processing challenging material that stretches you. If you believe that you were born ready (or not) to do math, struggling with a math task isn’t perceived as the practice of getting smarter, it’s merely proof that you aren’t good at the subject.

Is growth mindset just about putting in more effort?

According to Carol, equating growth mindset with effort alone is a common pitfall. Growth mindset is not just about effort. It’s about all of the things over which you have control in tackling a new challenge: the effort you put in, the strategies you use, and seeking help judiciously. In the National Mindset Study, Carol said she and her colleagues are observing that teachers who promote a growth mindset are “those who are sitting down with their students, saying ‘let’s look at what you’ve done,’ what your strategies are, and figure out together what you should try next.”

Carol worries that when people place the emphasis on effort alone, we run the risk of recreating the self-esteem movement: trying to make kids feel good and losing sight of learning. She said that her work isn’t saying “praise the effort, not the outcome;” it’s saying “praise the effort and the strategy and tie it to the outcome.” Moreover, it’s not just about praise alone; it’s the daily instructional practices and countless behaviors that convey to students whether we believe they can grow and develop their ability.

Do people hold either a growth or a fixed mindset?

Carol observed that it has become socially desirable to proclaim that one holds a growth mindset: “Teachers are seeing themselves as presented with a choice: ‘Am I the good teacher who helps kids develop a growth mindset or vice versa?’ Of course they’re saying ‘I’m the good one.’” It’s only natural.

Carol emphasized, however, that we are all a mix of growth and fixed mindsets. Developing more of a growth mindset—and helping students learn to hold a growth mindset—is easier said than done. Just like anything else, we can all get better at holding a growth mindset ourselves, and at developing the techniques and practices that help convey a growth mindset to students. But we have to “take the journey” to do so.

How can educators begin to understand their own mindsets?

Carol emphasized that “you can’t banish a fixed mindset, you have to take a journey.” And the first step is to “legitimize the fixed mindset and acknowledge that we’re all a mixture.” All of us can pay attention to fixed mindset triggers: facing challenge (feeling dread); struggling (feeling frustration and worry); and setbacks and criticism (feeling discouraged and defensive).

It’s also helpful for educators to take a step back and observe their reactions to students. “When you see a student struggling,” Carol asked, “what do you think about them? When you see them get it quickly, what do you think about them? The more we can get teachers in touch with their own fixed mindsets and their fixed mindsets about students’ competencies, the better we’ll be able to foster a deeper growth mindset and their abilities to implement it with their students.”

Carol also noted that she has heard of some schools, such as EL Education schools (formerly Expeditionary Learning), giving teachers the opportunity to experience struggle and build mastery as a way of helping teachers empathize with their students.

Is it enough for teachers to just develop a growth mindset themselves?

People used to believe that you could “just teach adults a growth mindset and they’ll pass it on [to their students],” Carol said, “but those days are over.” A key frontier for this research is understanding “how to create a deep understanding of growth mindset and how to create effective implementation” in schools.

Carol shared new research by Kathy Liu Sun that explores this issue in math classrooms. Sun’s findings show that teachers can “mouth the words of growth mindset,” but it will have no effect if they fail to back it up with their actions. “Unless the teachers taught for conceptual understanding, gave critical feedback that deepened students’ conceptual understanding, and gave students opportunities to revise their work to show their deeper understanding,” Carol said, “they weren’t conveying a growth mindset.”

Carol and her colleague Kyla Haimovitz have observed similar things among parents. Parents may endorse a growth mindset and even hold it themselves, but if they respond to their children’s failures and setbacks with anxiety and concern, their children learn a fixed mindset. By contrast, when parents treat errors as formative opportunities to learn, their children develop a growth mindset.

Can we use the growth mindset measures developed for research for other purposes in education?

Carol noted that certain districts, such as the CORE districts in California, want to use measures of growth mindset for accountability, but “we’re not there yet. We feel that [using growth mindset survey measures] would create unprecedented levels of growth mindset. The goal isn’t to get people to check off a box that says, ‘I have a growth mindset,’ whether they’re an educator or a student.” The survey measures she and her colleagues developed for research shouldn’t be used for evaluating individual students, or for high-stakes (tied to rewards or consequences) or low-stakes accountability (pairing lower- and higher-performers for learning purposes). [For more information on non-cognitive measurement, see this brief, which summarizes a recent paper by Mindset Scholars Angela Duckworth and David Yeager.]

Eventually, she and her colleagues hope to have more effective, behavioral measures of challenge seeking and persistence—byproducts of a growth mindset that kids can demonstrate and not be taught the right answer to. Carol said that she would be happy with such measures, which “show what kids value and what kids do,” but not “checking a box that you have a belief or a mindset.”

What happens when students receive mixed growth and fixed mindset messages—either in different classrooms, at home, or from mandated policies like grading and testing?

Carol acknowledged that students can have a math teacher who creates a growth mindset classroom and then “go next door to an English classroom that is all about who’s smart and who’s not.” But their research suggests that while this is unfortunate, it isn’t a total loss. When she and her colleagues deliver a growth mindset program to students in one class, it also raises their achievement in their other courses. She thinks “it’s about giving [students] tools, ways of seeing achievement and their ability—tools that can be applied more broadly.”

Similarly, this means that students can benefit from learning a growth mindset in school even if they’re not getting messages that reinforce it at home. But Carol was clear that both environments are important and it is powerful when students receive consistent messages at home and at school that convey the growth mindset. She shared the work of Network Scholar Dr. Stephanie Fryberg and her Tulalip tribal community in Marysville, Washington to promote a growth mindset at both home and school. These efforts across the community have led their students to the top of the district in terms of academic performance.

Grades and test scores also can convey mindset messages. Carol said that past research has shown that some students interpret tests and grades as a sign of their fixed ability. By contrast, other students understand “they’re just measurements of what they know now and what they’re able to show on the test—it doesn’t tell them about their ability to grow in the future.” She acknowledged that grades and test scores “may be with us for a long time,” but that some schools are starting to devote a portion of students’ grades to behaviors like taking on challenges, sticking to them, and helping other students. What we can do is begin to modify the way we evaluate students in our classrooms, encourage revision and resubmission, and change students’ interpretations of these metrics by reiterating that test scores and grades are “just a snapshot at one point in time.”

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