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Growth Mindset

Growth Mindset


The success of the education we offer depends on how well we understand learning, the things that can have an adverse effect on it, and design the learning experience accordingly. Educational psychology literature provides information on some basic factors that influence learning. Keeping an eye on this literature might help us achieve greater success with the education we offer.

When we look at the education literature, we see that academic achievement is associated with many factors. Among these are factors that have strong predictive power, such as intelligence and personality, but the stronger ones are mostly motivational, and among them, the strongest is the effort. In other words, no matter how intelligent our students might be, their achievement will be more dependent on their effort and persistence. 

If the effort is so important, why can't all the students who try really hard actually succeed? After all, isnt this what they all claim to be doing? Trying really hard? Doing their best? Well, everyone's learning success varies depending on the things they struggle with. A student's genuine effort to learn something entails asking a lot of questions, thinking, researching, experimenting and evaluating. They need to manage their resources well and use them correctly. The students who do these are being active in the learning process and only this type of effort can bring them learning success. So, how active are our students in general? And how realistic is it to expect learning success from students who are afraid to ask questions, fear to try, and avoid self-assessment?

Many studies conducted in the United States provide us with information about how we should offer our students the education we need for our future. In response to the question “What should be our educational model?” the Center for Curriculum Redesign put forth the elements of knowledge, skills and character aspects that need to be developed for our future and drew attention to what they call “meta-learning,” a factor that encompasses all three aspects. Here, meta-learning is used to express how we think and adapt to the situations we face and is made up of growth mindset and metacognition [1].

The importance of growth mindset, which is closely related to deep learning and striving, is clearly pointed out in one of the latest publications of the American Academy of Sciences. Here, the factors that support the achievement of university students are listed and in the category of student beliefs,the major players are listed as: sense of belonging, self-efficacy and growth mindset [2].

Growth mindset refers to the belief that an individual's abilities can be changed and improved. This concept, which was introduced by Carol Dweck from Stanford University, has revealed as a significant divide among students while she was examining the reactions of children when they face a difficult task. According to her, the children who avoided difficulty, who broke down when they failed, and who believed that their abilities were fixed and unchangeable were exhibiting their fixed-mindset, and those who believed that they could overcome difficulties and develop, and strived were considered to be exhibiting growth mindset [3].

The distinctive learning approach between these two mindsets is supported by brain research findings. The brain imaging study done by Hans Schroder and his colleagues at Michigan State University on 123 children between the ages of 6 and 8 started with identifying their mindsets (fixed or growth) and then continued by examining their brain activities while playing a game, particularly during their mistakes. In this study, it is found that upon making a mistake the activities in the brain spread to a larger area in children with growth mindset, and that these activities remain in a limited area in the brains of children with fixed mindset. With this imaging technique, it was determined that the children with growth mindset were thinking more about their mistakes, and when compared, it was found that they were more successful than the children with fixed mindset about not making the same mistake [4].

Learning cannot be realized without some mistakes, we all know that, but where does this avoidance of mistakes come from? Our beliefs and attitudes towards such situations are believed to be created from very early ages. When the belief that intelligence and ability--the cornerstones of the fixed mindset--cannot be improved, it becomes very difficult to fully learn anything. According to this belief, our failures and mistakes point out the things we cannot change; therefore, we do not persist and give up.

The attitude of not trying to correct our mistakes and eventually not correcting them at all is the biggest obstacle for genuine learning. The reactions of parents and teachers to children's mistakes play an important role in the formation of this obstacle. Acting like mistakes as irreversible things, not giving them an opportunity to try again, and interpreting their mistakes in relation to their intelligence, leads to the formation and establishment of a fixed mindset in children. Not only in the face of mistakes, but also in the cases of success, reactions mostly thought of as being innocent and encouraging, such as saying “That's smart!” giving rewards, or exhibiting success stories are very likely to cause children to see errors and mistakes as things to be avoided and be ashamed of. Children who are unable to receive constructive feedback on their errors develop their own attitudes about how to deal with them, and often they tend to keep them from both themselves and others. Ignored errors remain uncorrected, so the quality of the child's learning is greatly reduced. This would also lead to surface learning rather than deep learning. This is a problem to be addressed for the success of the education we offer.

So, what do we need to do as educators? Firstly, Dweck recommends that we just stop praising success, especially associating it with intelligence. We must also consciously refrain from giving offensive, condemnatory and humiliating reactions to mistakes. It is also problematic to praise their effort with vague messages like “You can achieve it, if you try.” or “Welldone! You've worked really hard!” We should be informative in our reactions, draw attention to the details of the students' efforts in a neutral tone and constructive manner. Students should receive immediate feedback on their mistakes and be informed about how they can improve. Mistakes will always be. What we can simply say is: “Not yet.” This conveys the message that we think they are competent and that they can succeed with relevant effort. I highly recommend Dweck's very enlightening and guiding TED talk on this subject [5].

Although the importance of growth mindset is supported by research findings, more research is needed on when and how it can be supported, especially during college years. The developmental map of the University of Chicago Consortium (Chicago School Research) shows that students’ mindsets should be considered important between the ages of 11 and 14, which contradicts with the growth mindset research findings [6]. Dweck's work with children in pre-school age shows how the ways of the fixed mindset at a very early age can adversely affect later learning. Regardless of our students’ age, we may be able to help them internalize growth mindset with effective interventions. For this, Dweck recommends that we explain to our students how our brains are open to growth and that they can always develop themselves. This would help them a great deal especially with getting rid of the obstacles in the way of their learning.

Ebru Kılıç-Bebek, Ph.D. 



[1] Center for Curriculum Redesign, (2015). Four Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed. (Authors) Charles Fadel, Maya Bialik, Bernie Trilling. Boston, MA, United States of America.

[2] The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (2016), Supporting Students’ College Success: Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies. Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academic Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/24697. PDF version: http://www.nap.edu/24697

[3] Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Publishing Group.

[4] Hans S. Schroder, H. S., Fisher, M. E., Lin, Y., Lo, S. L., Danovitch, J. H., Moser, J. S. (2017). Neural evidence for enhanced attention to mistakes among school-aged children with a growth mindset. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience24, 42-50.

[5] Carol Dweck: The power of believing that you can improve. TEDxNorrkoping, Kasım 2014. https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve

[6] The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (2015), Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework. (Authors) Jenny Nagaoka, Camille A. Farrington, Stacy B. Ehrlich, Ryan D. Heath, David W. Johnson, Sarah Dickson, Ashley Cureton Turner, Ashley Mayo, ve Kathleen Hayes. PDF version: https://consortium.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Foundations%20for%20Young%20Adult-Jun2015-Consortium.pdf