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Recognizing and Overcoming False Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck

Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
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All educators care deeply about their students' motivation. They want them to love learning, and to be resourceful and persistent in the face of learning challenges. They don't want their students to lose heart when they get stuck, make mistakes, or receive disappointing grades. In this context, the growth mindset entered the scene.

A growth mindset is the belief that you can develop your talents and abilities through hard work, good strategies, and help from others. It stands in opposition to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that talents and abilities are unalterable traits, ones that can never be improved. Research has shown (and continues to show) that a growth mindset can have a profound effect on students' motivation, enabling them to focus on learning, persist more, learn more, and do better in school. Significantly, when students are taught a growth mindset, they begin to show more of these qualities.

We typically teach students a growth mindset through online programs that demonstrate how the brain changes with learning (how the neurons grow stronger connections when students work on hard things and stick with them) and how to apply this to their schoolwork. These programs also contain testimonials from other students about how they've used a growth mindset to approach their schoolwork and to work toward meaningful goals in their lives.

In the wake of the many exciting research results, educators became increasingly interested in promoting a growth mindset among their students. This was extremely gratifying. To see some of the great successes was even more gratifying. However, I slowly became aware that not all educators understood the concept fully.

Identifying a False Growth Mindset

It all started when my Australian colleague Susan Mackie informed me that she was seeing more and more false growth mindset. This is when educators think and do all sorts of things that they simply call growth mindset. And then I started noticing it, too. Here's what I saw.

Praising Effort Alone

In many quarters, growth mindset was boiled down to praising effort. Yes, our work had shown that praising students' process (their hard work, strategies, focus, and persistence) and tying it to their performance, learning, or progress could promote a growth mindset. But in many teachers' practice, it had become divorced from any learning or progress. "Great effort" became the consolation prize for children who weren't learning. So the very students who most needed to learn about developing their abilities were instead receiving praise for their ineffective effort.

Teachers need to tell the truth. They can acknowledge laudable effort, but they also need to acknowledge when students are not learning effectively, and then work with them to find new learning strategies. (By the way, exhorting students to try hard is another ineffective practice that does not teach a growth mindset.)

Telling Students "You Can Do Anything"

In the name of a growth mindset, students were also being assured that they were capable of anything. While this may be true, simply asserting it does not make it so, particularly when students don't yet have the knowledge, skills, strategies, or resources to bring this about. Skilled educators set high standards for students but then help them understand how to embark on the path to meeting those standards. It's not a hollow promise.

Blaming the Student's Mindset

Perhaps the most discouraging thing that I've heard is how some educators are blaming children's mindsets for their failure to learn. A parent recently wrote me a heartrending letter. Her daughter had been in a wonderful school that, using growth mindset principles, made her feel like an effective learner, even when learning came slowly and with difficulty. She then went to a different school, where children were scolded and shamed -- in the name of a growth mindset -- for not persevering and learning effectively.

It is the educator's task to create a growth mindset classroom. In the safety of these classrooms, students can begin to leave behind their fixed mindset and try out the idea that they can develop their abilities. We see this happening when teachers give students:

  • Meaningful work
  • Honest and helpful feedback
  • Advice on future learning strategies
  • Opportunities to revise their work and show their learning

Overcoming Perceived Threats

But something else was happening, too. Educators were declaring themselves to have a growth mindset without actually taking that long journey -- perhaps a lifetime journey.

We have come to realize that every one of us is a mixture of both mindsets: sometimes we're in a growth mindset, and sometimes we’re triggered into a fixed mindset by what we perceive as threats. These can be challenges, mistakes, failures, or criticisms that threaten our sense of our abilities -- for example, venturing into unknown territory with a new teaching method, confronting a student who is not learning, or comparing ourselves to a more accomplished educator. Are we inspired to try new things, or are we anxious or defensive?

In order to work toward more of a growth mindset, we need to observe ourselves and find our triggers. Just spend several weeks noticing when you enter a more threatened, defensive state. Don't judge yourself. Don't fight it. Just observe. Then, as Susan Mackie advises, give your fixed mindset persona a name. Talk to it, calling it by name, when it shows up. Over time, try to recruit it to collaborate on your challenging goals instead of letting it undermine you with doubts and fears.

In closing, research has revealed a tool that can enhance students' motivation. It is one of the few tools that has been repeatedly validated by rigorous research, but for this tool to be effective, it has to be understood and used properly. Our research is now devoted to finding out how educators can instill a growth mindset more effectively, because this is our highest priority.

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Carol Dweck

Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology, Stanford University

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Rachel Jones's picture

Terrific article! Susan Mackie's suggestion of giving one's false mindset a name illustrates well that we should each embrace our own unique mix of false and growth mindset. More on this topic and Susan's work in Australia please.

CathieC's picture

I too was encouraged by this article but also by your comment;
"We see this happening when teachers give students: Meaningful work. Honest and helpful feedback. Advice on future learning strategies. Opportunities to revise their work and show their learning"
It is a good thing to remember why we entered the teaching profession and to be reminded of these very basic strategies that, if in place and done well, will feed into Growth Mindset thinking and student achievement.
I think that, too often, we fail to make 'work' and learning 'meaningful' for our students, to give it a purpose. Without that meaning, some students don't really care about their next steps or strategies or care to revise their learning.
Lets rejoice that so many Educators continue to collaborate, to research and to reflect on pedagogy and principals, focusing on our students, their needs and achievements.

msElaineLaw's picture

Please help us teachers and provide more specific strategies to teach growth mindset correctly then! I see what is incorrect, but how do we move forward from here. Thanks

Heather Kluit's picture

I've just finished writing a literature review on the impact of growth mindset on student achievement and have now become slightly obsessed with instilling a growth mindset into my students. When I was reading the mountains upon mountains of research into growth mindset and the consequences positive and negative I came across these two articles that says that teachers have missed the point. There seems to be way to much emphasis on effort and there should be more emphasis on perservence, problem solving etc.. Too much false praise is happening in the classroom that is creating a fixed mindset not much of a growth mindset.

Larry's picture
Owner of ThrivEdge - Academic, Success, Career training

Talk is cheap and it depends on how you follow up or what you do after you say you have a growth mindset. If you encourage kids but then follow up with reasons why some are not able to perform well (poverty, uneducated parents, living with trauma, lower class, etc.) then you don't believe they can perform or can only go so far even if they improve. You can say you believe all kids can learn and all kids can do well but not do what it takes for those who need more help to do much better - not enough time, don't know how to do it, too difficult, etc.

MT's picture

Awesome article! I agree that all teachers should have a growth mindset setting within their classrooms. We as teachers need to recognize when we make common mistakes that may lead towards a fixed mind set such as praising students even when a teacher knows that student isn't putting in what they know should be their 100% effort and potential. Having a growth mindset not only helps students reach new goals, but also pushes them to achieve higher goals when they are struggling. And yes, students should be aware of the growth mindset so they can use it to further "push" themselves into higher thinking strategies.

Megan Leonard's picture

I am a huge fan of growth mindset instruction and I have enjoyed researching it throughout my MAT program. I hadn't heard about false growth mindset instruction until this article, and I am so grateful to have stumbled upon it. This will be an incredibly helpful guide of "what not to do" as I move into student teaching and my first year of teaching next year. Thank you so much for sharing.

Dr. Jacek Polubiec's picture

I do believe that the false growth mindset is a problem. I ran into fixed mindset when I was looking into the role school leaders in supporting intrinsic motivation of teachers.
"in terms of motivation, schools might be victims of what Dweck (2006) referred to as the fixed mindset. In this mindset, motivation was something brought into the profession, but viewed as static, unchangeable, and therefore unsupported. Using the idea of an emotional bank account (Covey, 1989) as an analogy, it appeared that the motivational bank account, as it related to intrinsic motivation in schools, received large deposits in a form of intrinsically motivated, passionate, and eager to succeed teachers. However, once they entered the profession, school leaders did not make conscious efforts to support motivation, and teachers did not expect their motivation to be supported.
To address this problem, educators and educational leaders should subscribe to the growth mindset and recognize that much like "everyone can change and grow through application and experience" (Dweck, 2006, p. 6), schools too can change and grow to become places where intrinsic motivation is cherished and supported. Because "motivation is purely and simply a leadership behavior" (Baldoni, 2005, p. 5), it seems logical that school leaders should be provided with concrete steps on how to change the status quo.

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