“Growth mindset”: praising process, not intelligence

This is a neat little 10 minute talk by Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford in the US (http://mindsetonline.com/abouttheauthor/), explaining the simple but powerful idea of the “growth mindset” for learning.

This is going to end in a fight. Growth Mindset would be well advised to leg it before Fixed Mindset lamps him. He's well hard and a bit mental.
This is going to end in a fight. Growth Mindset would be well advised to leg it before Fixed Mindset lamps him. He’s well hard and a bit mental.

The basic idea, based on real life study results, is that pupils with a “growth” mindset about their abilities ultimately out-perform and become more self-motivated than pupils with a “fixed mindset” about them. In the growth mindset, pupils believe that their abilities are not fixed but develop over time.  They believe that effort activates their abilities; and setbacks or deficiencies are taken on the chin as just part of the process of learning. By contrast pupils in the “fixed mindset” believe intelligence is innate and relatively unchanging. it is revealed rather than developed. Effort is associated with a lack of ability; activities in which they may not be proficient are avoided and mistakes are hidden, because they jar with the self-narrative the pupil wants. As a result, they tend to try less hard, give up more easily when they hit a difficulty, and ultimately do less well.

Fatboy Slim was onto this 20 years ago. As was this fat boy.
Fatboy Slim was onto this 20 years ago. As was this fat boy.

We can all see that the growth mindset is better. But I suspect many people I know were raised to some extent with the fixed mindset. We’ve been told at some point we are bright and we came to believe it. That said – and I did pretty well at school, if I can be so immodest – it strikes me listening to Dr Dweck that the secret may have been that I never really believed I was particularly bright (and probably indeed wasn’t). This probably gave me a growth mindset by default – a belief that my brain would be capable of nothing much without a lot of work and organisation.

I’d never seen it as positively as the term “growth mindset” suggests though, I must admit. I diagnosed it in my later teens as something of a curse: a product of chronic insecurity, something I actually needed to conquer. And for a good while I probably lost my “growth mindset” as a result. That was probably exacerbated by the cultures at both Oxford, where I was a student, and the law firm in the City I worked at in my 20s, where many people seemed to be obsessively evaluating and commenting on others’ “intelligence” or “how bright” they were. I feel like I have been in recovery from that stultifying habit of thought for a good while now. Changing career to qualitative research helped me get back to my old curious and engaged self. More recently, seeing my elderly mother’s struggles with memory and cognition is another regular reminder that the brain changes, and the person with it. Cultivating what you have is the only response to that.

Dr Dweck has some simple advice too on what this means for praising your child. “Praising children’s intelligence harms them,” she says, as it pushes them towards the fixed mindset. Telling them how smart they are turns kids off to learning. Instead, send the message that you value process, regardless of the end result. Engaging in something vexing and difficult should be presented to them as desirable in itself. (Note to self: my teenager-esque performance yesterday, groaning loudly then rolling around and pounding the floor repeatedly because I couldn’t make iTunes work, may have sent my 12-year-old son the wrong message about perseverance).

The RSA, by the way (whence the Dweck film comes), is a great resource for discovering new thinking and sharing big ideas about society. If you become a Fellow, it also provides a great place to go for a few hours to get some work done in central London, not to mention opportunities to collaborate with other fellows, if you have the time and inclination. I am a fan.



Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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