growth mindset vs fixed mindset image

Intelligence—Is it fixed or can it be grown???

Does anyone remember being graded according to the “Bell Curve”?  I have vivid memories of my first class in undergraduate school and my English professor clearly explaining that everyone would be graded on the curve.  The top 10% of the class would receive an ‘A’, the second 10% would get a ‘B’, the middle 60% of students would earn a ‘C’, and the bottom 20% of students would receive either a ‘D’ or an ‘F’.

This was a stark realization to me that my grade would be based on my performance judged against that of my peers.  And, no matter how hard I worked, my grade would be based on my professor selecting talent rather than developing talent.  In actuality, grades based on a student’s standing among classmates tell us nothing about how well a student has learned a concept.  All students might perform miserably, but some perform less miserably than others and receive the higher scores.

Traditionally, schools and educators have believed in ability-based learning, which relied on IQ scores—static scores where effort was not a factor.   Research has now shown the opposite.  Intelligence is dynamic and it is not fixed.  The brain can grow; it is malleable and can change with effort resulting in changes in IQ.

Mindsets Matter

Perhaps this is one of the greatest breakthroughs in education today.  Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, Carol Dweck, reveals in her work, Changing Mindsets—Motivating Students, that not only do mindsets matter, but they have a tremendous impact on motivation, thus greatly affecting a student’s long-term outcome.

If as a learner, I believe that intelligence can be grown, then I work harder and am confident I can learn something new and challenging.  I use mistakes to learn.  Growth mindset students believe that effort is good and the harder you work, the better you’ll be.  After all, even geniuses have to work!

However, if as a student, I believe intelligence is fixed, then it’s easy to equate being smart with not having to work hard in school—if I have to put forth effort, then I must not have the ability.  A fixed mindset does not allow students a way to recover from failures or deficiencies, and leads to avoiding failure in any way possible even to the point of dropping a class, hiding mistakes, or perhaps even cheating on a test.

And consider the implication of mindset for teachers.  If as a teacher I believe in the growth or effort mindset, then I will have high expectations for all students, encourage students to work harder, spend more time with struggling students, and resist stereotypes in my classroom.  If teachers communicate high expectations and develop a student’s sense of personal responsibility and learned optimism, the results will be highly motivated students and school success.

Where do mindsets come from?

Our language conveys what we believe and what we value, especially the way we praise.  The self-esteem movement promoted the belief that praise would give our kids confidence and equip them for life.  But according to Professor Dweck, praise that was overly focused on being smart had the opposite effect.  That kind of praise reinforced the fixed intelligence mindset causing kids to be afraid of making mistakes and not looking “smart”.

Research confirms that praising intelligence, talent, or ability harms kids by turning them away from new or difficult learning.  Example of intelligence praise:  “Wow!  That is a really good score.  You must be smart at this.’

Findings from several studies reveal that kids who receive intelligence praise were more likely to choose tasks in their comfort zone where they knew they would be successful; these same students rejected more difficult tasks.

In contrast, process praise reinforced effort.  Example of process praise:  “Wow!  That is a really good score.  You must have worked really hard.”

These students chose challenging or difficult tasks to work and weren’t discouraged by setbacks.  In fact, the hard problems seemed to be their favorite.

What to praise?

So, what should we as educators and parents praise?  We must praise effort, struggle, and persistence.  We must praise not only effort but also strategies, choices, and process.

What a contrast from yesterday when an ‘A’ without working got a compliment about intelligence, “You must be an excellent math student!!”

Consider tomorrow’s message, “You got an ‘A’ without working.  You must not be learning much.”

In summary

Intelligence—is it fixed or can it be grown?  Yes, intelligence can be grown.  The bell curve of former years is dead!  As educators and as parents, we can teach the growth mindset to our children.  The way we praise and challenge students can engender a growth mindset in children, boost their motivation and engagement, and ultimately promote achievement for all.

 “It’s not always the people who start out the smartest that end up the smartest.”
                                                                        -Alfred Binet, inventor of the IQ test


Resources and References:

Dweck, Carol, (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Random House: New York, NY.

Gladwell, Malcolm, (2008) Outliers, The Story of Success, Hachette Book Group, New York, NY.

Ricci, Mary Cay, (2013) Mindsets in the Classroom: Building a Culture of Success and Student Achievement in School, Prufrock Press: Waco, TX.

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