The Basic Idea
Fixed mindset is a way of thinking about your own intelligence and abilities. Specifically, it describes viewing your intelligence and abilities as innate and unchangeable. When faced with a task that seems too challenging, someone with a fixed mindset may think “There’s no way I can do that, so why bother trying?” This mindset is very outcome focused; instead of looking at failures as learning experiences, someone with a fixed mindset will feel that hard work, when yielding no direct result, was “all for nothing.” Their successes and failures may also be an important part of how they define themselves, meaning that they may avoid taking risks so as to not make themselves look bad in the case that they should fail.
Fixed mindset is one end of the spectrum of how people think about their intelligence. At the other end is growth mindset, which refers to thinking about your intelligence and abilities as changeable. Growth mindset treats intelligence like a muscle that will get stronger as you continue to work it. It also focuses more on the process of learning than on the outcome. Failures are seen as opportunities to learn something valuable and no attempt at problem-solving is ever considered wasted.
Research into mindsets has shown that a fixed mindset is less adaptive than a growth mindset. This is in part because the fixed mindset increases stress and pressure to perform and also because it leads people to believe that they know the extent of their intellectual capabilities and are limited by them. It has been argued that our potential is unknowable, so we should not give up simply because we think we cannot accomplish something. We cannot know what be are capable of and, with dedication and hard work, the extent of what we are capable of is certainly subject to change.1
Theory, meet practice
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American psychologist Carol Dweck is credited with the development of the theories of fixed and growth mindset. Her inspiration to pursue this line of study came from an experience she had in her sixth grade class, at P.S. 153 in Brooklyn.2 The students in her class were made to take an IQ test, which determined the course of the rest of the school year. They were made to sit in order of their IQ scores and the students with the lowest scores were denied privileges that were awarded to the highest scoring children. She recalls feeling an immense pressure to continue to perform at a high level and was terrified of getting even a single poor grade, as it might drop her to a lower status in the class.3 The mindset promoted by Dweck’s sixth grade teacher, which was adopted by Dweck and her classmates, was a fixed mindset: one that was purely outcome-focused and based on the idea that intelligence and abilities are set in stone. Something about this outlook did not sit well with Dweck.
This experience was part of what inspired Dweck to pursue graduate research in the areas of motivation and intelligence. She theorized that a fixed mindset leads people to approach challenging problems or tasks with less motivation, since they believe there is no point in trying things deemed outside their strengths or capabilities. This lack of motivation and effort results in a poor outcome, or even failure, which reinforces the belief that they were not capable in the first place.4
Dweck has developed interventions to help foster a growth mindset in children in order to set them up for success. By guiding them to develop a growth mindset, Dweck hopes to reduce academic stress and encourage children to take pleasure in learning and understand that failures and setbacks are inevitable and valuable parts of the journey. A pilot study of this intervention had promising results. The eight-week intervention was piloted in a junior high school math class. Over the course of the intervention, students were taught about growth mindset and how they could incorporate it into their lives, as well as given advice about how to improve their study habits. Other students were assigned to a control condition. Over eight weeks, these students were given the same study tips as the students in the mindset intervention condition, but they did not learn about growth mindset. At the end of the eight weeks, the student who had learned about mindset showed significant improvement in academic performance. This effect was not seen in students who had only been given the advice about effective studying.5
The concepts of fixed and growth mindsets were first defined by American psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck received her PhD from Yale and is currently a professor of psychology at Stanford University.6 Her career has been dedicated to research on mindset, as well as to developing interventions to foster the development of growth mindset. Her research is presented in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She has also made several resources for promoting growth mindset available on her website, “Mindset Works.”
According to Dweck’s research, a fixed mindset is incredibly limiting. Believing that we are unable to do something causes us to dedicate less effort to accomplishing it because we feel that there is no point in trying. Naturally, this lack of effort yields subpar results, which reinforces the idea that the task is simply too challenging.7 This vicious cycle maintains the idea that we cannot improve and that there is a very distinct divider between what we can and cannot do.
People with a fixed mindset are afraid to take risks, because they fear failure. However, failing can be an incredibly valuable learning experience. In fact, it can be an important step on the road to success. The growth mindset can also stifle creativity, as it may hinder our inclination to try new, innovative approaches to problem-solving. A fixed mindset can make learning a tedious, stressful process, as the focus is always on the outcome.
It also increases concern about how others view us. Those of us with fixed mindsets define ourselves by successes and failures and believe that others view us in those terms as well. As such, there is a constant pressure to be perfect, or else risk tarnishing one’s reputation. The stress of this can take a toll on one’s mental well-being.
By contrast, Dweck’s research indicates that a growth mindset is far more advantageous and she has thus worked to develop interventions and resources that can be used by both parents and teachers to promote its development in children.
There has been some skepticism as to whether Dweck’s interventions to foster the development of a growth mindset are actually effective in improving academic performance among students. A study conducted by Dweck showed that implementation of practices designed to encourage a growth mindset led to significant improvements in performance among junior high math students, relative to students who did not receive the intervention.8 Attempts to replicate these findings have yielded mixed findings, raising the question of whether the interventions are actually effective and whether a growth mindset is as important as Dweck claims.9
Dweck has responded to this skepticism by stating that it is important to consider the way in which the concept of a growth mindset is introduced into the classroom. If the concept is simply taught once and no other changes are made to the way the classroom functions, it makes sense that there would be no noticeable changes in the students’ academic performance.10 In addition to teaching the concept of growth mindset, Dweck proposes that teachers need to create an environment in which students feel comfortable trying new approaches and taking risks because they view failure as an opportunity to learn.
Furthermore, it is important to note that a growth mindset is not the sole determining factor behind students’ success. A well-designed curriculum and accepting, effective, adaptable teachers are also necessary for children to flourish in a classroom setting.11 A growth mindset is a valuable tool that can help foster success, but it alone is not enough.
- Popova, M. Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Mindsets That Shape Our Lives. Brain Pickings. https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset/
- Trei, L. (2007). New study yield instructive results on how mindset affects learning. Stanford News.
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- Growth Mindset. Mindset Scholars Network. https://mindsetscholarsnetwork.org/learning-mindsets/
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- Denworth, L. (2019). Debate Arises over Teaching “Growth Mindsets” To Motivate Students. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/debate-arises-over-teaching-growth-mindsets-to-motivate-students/
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