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What is a mindset and what’s the difference between growth and fixed mindset?

Carol Dweck, a leading psychologist and researcher at Stanford University, has devoted her career to studying the power of mindset, which she defines as a self-perception or “self-theory” that people hold about themselves. Mindsets are a way of thinking that determines your behaviour, outlook and mental attitude.
Your mindset O’Keefe, P., Dweck, C., & Walton, G. (2018). Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It? Psychological Science, 29(10), 1653–1664.
plays a pivotal role in determining what you want to achieve and whether or not you can achieve that. In general, there are
two types of mindset Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.
based on whether you believe that certain characteristics (ex. intelligence), are fixed or changeable traits.

  1. Fixed Mindset – people with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities are unchangeable; simply a hand that they have been dealt and which they have to live with.
  2. Growth Mindset – people with a growth mindset believe that their qualities are things that can be cultivated through effort, and that the hand they’ve been dealt is simply a starting point for development.

These two mindsets shape the way you approach challenges and obstacles, the way you think about effort, the way you receive and apply criticism, as well as how you think about the success of others.

Learn how fixed and growth mindset affect your approach to challenges, obstacles, effort, criticism, and success.

People with a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to grow, believe that their effort and attitude determine their abilities, enjoy trying new things, and value the process more than the outcome. In a growth mindset, effort is considered essential for success. Alternatively, people with a fixed mindset associate effort and hard work with a lack of ability. People with a fixed mindset don’t like being challenged, give up more easily when they are challenged, and think of themselves as being successful when they have to invest little effort to obtain a desirable outcome. These people think that they can either do something or they can’t and that’s that.

It’s important to note that people don’t have either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. Instead, mindsets lay on a continuum, and you can have a different mindset for different areas of your life.

Explore the mindset continuum to gain a deeper understanding of growth and fixed mindsets.

In her TED Talk, Carol Dweck talks about the power of believing you can improve and introduces the word “yet” as a tool for cultivating a growth mindset.

How can I shift from a fixed to a growth mindset?

Recall that neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change, remodel and reorganize based on input from repeated behaviours, emotions and thoughts. Neuroplasticity is the science behind how you can shift from a fixed to a growth mindset.
There are four steps to shifting mindsets: Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.


  1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset voices.
  2. Recognize you have a choice.
  3. Talk back to the fixed mindset with a growth mindset.
  4. Take the growth mindset action.

These four steps describe the process of rewiring your brain. I would personally like to add a fifth step: Repeat. The growth mindset uses a different neural pathway than the fixed mindset and shifting mindset forces you to use these different pathways. By repeating the above four steps over and over and over again, you slowly weaken the neural pathways associated with a fixed mindset and strengthen those related to a growth mindset. Over time, the growth mindset will become more natural and easier to access than the fixed mindset.

How can I cultivate a growth mindset in my students?

A major influence on a child’s mindset is what kind of feedback (praise of criticism) they receive. Feedback can take one of two forms, depending on whether it’s focused on the person or the process.

  1. Person or trait-related feedback – focused on the person’s abilities and characteristics (ex. “You are really smart”)
  2. Process feedback – focused on the person’s strategies or effort (ex. “You worked really hard”)
Person, or trait-related feedback, even when it is positive, contributes to the development of a
contingent sense of self-worth. Dweck, C., & Kamins, M. (1999). Person Versus Process Praise and Criticism: Implications for Contingent Self-Worth and Coping. Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 835–847.
This means that a person’s sense of worthiness is based on external factors, such as accomplishments, the approval of others, or social comparison. For this reason, contingent self-worth is described by some people as being “fragile”, and is a known source of
psychological vulnerability. Crocker, J., & Knight, K. M. (2005). Contingencies of self-worth. Current directions in psychological science, 14(4), 200-203.
Students with a low, fragile self-esteem are known to be at a
significantly higher risk Lakey, C., Hirsch, J., Nelson, L., & Nsamenang, S. (2014). Effects of Contingent Self-Esteem on Depressive Symptoms and Suicidal Behavior. Death Studies, 38(9), 563–570.
for depression and suicide, than students with high self-esteem, or students with low but secure self-esteem. Among other things, person, or trait-related feedback can undermine motivation, create pressure, discourage risk taking, reduce independence and breed a fixed mindset. Alternatively,
process praise is known to Haimovitz, K., & Henderlong Corpus, J. (2011). Effects of person versus process praise on student motivation: stability and change in emerging adulthood. Educational Psychology, 31(5), 595–609.
enhance intrinsic motivation and contributes to a greater sense of competence. Process praise lays the foundation for a growth mindset.

In a
Times Educational Supplement, Dweck, C. (2016). To encourage a growth mindset, pass it on. Times Educational Supplement, 5192.
Carol Dweck emphasizes that children learn from adults’ words and deeds. Therefore, teachers and parents can only “pass on” a growth mindset to kids when they use their words and deeds to make a growth mindset visible and compelling. In this article, Dweck identifies the following strategies, which teachers can use to nurture students’ growth mindset:

  • Focus on students’ strategies and hard work, tying them to progress and learning
  • Treat mistakes, challenges, and even failures as something beneficial for learning, rather than something that reflects badly on students’ abilities
  • Give students meaningful problems where they are challenged to apply their learning, rather than memorization tasks that involve simple recitation of facts and procedures
  • Give students clear feedback for improvement and a chance to revise their work to experience and demonstrate deepened understanding
  • Problem-solve with students and help them get unstuck. Sit down with a student and say, “Show me what you’ve done – let’s figure out how you’re thinking and what you can try next”.

What are the benefits of a growth mindset?

The benefits of a growth mindset are seemingly endless, so let’s focus on two primary areas of interest:

  1. Education and Wellbeing
    In a
    2014 study, Lexia (n.d.). 6 Tips to Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset in the Classroom. Lexia: A Rosetta Stone Company.
    researchers identified that, compared to students with a fixed mindset, students with a growth mindset perform better, are more likely to recognize the importance of academic success, seek out more challenging academic tasks to enhance learning, and value critical feedback.
    Across America, Yettick, H., Lloyd, S., Harwin, A., Riemer, A., & Swanson, C. B. (2016). Mindset in the Classroom: A National Study of K-12 Teachers. Editorial Projects in Education.
    from Kindergarten to Grade 12, nearly all teachers (98%) agreed that teaching growth mindset improved student learning, and many teachers (90%) associated growth mindset with more excitement about learning, greater persistence, higher levels of effort, and enhanced class participation.
    New research Yeager, D., Hanselman, P., Walton, G., Murray, J., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., Tipton, E., Schneider, B., Hulleman, C., Hinojosa, C., Paunesku, D., Romero, C., Flint, K., Roberts, A., Trott, J., Iachan, R., Buontempo, J., Yang, S., Carvalho, C., … Dweck, C. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364–2.
    has found that even less than one hour of instruction on growth mindset, can improve academic achievement, with the lowest-achieving students experiencing the most benefits. Notably,
    this study Yeager, D., Hanselman, P., Walton, G., Murray, J., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., Tipton, E., Schneider, B., Hulleman, C., Hinojosa, C., Paunesku, D., Romero, C., Flint, K., Roberts, A., Trott, J., Iachan, R., Buontempo, J., Yang, S., Carvalho, C., … Dweck, C. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364–2.
    also identified that the benefits derived from teaching growth mindset to students are sustained best when peer norms align with what is being taught. Scientists have also argued that these single-session growth mindset interventions hold a lot of promise for enhancing youth wellbeing.
    High-risk adolescents Schleider, J., & Weisz, J. (2018). A single‐session growth mindset intervention for adolescent anxiety and depression: 9-month outcomes of a randomized trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 59(2), 160–170.
    who participated in a 30-minute, online growth mindset program, reported reduced levels of anxiety and depression, as well as greater control over their behaviour, up to nine months after the program. In addition, growth mindset is known to
    buffer against Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. PNAS, 113(31), 8664-8669.
    the “deleterious effects of poverty on achievement”: Students in the lowest 10th percentile of family income who exhibited a growth mindset performed as well as students with a fixed mindset from the 80th percentile of family income. Unfortunately, under-served students, such as those living in poverty, English learners, Hispanics, and African American students, who might benefit the most from adopting a growth mindset, are
    less likely to hold a growth mindset Claro, S., & Loeb, S. (2017). New evidence that students’ beliefs about their brains drive learning. Evidence Speaks Reports, 2(29).
    than their more “affluent” peers.
  2. Relationships
    Mindset is also known to determine the kind of people with whom you pursue relationships. In general,
    people with a fixed mindset Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.
    prefer to be with people who make them feel perfect, put them on a pedestal, and “worship” them. Alternatively,
    people with a growth mindset Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.
    want to be around people who challenge and encourage them to be a better person, and who address their faults. Dweck goes so far as to argue that a growth mindset is a key to successful relationships: In a fixed mindset people are always looking for someone to blame for the shortcomings and they try to protect themselves in the process. Instead, in a growth mindset, people use the “downs” to find ways for the relationship to become stronger and to become a better partner, friend, or family member.

Where can I learn more?

TEDx Talk – Change your mindset, change the game by Dr. Alia Crum

TEDx Talk – Why you need to fail by Derek Sivers

Big Life Journal – How to Teach Growth Mindset to Kids (the 4-Week Guide)

Indiana Department of Education – Growth Mindset Toolkit

Edutopia – Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff

Verywellmind – Why Mindset Matters for Your Success

Khan Academy – Elementary and Middle School Activities for learning about growth mindset

What will students learn?

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…

  • Identify and define growth mindset
  • Distinguish between growth and fixed mindset
  • Describe the benefits of growth mindset
  • Take steps to develop a growth mindset
  • Use growth mindset to actively seek out learning opportunities, respond positively to constructive feedback, view failure as an opportunity to grow, and pursue supportive relationships
References
Beecuz

Claro, S., & Loeb, S. (2017). New evidence that students’ beliefs about their brains drive learning.

Evidence Speaks Reports, 2(29). https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/claro-and-loeb-report.pdf

Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on

academic achievement. PNAS, 113(31), 8664-8669. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1608207113

Crocker, J., & Knight, K. M. (2005). Contingencies of self-worth. Current directions in psychological

science, 14(4), 200-203.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.

Dweck, C. (2016). To encourage a growth mindset, pass it on. Times Educational Supplement, 5192.

Dweck, C., & Kamins, M. (1999). Person Versus Process Praise and Criticism: Implications for

Contingent Self-Worth and Coping. Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 835–847.

https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.35.3.835

Haimovitz, K., & Henderlong Corpus, J. (2011). Effects of person versus process praise on student

motivation: stability and change in emerging adulthood. Educational Psychology, 31(5), 595–609. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2011.585950

Lakey, C., Hirsch, J., Nelson, L., & Nsamenang, S. (2014). Effects of Contingent Self-Esteem on

Depressive Symptoms and Suicidal Behavior. Death Studies, 38(9), 563–570. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2013.809035

Lexia (n.d.). 6 Tips to Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset in the Classroom. Lexia: A Rosetta

Stone Company. https://www.lexialearning.com/blog/6-tips-help-students-develop-growth-mindset-classroom

O’Keefe, P., Dweck, C., & Walton, G. (2018). Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or

Developing It? Psychological Science, 29(10), 1653–1664. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618780643

Schleider, J., & Weisz, J. (2018). A single‐session growth mindset intervention for adolescent anxiety

and depression: 9‐month outcomes of a randomized trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 59(2), 160–170. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12811

Yeager, D., Hanselman, P., Walton, G., Murray, J., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., Tipton, E., Schneider, B.,

Hulleman, C., Hinojosa, C., Paunesku, D., Romero, C., Flint, K., Roberts, A., Trott, J., Iachan, R., Buontempo, J., Yang, S., Carvalho, C., … Dweck, C. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364–2. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y

Yettick, H., Lloyd, S., Harwin, A., Riemer, A., & Swanson, C. B. (2016). Mindset in the Classroom: A

National Study of K-12 Teachers. Editorial Projects in Education. https://www.edweek.org/media/ewrc_mindsetintheclassroom_sept2016.pdf