Posted February 25, 2019 by Mark Perna
Growth mindset, a term coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, is a popular topic these days. I’ve written about it before and I’m revisiting it today because I have a fresh observation.
To briefly define growth mindset, it’s the belief that a person’s intelligence, talents, and abilities are not innate but can be developed with effort. In other words, these traits and capacities are fluid; they can expand and grow. Fixed mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that one’s skills and smarts are predetermined, inborn, and essentially unchangeable.
Growth mindset is not just about being positive and open-minded (though those qualities are often associated with growth-mindset individuals). It’s a foundational belief about personal ability and how that ability is attained. In my experience, fixed mindset is by far the more prevalent view.
A quote often attributed to Buddha says “We are what we think.” Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of academic and skill achievement. If you believe you can increase your intelligence by concentrated study and effort, you will. If, however, you accept the more prevalent narrative that you only have what you were born with and cannot change it, you won’t be motivated to achieve beyond what you think are your limits.
In many ways it’s the nature vs. nurture debate again. Fixed mindset would fall into the nature category: everything is predetermined by genes. Growth mindset aligns with nurture: everything can be shaped.
In my first blog about this topic, I raised the question of our own beliefs regarding growth and fixed mindsets and how we apply those perceptions to our students. In general, fixed mindset can tend to be a more cynical perspective, while growth mindset allows for the possibility of drastic change and improvement, even for someone with unpromising beginnings.
How are we viewing the young people in our circle of influence? Do we believe they can expand their academic and technical capacities with enough effort? Or are they confined to limits imposed by their genetic makeup?
As I have been looking at the education world through the lens of growth and fixed mindsets, I’ve noticed something. Teachers with a growth mindset tend to cultivate students with a growth mindset—which isn’t surprising. But more telling is that teachers with a fixed mindset tend to be frustrated that their students don’t have a growth mindset. There’s a disconnect here.
How you view young people’s abilities really comes down to what you believe about your own. What mindset do you have? Even if you have a fixed mindset on the positive end of the spectrum, you may be selling yourself short on further growth. You may believe you are intelligent, resourceful, and capable, and that’s great—but if you think you possess those qualities only because you were born with them, you won’t believe you can significantly expand them. And you won’t believe that your students can expand their abilities, either.
Everyone has varying levels of growth and fixed mindsets in different areas of life. I think it’s beneficial to pay closer attention to our underpinning beliefs and how they may indirectly affect those around us. After all, we are what we think—and they might be, too.