Carol Dweck on developing a growth mindset 

Carol S. Dweck is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation and is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Her research has focused on why people succeed and how to foster success. She has held professorships at Columbia and Harvard Universities and has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her book Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development was named Book of the Year by the World Education Federation. Her work has been featured in such publications as The New Yorker, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe.

Interview by John Graham

JG There is a growing interest in Australian schools about your ideas of students bringing different mindsets into the classroom and these differences having a significant impact on learning progress. Can you explain the difference between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset” including their implications for student learning progress?

CD Yes, the idea is this. When students are in a fixed mindset, they view their intellectual abilities as fixed traits that simply cannot be changed. Being in this fixed mindset can make them worry about how smart they are and about doing anything that might make them look or feel incompetent. To prevent this, they may avoid challenges, sticking to things they know they can do, and may turn off to tasks and subjects as soon as they don’t do well. Even needing to work hard at something may signal to them that they’re not good at it. You can see how avoiding challenging tasks and withdrawing your energy from a task when you need it most could limit learning progress.

However, when students are in more of a growth mindset, they see their intellectual abilities as competencies that can be developed—for example, through hard work, good strategies, and above all great mentoring and support from others. Now, if you believe your intellectual skills can grow, then you can stop worrying so much about how smart you are right now, and can focus more on learning. With a focus on learning, it makes sense to take on challenges and it makes sense to persevere, try new strategies, or seek guidance when tasks turn out to be hard. This should lead to greater learning progress over time.

It’s important to realize that we are all a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. No one is pure. Even if a student (or teacher) is usually in a growth mindset, there are many things that can flip them into a fixed mindset: feeling that someone is judging them, confronting a very challenging task, struggling on a challenging task and not making much progress, or experiencing a big setback. In view of this, the task becomes not just “having” a growth mindset, but learning how to stay in it (or find your way back to it) after such an experience.

JG Your research has found that students have different theories of intelligence which influence their attitudes to learning. How do you diagnose the theory of intelligence a student has? How does a teacher identify students with a growth mindset or a fixed mindset?

CD I don't recommend testing kids and diagnosing their mindsets. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is that it makes it seem like a “property” of the child and we may be tempted to put children into mindset categories. Even worse, in some cases, it may be seen as the child’s fault for having a fixed mindset or the child’s responsibility to adjust their mindset. Sadly, I’ve heard of educators who’ve said to parents, “I can’t really teach your son. He has a fixed mindset.” I’ve also heard of educators who chastise students for having a fixed mindset, when in fact the whole structure of the classroom may be pushing kids toward a fixed mindset.

Basically, whatever mindsets a child tends to be in, it is our responsibility as educators to create a growth-mindset classroom climate—a climate in which learning is valued over immediate high performance; struggling with challenges is valued over taking on easy tasks; mistakes and setbacks are seen by educators as interesting and valuable, and as calling for new strategies or appropriate help-seeking. In other words, a growth mindset should be embodied in classroom practices and not be seen as a property of a child or something children should simply adopt regardless of what their environment conveys. 

JG Has your research shown a relationship between the ability/talent/intelligence of a student and their mindset? For example, are ‘smarter’ students more likely to have a growth mindset?

CD Both mindsets are found at all levels. There are plenty of so-called smart students who tend toward a fixed mindset. They may play it safe and make sure they don’t tarnish their reputations with mistakes or setbacks. Many of these students may stop trying when school gets more difficult, because they have not had to work hard before (while being told how smart they are), and working hard makes them feel like they’re not smart anymore. 

JG How do teachers encourage the development of a growth mindset in students? How do you create a classroom which develops a growth mindset?

CD This is something my colleagues and I are working very hard on now. At first, we thought that embedding growth-mindset practices into their classrooms would be intuitive to teachers, but this was typically not the case. So, over time, we realized that we needed to study this directly and create curricula that would guide teachers through the process. 

Professor Stephanie Fryberg of the University of Washington and Professor Mary Murphy of Indiana University, based on extensive research, are creating and testing such a curriculum. Susan Mackie, in Australia, has had deep insights into this process and has developed some wonderful materials and exercises for teachers and students. David Yeager of the University of Texas has led a nationwide study of high school students and their math teachers in the U.S. He and a large team of top researchers are analysing the results right now to understand the teacher practices that foster growth mindsets in their students. 

To date, these practices all seem to be built around a focus on the learning process.

  1. Expressing the value of learning process: Talking about the importance of challenging tasks and improvement over time and showing students how that value is expressed in your classroom practices, such as allowing students to revise work or including challenging-seeking and improvement in grades.
  2. Giving feedback for the learning process: Praising students’ full commitment to a task, reflected not just in effort, but also in their trying new strategies, gathering or consulting resources, seeking appropriate guidance from the teacher; also, noticing and praising progress on a task but also over longer periods of time, and tying the progress to the students’ good strategies.
    What about when students are stuck or have done poorly on a test or assignment? Work together with the student on analysing what the student has tried, what the student is thinking, and what new strategies the student can try to move forward more effectively.
  3. Presenting yourself as a collaborator in the learning process. Some teachers set themselves as judges who rule on who is smart and who isn’t so smart, who is a favoured student and who isn’t. In growth-mindset classrooms, educators are resources for their students, and collaborators with their students. They are 100 per cent devoted to every child’s learning and they sit with a child who is stuck or struggling and, as noted above, together figure out how best to move forward.

JG Is there a link between a student’s mindset and their reaction to poor/good assessment results of their performance at school? For example, do students develop a ‘learned helplessness’ after several years of poor assessment results? What can teachers do to address this? 

CD In the U.S., the powers that be are obsessed with standardized assessment, so our kids are tested way too much. Teachers are also evaluated on the basis of their students’ standardized test results, putting tremendous pressure on teachers to teach to the test. Not only does this make school both anxiety-producing and boring, but it is far from ideal preparation for our kids to thrive in the world of the future.

The worst part is that many students believe that these tests tell them how smart they are and how smart they’ll be when they grow up. This could well lead to “learned helplessness” after several years of poor assessments.

Standardized tests are not going away any time soon, but they don’t need to be so toxic. Students should know that these tests are a snapshot of particular skills or knowledge at one moment in time—they can learn from the results about things they may need to improve. They need to know that the test doesn’t tell them anything about the wonderful abilities they might develop in the future with a combination of commitment and great mentoring. In addition, educators should be encouraged to teach in ways that instil a love of learning in their students and in ways that encourage a deeper understanding of the material. When students love learning and learn well, the test results should follow.

JG What is the relationship between pedagogical approaches to encourage student self-esteem and those designed to foster a growth mindset? Is there a tension between these learning goals?

CD Some educators have tried to instil self-esteem by simply telling kids how smart they are. Some have praised children’s effort enthusiastically, even if no progress has been made. These practices often back-fire. Genuine self-esteem is fed by showing kids, though our actions, that we accept, support, and value them and by giving them tools for learning and growing over time. The growth-mindset practices I described above are aimed at just this.

JG Does your research indicate that a fixed mindset can be turned around in high school after a student may have developed an ingrained fixed mindset over nine or ten years of school? Is this a difficult process?

CD Our research most certainly shows that a fixed mindset can be turned around in high school. Many of our brief growth-mindset online workshops have been aimed at high school students and have especially helped lower-achieving students. (They have also helped higher-achieving students seek more challenging work.) David Yeager has also developed brief online workshops aimed at “mindsets about personality,” that have helped decrease the prevalence of depression and anxiety in high school students. These effects have also been shown by Jessica Schleider and John Weisz of Harvard University in adolescent clinical populations.

JG You have written about the misunderstanding of growth mindset by some teachers and the development of what you have referred to as a ‘false growth mindset’. Can you explain what you mean by this? 

CD The term “false growth mindset” was coined by Susan Mackie. She recognized, before we did, that many educators were misunderstanding the growth mindset or implementing it in ineffective ways. Some examples include equating growth mindset with effort alone, rather than understanding that growth mindset is the belief that abilities can be developed—and effort is just one of the ways that this can be done. Learning good strategies and receiving great mentoring are other necessary ingredients. Just focusing on effort may lead people to blame the student when things don’t work out by believing that the student just didn’t try hard enough. 

Another misunderstanding is to think that a growth mindset means that talent doesn’t exist and that all children are the same. A growth mindset, again, simply refers to the belief that people can develop their abilities and doesn’t mean that all children have the same abilities at any given time—but it does leave open the possibility that all children are capable of great accomplishments under the right circumstances. We never know what anyone is capable of when they develop a strong interest in something and are given the right learning support, resources and opportunities

Some teachers have told their students “You can do anything!” Although this is a lovely and well-meant message, it can be unfair to students if they don’t have the resources and the knowledge to move toward such goals. It can also put the onus on them, and if they fail in the future, they may feel it’s their fault. Certainly, students should be encouraged to work toward important goals, but they need to know what it will take to reach those goals and they need to be helped by educators to develop the skills, strategies, social networks, funding sources, or learning opportunities that will be necessary.

JG There have been recent suggestions in Australia that schools should have a greater emphasis on developing resilience, positivity and a growth mindset and that these attributes or attitudes should be an assessable part of the curriculum. What is your view of this? Can you (and is it desirable to) formally assess a student’s mindset along the spectrum of fixed to growth?

CD I am not in favour of formal assessments of students’ mindsets. One reason is that it is far too easy to “fudge” the answers. Teachers can easily coach their students in what the desirable answer is. Nor am I in favour of mandatory teaching of growth mindset before we have well-validated curricula for teaching growth mindset to teachers and teaching them how to best impart it to their students through their practices. To proceed before such curricula are available is to invite false growth mindset on an unprecedented scale. The good news is that the development of a curriculum is in progress and when completed will be made available at no cost to educators.

This article appears in Professional Voice 12.2 The improvement factor.