What Is It?

To have a growth mindset about a particular personal quality or ability—such as personality, intelligence, or happiness—is to believe that the attribute is malleable, that it can change and develop through effort and practice. In contrast, a fixed mindset is the belief that the quality in question is set at a certain level and cannot be altered.

Carol Dweck, the leading researcher on growth mindset, has found that students, some as young as preschool age, with a fixed mindset are less likely to challenge themselves and are more helpless in the face of mistakes. Rather than striving to grow, they want to demonstrate how smart they are, and fear that failure will “reveal” a lower level of (unchangeable) smartness.

A fourth grader  with a “fixed mindset” struggles with fractions and claims, “I just can’t do math.” As a result, he barely studies for tests, gives up on homework easily, and sees his math grade decline, confirming his belief.

In contrast, students with a growth mindset are more resilient. They tend to see mistakes as a chance to grow and seek out challenges as a way to build their brain power. Overall, the good news is that studies have demonstrated that growth mindset can be taught.

A high school language arts teacher has helped her students develop their “growth mindset” around their ability to write by offering them multiple chances to revise their writing assignments before they receive a final grade. As a result, students’ writing not only improves, but their attitude towards their teacher’s feedback changes for the better. They now pay more attention to her comments, knowing that her suggestions will make them better writers.

Initial research on growth mindset focused mainly on beliefs about intelligence, but has since expanded to look at other personal qualities, such as personality, emotional experience, and moral character. As with intelligence, believing that these attributes can change tends to be associated with greater psychological well-being.

A teenager who tends to view people’s behaviors with a growth mindset responds to his friend’s unkind words with compassion rather than contempt, asking his friend if something has happened to upset him.

As the idea of growth mindset has become more widespread, especially in education, Dweck and others have cautioned against an oversimplified reliance on sheer effort as a panacea; the type of effort, such as strategies used, matters, of course, as do unrealistic expectations of oneself or others, which can lead to judgment and disappointment.

Still, believing that personal qualities even have the potential to change is a critical first step towards improvement.

Why Is It Important?

Much of the research on growth mindset, especially in children and youth, deals with beliefs about intelligence, and shows that students with growth mindsets of intelligence tend to perform better academically (although effects may vary for different subgroups of students). But emerging research suggests the potential of cultivating social and emotional growth mindsets, as well, to increase well-being.

 

Growth mindsets can make us happier.

 

Growth mindsets can boost social competence.

 

Growth mindsets can reduce bias.

 

Growth mindsets can promote prosocial (kind and helpful) behavior.

  • In studies with students from elementary school through college, those students who believe that personality, empathy, and morality can grow and change are more likely to make an effort to be empathetic and volunteer to help others.

Practices

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A short but powerful number sense activity that shows students the visual nature of math, creativity in math, and that there are many different ways people see math.
Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
An opening math activity that provides students the opportunity to appreciate different ways of achieving the same answer.
Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School
≤ 30 minutes
A simple way to build students’ academic mindset, trust, and positive identity.
Middle School, High School, College
≤ 15 minutes
A brief learning activity that demonstrates the many different ways people see math and builds students’ flexibility with numbers.
Upper Elementary, Middle School, High School, College
≤ 30 minutes
“Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
–George Bernard Shaw