Nurturing a Growth Mindset

Andrew Ford

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School can be a challenging experience not just for the student but for the adults who are responsible for them. It is not only students, but their parents and teachers who experience the emotional rollercoaster that comes with failure or success. Doing well in a maths test, not being chosen for the sports team, excelling in art class or not being accepted by a chosen university. Whatever the outcome, how do you as the adult respond to a young person in a way that will encourage them to continue learning and developing? Research in the field of growth and fixed mindsets provides some insight into this.

Students who hold more of a fixed mindset tend to focus their attention on proving how smart they are, whereas those with a growth mindset tend to focus their attention on improving. When the focus is on improving, then greater motivation and achievement takes place, and the good news is that this attitude can be passed on and encouraged.

You might think that parents and teachers who hold more of a growth mindset would be able to transfer this way of thinking on to the young people they are working with. It turns out that knowing about growth mindset and even being able to recognise it in yourself is not enough.

Dweck and colleague found little correlation between the parent/teacher and child’s mindset, with the adult benefitting from growth mindset thinking but with little carry over to the child. Mindset was far more dependant on the adult’s theory of motivation than any belief about intelligence, coupled with their actual response to failure and success (Haimovitz & Dweck, 2016).

Response to Success

The way in which adults praise the young people they interact with plays a key role in the mindset produced. Person praise, such as ‘You must be smart!’, ‘I’m really proud of you!’ or ‘You’re a good boy!’ is more likely to lead to a fixed mindset, as it is about validating their current ability. On the other hand, process praise such as ‘You worked really hard on these challenging problems!’ or

‘You found a creative way of solving that!’ is more likely to lead to growth mindset thinking, as this is about the way they are learning and developing. If you are wanting to encourage a growth mindset then praising effort is far more effective than praising the person (Mueller & Dweck, 1998; Kamins & Dweck, 1999).

Unfortunately some educators and parents have taken the ‘praise the effort, not the outcome’ advice at face value – this can be problematic. Simply praising effort without linking it with learning or achievement is not effective praise, and is similar to giving them a consolation prize of effort because they haven’t shown learning. If learning is not taking place then this is useful feedback that new strategies need to be tried (Haimovitz & Dweck, 2017).

Response to Failure

Criticism of a student when the outcome is not what was hoped for or expected is equally as important in encouraging either a growth or fixed mindset. Giving person or learning process criticism has the same effect as giving person or learning process praise (see above!).  The focus of the criticism comes from the adult’s belief about whether they see failure as motivating or demotivating. Adults who have a failure is enhancing mindset see it as something that motivates learning, growth and performance. However those adults with a failure is debilitating mindset see it as something that demotivates and inhibits learning. These beliefs lead to adults responding in different ways to the student’s failure:

Failure is enhancing, would focus on the process, asking how the student could learn from the experience or look at the mistakes to work out how to improve

Failure is debilitating, would focus on the person, asking questions about the student’s performance or ability

Teaching Practice

Research by Sun, 2015 indicates that the practices of teachers has an impact on the mindsets the students are likely to adopt. A growth mindset is likely to be produced when educators teach for understanding rather than just results. They ask students to articulate their thinking process regardless of the attainment level and give feedback to help deepen understanding. The type of feedback conducive to a growth mindset evaluates and praises a student’s explanation of their thinking, their learning process and their gradual progress toward learning goals. Finally, giving a clear explanation of how important mistakes and struggle are on the way to learning.

On the other hand, teachers who focus on ability are more likely to create fixed mindset thinking in their students. Grouping students together based on their initial achievement levels and encouraging social comparison in student evaluations have a detrimental impact on mindset. For instance, public praise of high performing students as ‘smart’ or ‘fast’ could mean others see themselves as the opposite.

School can be a challenge for us all, but as educators and/or parents, we can use the strategies outlined here to help young people to embrace a growth mindset and continue to learn and develop. We invite you to take some time today to reflect on how you can apply these insights to your personal and working life.

Resources & References

How Mindsets Influence Learning

Mindset by Carol Dweck

Mindset Works

Trevor Ragan explains mindset concepts

Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). What predicts children’s fixed and growth intelligence mindsets? Not their parents’ views of intelligence but their parents’ views of failure. Psychological Science, 27, 859–869.

Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2017). The origins of children's growth and fixed mindsets: New research and a new proposal. Child Development, 88(6), 1849-1859.

Kamins, M., & Dweck, C. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35, 835–847.

Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1),

33–52.

Sun, K. L. (2015). There’s no limit: Mathematics teaching for a growth mindset. Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, CA. 


Andrew Ford


Andrew Ford is a Trainer and Content Developer with the Institute of Positive Education. Passionate about growth and development, he draws on more than twenty years of experience in youth and community organisations. He is currently studying a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology through the University of East London.