Pedagogy Focus: Growth mindset

As part of our Pedagogy Focus series, we look at Carol Dweck's theory of growth mindset, the way it is used in schools

Growth Mindset Carol Dweck

What is growth mindset?

Growth mindset is a theory centred around the belief that intelligence and learning can be developed and improved. If someone has a growth mindset, they have a positive attitude towards learning and their ability to progress and achieve. 

Pupils who possess a growth mindset are said to rise to challenges and learn from the mistakes they make, rather than feeling distressed and defeated if they are unable to do or understand something.

Where did it come from?

Around 30 years ago, psychologist Carol Dweck studied student attitudes towards failure and found that those who were more resilient and not so disheartened by setbacks behaved in a way that led to greater success. 

Based on developments in neuroscience at the time, Dweck proposed that learning capabilities could be improved if pupils engaged in the right behaviours for stimulating the brain and building new connections. 

Dweck coined the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset”, and suggested that those pupils who possessed a growth mindset and a belief in the potential for their abilities to improve could display these necessary behaviours.

How is it used in schools?

The theory proposes that mindsets can be changed and that teachers should facilitate the development of habits that will sustain a growth mindset.

Some key ways this can happen in schools are:

  • Ensuring all staff approach their students and lessons with the belief that performance can improve. Teachers with fixed mindsets tend to have low expectations of pupils and, in an effort to build confidence or be supportive, can adapt tasks so they are less challenging. 
  • Sharing the neuroscience behind growth mindset with students. Seeing that these attitudes towards learning are based on scientific findings shows that this is not simply a gimmick.
  • Altering the way students are praised when working on tasks. Research surrounding growth mindset has found that praising pupils based on their ability has a negative effect on the way they continue with their learning, leading them to favour tasks within their reach rather than tackling unfamiliar ones. Instead, praise should be given for students’ effort levels and how they approach tasks, as this suggests performance can be improved and success is possible if students remain positive and continue to put effort in.
  • Teaching multiple strategies for tackling problems and working out answers. If students have a variety of approaches to try, they should have a greater sense of resilience and be able to grapple with challenges for longer. 

Is it controversial?

Interest in growth mindset grew very quickly, and its popularity among schools and educators outpaced the research attached to it. Dweck and Mindset Works cite many examples of students with growth mindsets outperforming those without and even insist that this remained consistently the case across a range of socio-economic groups. 

However, independent research suggests that the impact is far smaller than that initially reported. Also, many have questioned the merits of basing approaches to teaching on generic claims surrounding the power of positive thought when the quality of what is being taught and how it is delivered also needs to be taken into account.

Further reading

Mindset Works website

Dweck, C (2017) Mindset – Updated Edition: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your PotentialRobinson

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