Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

When I encountered Carol Dweck and her work on mindsets for the first time, I could almost physically feel a shift in my understanding. No gradual reveal here; it was immediate. To be clear, I’m not saying I read her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and stumbled into a life of success and happiness primarily defined by my shiny  new “growth mindset”–as I write this, I’m writing from a still primarily “Fixed mindset”–but Dweck’s work has profound implications for the way people interact with the world, and even in those first encounters, that was evident.

Carol Dweck’s work is foundational to our philosophy at Iridescent–Mindset is on the team reading list, and we discuss the idea of fixed and growth mindsets with parents we work with, and include it in our mentor training materials. A growth mindset so well describes the traits Iridescent hopes to foster in students, including curiosity, creativity, persistence and courage, that we share it with everyone who works with us.

Dweck descibes two basic kinds of mindsets: fixed and growth.

A fixed mindset is based on the assumption that all of a person’s personality traits–intelligence, abilities, character–are set in stone, static, cannot be changed. By extension, this means that success is tied to these pre-determined abilities and intelligence, and that exerting effort is an indicator of a lack of ‘natural’ ability or intelligence. Such a lack is alarming to those working within a fixed mindset, as are deficiencies, mistakes, or failures of any kind or size.

In contrast, a growth mindset categorizes mistakes or failures as opportunities for improvement, development, and growth, rather than signs of a lack of intelligence. A growth mindset sees abilities, knowledge and traits as malleable, capable of being stretched and developed over time, and understands that effort is key. Rather than success being the effortless outcome of great intelligence, within a growth mindset, it is hard work that allows success to happen.

We look at these mindsets in terms of our design challenges and the students we share them with. We want to help foster growth mindsets in students so they are more persistent in the face of challenges, and more resilient (and even welcoming) to failure. In particular we look at the way feedback can affect mindset.

When you praise someone for their abilities and talent instead of effort, you reinforce a fixed mindset. By placing the focus on natural ability (“You were smart to make the axle of your car that way. It shows how well you understand the motion of cars”), success is tied to that ability, reinforcing the idea that success is a result of innate qualities rather than hard work.

However, when your responses draw attention to the process of making something (“You worked hard on the axle of your car–it works really well because you tried multiple times to improve it”), you foster a growth mindset. In drawing attention the work invested in the project and in praising the person’s persistence, effort and learning become the focus of praise.

Good feedback almost always encourages a student to think about what he or she is doing, rather than how good he or she is at what they are doing. In doing this, learning–not appearing to be smart or talented–becomes the goal, and a growth mindset is given room to develop.