Do you think talent and intelligence something you are born with, or can you literally do anything with hard work, grit and resilience? If you believe that talent and intelligence is something you are born with - and limited by, then you might be rocking a fixed mindset. The good news is that scientific research conducted over 30 years has proven that by changing your mindset, you can achieve in ways you never dreamed of, and cultivating that mindset early leads to greater curiousity and engagement with learning.
Let’s begin by understanding more about fixed and growth mindsets, and how to identify what your mindset is. The concept of growth mindset was developed by educational psychologist and Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck, and became popular through her bestselling book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Growth mindset research and in class testing over many years by Professor Dweck and her research team has demonstrated a major positive change in children and adults who applied a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset to their process of learning and skills acquisition. This change was a direct result of being taught how to approach tasks using a mindset that encouraged collaboration, experimentation, effort and failure as integral to the learning journey.
Growth Mindset isn’t just learning related. It also has a profound effects on personal relationships, professional success and many other dimensions of life. The greater impacts of growth mindset on creating mentally resilient children is why it is so important to teach them (and parents and teachers) growth mindset thinking as early as possible, and incorporate it in their approach to learning. A mindset, according to Professor Dweck’s definition, is a perception that people hold about themselves and the larger world. Holding the belief that you are intelligent or unintelligent is a simple example of a mindset. People may also have a mindset related to their personal or professional lives, like being good or bad at a task or role. You might say ‘i’m terrible at maths’ or ‘I could never learn a language’ and truly believe that you would never success in these areas.
People with a fixed mindset believe that basic personal traits and situations like talent and intellect are permanent states. You either have talent, or you don’t. If, for instance, you believe you are ‘dumb’ at certain things, like math or language learning, you won’t attempt them, and therefore reinforce that belief. Another thing that differentiates these two mindsets the perception and reaction to failure.
People with a fixed mindset are more likely to believe that if they fail, all their abilities will be doubted, and that even a small failure is a big problem. We can often see that behaviour in famous sports people or musicians, who once they have achieved success, often have catastrophic personal meltdowns because of the pressure to perform. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, don’t really see failure as a negative – obstacles are just perceived as opportunities to improve and learn, and by being faced with them and learning something new, we get smarter.
With a growth mindset, people believe that effort creates talent, and skills are learned over time, through trial and error. That we are all born with the ability to learn, and that all of us learn at different speeds. The capacity to ‘productively’ fail, where individuals learn from their mistakes and use that learning as a plank of mental growth towards achieving the skill is a key difference in the growth mindset approach. You often see this mindset in famous entrepreneurs - they look at failure as a way to eliminate a less effective method of getting to their goal, and keep on trying until they get there without attachment to what the outcome will be. Along the way, they often invent many new businesses or products as a result of their endeavours which have great value and intellectual property.
Strongly underpinning growth mindset is resilience or grit. Learning a new skill takes time and will inevitably involve setbacks all along the way. Resilience and perseverance need to be developed and sustained for this journey, along with the capacity for self reflection and awareness. Students who use a growth mindset approach have been shown to learn more and embrace challenges and failures enthusiastically as opportunities rather than setbacks.
This is particularly critical when thinking about the years in which as humans the majority of our learning occurs. From birth to early childhood, especially 0 - 6 everything we learn is new. A major study of neuroscience and children by Dr Pam Winter confirmed that “early experiences either enhance or diminish innate potential, laying either a strong or a fragile platform on which all further development and learning of the person, the body and the mind is built.”
Neuroscientists now know that at this age our brains are like sponges and we are able to take on vast amounts of new information. If growth mindset language and practices are incorporated by parents and teachers from birth, children become more resilient, more curious, and see failure as only a small setback on the road to acquiring knowledge, not a reason to stop trying.
Teaching growth mindset to children and adults begins with changing the language we use to describe our behaviour. This sounds simple, but can be difficult for adults with a lifetime of neural pathway development relating to ways of thinking.
The main point that Professor Dweck makes is that a growth mindset is often developed through the practice of praise. Not praise which focuses on outcomes and making the child feel important, but the praise that focuses on the process of learning. This isn’t about overly praising children for any of their efforts, no matter how small, but about praising the strategies they used and the way they approached learning that leads to outcomes. An example of this would be saying “I can see how you really worked hard to solve that maths problem even though you struggled at times.” instead of saying “That’s amazing, you are really smart at maths.”
The objective to change the way you praise children is to reframe thoughts from being fixed, to acknowledging the future potential in the situation. Professor Dweck calls this the ‘power of yet’. To illustrate how this works, she tells a story of a school where when students failed a test, the grade on their paper wouldn’t say ‘fail’ it would say ‘not yet.’ Saying you are not ready yet to students instead of saying they failed a class is a much better way to show them that even if they have difficulties now, they will succeed eventually if they keep trying.
The use of ‘yet’ shows that the learning is ongoing, and that it is the process of learning where the success happens, not the outcome. This also tells children that they aren’t being taught to learn simply to achieve a test score or a high grade, but for their long term future. It encourages them to dream big, and that learning new skills takes time and patience, and therefore that whatever they want to achieve as adults can be reached - even if it seems impossible now.
Growth mindset also strongly encourages learning that happens collectively. Where children work together, and solve problems together, they learn from example different approaches, that all of us are smarter than one of us. Especially for young learners, this also encourages sharing, listening, critical thinking and discussions and a social approach to learning, which has long term benefits to collaborations at higher levels of education, university and in the workplace with teams.
Understanding the power of growth mindset is a secret weapon in a teacher and parent’s toolkit, especially if it is used as a young learner in the classroom and at home. Allowing children to struggle and encouraging their own discovery rather than jumping in and helping really helps children to become resilient and capable of solving problems.
Children need to be encouraged to not try easy tasks so they don’t make mistakes, as mistakes are a critical part of learning. It is the mistakes that grow the brain by firing neurons and making the new connections that result in knowledge. Growth mindset methodology isn’t just for teaching kids. As parents and teachers our fixed mindsets also can limit our self belief and how we model behavior in our families and relationships. By using growth mindset language as part of the ecosystem of educating children in all the contexts of their lives, we are also helping ourselves achieve – as growth mindset teachers us, it’s never too late to adopt a growth mindset.
Failure and making mistakes are the scaffolding for learning in growth mindset with the true reward that children will develop a lifelong love of learning, the skills to adapt to any situation, curiosity and most of all a sense of courage so they seek fun, success and adventure for life through hard work and self awareness.
Growth mindset gives children the capacity for lifelong learning. They can adapt to a fast changing world, and know that new knowledge and skills are available to everyone who keeps trying and learning. There is no limit to their capacity to achieve with a growth mindset. The children of today will work in jobs that we never dreamed of, raise the standard of living for whole communities, and their early education at home and in the classroom are what will prepare them for their exciting future.