But aren’t some people naturally smarter than others?
Yes and no. People are born with unique genetic structures, meaning they are initially better than others at different things. However, those with a growth mindset believe that one can always improve, catch up, or even surpass others’ natural talents. This is where teachers play a crucial role in shaping a student’s confidence and outlook on school through productive, continuous feedback. It is crucial that “teachers who understand the growth mindset do everything in their power to unlock that learning,” (Dweck, 2015).
Do all students share a growth mindset?
Yes. Carol Dweck, a lead researcher on the topic, states that as humans, we operate in both a fixed and growth mindset.
How is it possible to operate in both a fixed and growth mindset you ask? Here’s an example: Most humans have a fixed mindset about jumping (unaided) off a cliff. No amount of belief in your ability to fly; no amount of “hard word and practice” (e.g. jumping off a stair, a table, etc.) will prepare you to fly. Knowing that you cannot fly and that no amount of work will change your ability to fly, is a normal, appropriate (life-saving) fixed mindset.
Dweck goes on to provide a definition for both:
Fixed Mindset: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.” (Dweck, 2015)
Growth Mindset: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Dweck, 2015)
Whether a student holds a fixed mindset or growth mindset significantly impacts their learning experience—from elementary school to high school. Students that hold a fixed mindset give up when they can’t solve a problem and admit defeat. This can be detrimental to students’ future efforts and leads to limited student growth. With a growth mindset, students continually work to improve their skills, leading to greater growth and ultimately, success. The key is to get students to tune into that growth mindset.
Why does it matter, anyway?
How we interact and encourage students affects their attitudes toward learning. A positive mindset is the difference between a student giving up because they’re “not a math person” and a productive struggle that yields growth. But a growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Dweck writes, “In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful,” (Dweck, 2015).