The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In recent years, many schools and educators have started using Dweck’s theories to inform how they teach students.
A mindset, according to Dweck, is a self-perception or “self-theory” that people hold about themselves. Believing that you are either “intelligent” or “unintelligent” is a simple example of a mindset. People may also have a mindset related their personal or professional lives—“I’m a good teacher” or “I’m a bad parent,” for example. People can be aware or unaware of their mindsets, according to Dweck, but they can have profound effect on learning achievement, skill acquisition, personal relationships, professional success, and many other dimensions of life.
Dweck’s educational work centers on the distinction between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. According to Dweck, “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’s research suggests that students who have adopted a fixed mindset—the belief that they are either “smart” or “dumb” and there is no way to change this, for example—may learn less than they could or learn at a slower rate, while also shying away from challenges (since poor performance might either confirm they can’t learn, if they believe they are “dumb,” or indicate that they are less intelligent than they think, if they believe they are “smart”). Dweck’s findings also suggest that when students with fixed mindsets fail at something, as they inevitably will, they tend to tell themselves they can’t or won’t be able to do it (“I just can’t learn Algebra”), or they make excuses to rationalize the failure (“I would have passed the test if I had had more time to study”).
Alternatively, “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,” writes Dweck. Students who embrace growth mindsets—the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere—may learn more, learn it more quickly, and view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their learning and skills.
Dweck’s delineation between fixed and growth mindsets has potentially far-reaching implications for schools and teachers, since the ways in which students think about learning, intelligence, and their own abilities can have a significant effect on learning progress and academic improvement. If teachers encourage students to believe that they can learn more and become smarter if they work hard and practice, Dweck’s findings suggest, it is more likely that students will in fact learn more, and learn it faster and more thoroughly, than if they believe that learning is determined by how intelligent or unintelligent they are. Her work has also shown that a “growth mindset” can be intentionally taught to students. Teachers might, for example, intentionally praise student effort and perseverance instead of ascribing learning achievements to innate qualities or talents—e.g., giving feedback such as “You must have worked very hard,” rather than “You are so smart.”