To reflect on three decades of evolving research about fixed vs. growth mindsets, applications and misapplications in education, and interventions that encourage students to challenge themselves.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets
Carol Dweck describes fixed vs. growth mindsets as a theory of people’s beliefs about human attributes and how those beliefs affect motivation and achievement. Education researchers primarily use this theory to explain learners’ responses to setbacks, challenges, and failures while developing new knowledge and skills. In a fixed mindset, people believe that abilities are unchanging, and your initial proficiency in an area corresponds to your inherent ability in that area. Thus, when faced with setbacks, they believe that they are not suited to the task. Conversely in a growth mindset, people believe that abilities are malleable, and that you can improve your proficiency in an area regardless of your starting point. Thus, they view challenges as opportunities to develop and improve skills, including skills for which they have a natural proficiency.
Mindsets apply to people’s beliefs about human attributes outside of educational settings. Mindsets include people’s beliefs about skill in professional settings and their personalities. Whether you believe a leader is born or made depends on your mindset. In correlational work exploring the relationship between mindset and achievement, people with a growth mindset tend to achieve more in school and throughout their lives.
History of Mindsets
This section is mostly for those interested in exploring early work on this topic, but it is also informs the application of the theory. Dweck’s earliest conceptions of mindsets combined learned helplessness (i.e., the reduced effort to control outcomes that have previously have been outside of your control) and attribution theory (i.e., that humans are compelled to explain events that happen to them). This combination resulted in Achievement Goal theory that explained the difference in responses to setbacks between achievement goals and learning goals, meaning whether the learner was trying to prove ability or improve ability. The direct predecessor of mindsets was called implicit theories of intelligence, in which people could have an entity theory (fixed mindset) or incremental theory (growth mindset).
While the current conception of mindsets expands beyond intelligence, it is still seen as an implicit belief that the person may or may not be aware of. Dweck describes mindsets as a meaning system for making sense of things we experience, such as failure. Psychologists have found that meaning systems are hard to manipulate. The brain rejects information that does not correspond to existing beliefs, often automatically at a physical level. Only under circumstances that encourage neuroplasticity do we re-write our meaning systems.
Mindset interventions are relatively new for a theory originating in the 80s and began in early 2000s. Their goal is to encourage a growth mindset that helps students to persevere through setbacks and failures and to seek challenges. Early work and replications of that work find that mindset interventions can be effective, particularly for low-achieving students but also for high-achieving students. As with most education research, empirical studies conducted in authentic classrooms have small, but meaningful, effect sizes. However, there are many researchers and practitioners that claim interventions that promote growth mindset have no effect or, worse, a negative effect on student achievement. These claims likely stem from misconceptions or misapplications of the theory.
The most common misconception is that growth mindset can be promoted by rewarding effort rather than performance. However, rewarding effort regardless of progress can have the opposite effect. In order for effort to be productive, a learner must be seeking more effective strategies and feedback on whether they are making progress. The reward, then, is for being on the right track. Praising effort becomes counterproductive when effort is unproductive, creating dissonance between students’ evaluation of their growth and the feedback that they are receiving. In some cases, receiving praise for unproductive effort can make students seek external approval instead of internal progress, leading to increased fear of failure and a more fixed mindset.
The other major misconception is believing a person has only a fixed or growth mindset. We all have both fixed and growth mindsets. Believing that you have a growth mindset and that it can’t change is the textbook definition of a fixed mindset. Similarly, you can’t convince someone (including yourself) to have a growth mindset and expect that shift to be permanent. A fixed mindset can be triggered by failure, criticism, insecurity, or unfavorable comparisons to others, and it must be combated by practicing growth mindset, like any other skill.
Why this is important
While the correlational research connecting growth mindset to improved achievement is quite robust, the causational research attempting to improve achievement by promoting a growth mindset has been more mixed. This paper addresses this controversy, which is to be expected for a theory that has been misapplied in practice. The paper clarifies that growth mindset interventions must teach students about mindsets, as most interventions do, AND embed instruction with growth mindset feedback. Growth mindset feedback is not about how well students are progressing on an academic task, but how well they are progressing on processing failure and seeking challenges. Because growth mindset is a skill, it should be treated like other skills that require practice and feedback.
Learning requires failing. If we aren’t failing to understand something, to do something, to recognize something, then we have no incentive to learn. A growth mindset leads to better achievement because it frames this failure as an opportunity rather than a shortcoming. Growth mindset rewards the progress made while learning rather than the result, producing a better result.
Dweck, C. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2019). Mindsets: A view from two eras. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(3), 481-496.
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