Growth Mindsets in Students

Years ago, Carol Dweck began to look into the question that has perplexed academics for decades. Why do females do worse at maths than males? I know that there are individual differences that mean there are females who do well at math and males who don’t, but a robust finding that has been observed over years and years of measurement is that females perform worse than males (in the aggregate) at math.

In looking into this question, psychologists could find no apparent reason. The underlying brain structure provided no clues. Other psychological factors couldn’t account for any differences. What is it that (still) makes females perform worse than boys at math?

What Dweck found is, in my opinion, one of the most important findings in psychology. Girls do worse than boys in math because everyone knows that girls are worse than boys at math. Because everyone believes it, it just happens. Dweck called this phenomena mindset.

Mindset is about what we believe. What we believe makes us what we are.

Dweck found that there are basically two mindsets that we tend to fall into. There is a fixed or innate mindset that tells us that we are the way we are because that’s what we are. Girls can’t do math because they are girls.

For some things, a fixed mindset is true. I am the height that I am because my genetic makeup and early childhood nutrition fixed my height for when I became an adult. As much as I would like to believe that my height is because of the effort that I put into growing, and simply putting more effort into growing will make me grow taller. It won’t happen. I really don’t believe in a fixed mindset, and I have been working hard on growing taller but all that seems to happen is I grow wider. Not exactly what I had in mind when I began working hard to make myself bigger (maybe I just need to be more specific in defining what I mean by bigger).

This leads directly into the second type of mindset, a growth mindset. This is the belief that what you become is a result of the effort that you put into something. I do well in math because of the work and effort that I put into doing well at math. If I believe that, I can improve my mathematical abilities by working harder at understanding math.

A growth mindset means that I will achieve what I want to achieve if I work at it. A fixed mindset means that I can achieve what I achieve up to the point that my built-in abilities allow me to. What I believe I am defines what I can become. What I believe I am comes from a wide variety of sources, and that belief becomes how I define myself and defines my abilities.

As an example, my father was told during his formative years, by almost everyone he knew, that he was stupid. His early childhood teachers made the initial judgment and were vocal in their conclusions. Because everyone knew that the teachers were the professionals at making these judgments, everyone else in the community, including his family, reinforced the fact that he was stupid. He has spent his entire life believing that he was stupid. What he believed defined what he became. I know my dad, and I have spent many years judging students in an academic setting, and I know that he is not stupid. Unfortunately, at 81, he finds it hard to believe that he isn’t stupid. He has spent his entire life believing he is stupid, and so in his mind, that is what he is.

We can all understand the damage that a negative label can do to someone as they begin to internalize that label and make it what they are. Unfortunately, positive labels have the same effect. Telling someone that they are smart can be just as damaging as telling them that they are stupid. When someone believes that they are stupid and they come up to a problem that they don’t get, they believe that they are stupid so why bother. They can’t get it anyway. When someone believes that they are smart and they come against a problem that they don’t get, they give up, because they have come up against the limits of their “smartness”. Why try when you have reached your limit. Again, what you believe you are defines what you can do.

Rather than define people with labels, positive or negative, what we need to do is define people by what they do. Where they are, in math, reading or whatever, is defined by the effort they have put into attaining that level. It isn’t that they are something, it is that they have put in the effort to achieve the level that they are at. There is nothing stopping them from attaining a higher level except the amount of effort that they are willing to exert in the area.

As Dweck states, “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics… I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?…”

To illustrate the damage a fixed mindset can do (there are many examples if you search for fixed and growth mindsets), I will tell about one of Dweck’s studies. After giving two groups (several hundred in each group) of adolescents some fairly challenging questions which most of them got right, she told the students something like, “Wow, you did really well at this. This is a really good score…” and then split the groups by finishing the praise for one group by saying, “You must be really smart!” and the other group with, “You must have worked really hard!” Invoking a fixed or growth mindset.

Dweck’s next two interventions demonstrate the devastating effect the invoked mindset had on the teens as she reported that, “The ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent… In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from.”

When the teens were given a more difficult set of problems, the differences in their beliefs was transmitted to their effort. The fixed mindset group put in less effort because, as Dweck said, “If success had meant they were intelligent, then less-than-success meant they were deficient.” In addition, they didn’t enjoy the task as much as the growth mindset group. Not only did the growth mindset group enjoy the challenge of more difficult questions, they put in more effort to get them correct. As a result, the growth mindset group performed significantly better than the fixed mindset group.

The worst part of the experiment wasn’t the teens’ performance or effort differences but came with the final intervention. All of the subjects were asked to write a short letter to their peers telling them about their experience in the study which included a space for them to report their performance score. Forty percent of the fixed mindset group inflated their scores, whereas few of the growth mindset did. As Dweck said, “In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful — especially if you’re talented — so they lied them away. What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.”

In higher education, Dweck’s findings help us understand some of our students’ performance. When adult students with a fixed mindset answered a question wrong, they had no interest in finding out what the right answer is because their mistake was simply a part of their failure to be anything different. Those with a growth mindset want to know what the right answer is because finding out will increase their intelligence and that is what they want. Fixed mindset means that you are what you are and that is either success or failure, so what is the good of feedback or practice. Growth mindset is about learning and growing, and mistakes are a critical part of learning.

Whatever we do, don’t play with labels with our students. We don’t need to talk about the fabricated learning styles, the different kinds of intelligences which have a minimal effect on academic performance anyway. We don’t need to praise or demean our students with “you’re smart” or “You’re stupid” (I have heard that in more than one higher education classes, teachers have actually told their classes that they are stupid for some reason). Rather, talk to our students about their great effort, work habits, and encourage the need for more effort. Reading about the study Dweck did with adolescents you can see how easy it is to invoke mindsets. Explain to your students how mindset works and tell them to be on guard so that they can defend themselves from falling into a fixed mindset. In addition, we all need to be careful with our feedback and ensure that we are encouraging growth and not reinforcing fixed thinking.

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