When I first learned about the concept of a growth mindset, I assumed that meant a positive attitude or self-esteem and tuned out a bit. I was wrong. As I have learned more about what a growth mindset is and how essential it is to learning, it has become one of my favorite topics.
So, what exactly is a growth mindset, and why am I so excited about it? A growth mindset is an understanding and set of beliefs that learning, growth, achievement, and success are products of resolve, determination, and hard work. It is also the firm belief that while inborn talents and intelligence are helpful, they do not determine success. When we learn something new, our brains are growing–no matter how old we are. They are firing electrical signals between synapses and growing more of them as they develop connections between ideas. Academic work can physically change your brain and increase your intelligence. It’s incredible, but it does require mental effort.
Children that don’t have a growth mindset will unintentionally shut down their ability to learn. It’s heartbreaking and happens all the time. I have seen children with high levels of intelligence struggle and even fail at times. It breaks my heart, and I do everything I can to help them grow and succeed, but it takes more than one teacher and one school year to change things permanently. I have also seen children with average, or even lower than average, measured intelligence levels, achieving amazing things academically because they worked hard and didn’t give up. Notice I said measured because everyone has inborn gifts.
When you believe your work and effort determine your success, you are more likely to work hard and not take setbacks personally. If you know that effort is the determining factor and you fail, you simply tell yourself you need to try harder. If you know that challenges are growth opportunities, you are more likely even to enjoy them.
On the flip side, if you think that natural-born intelligence will determine your academic success, the moment you don’t understand a new concept is the moment you give up. I often see this begin to happen in math around fifth and sixth grade. Kids that believe that their intelligence determines their success are terrified of challenges. Their progress shuts down and won’t allow them to try. This is because academic failure to them means that they are personally a failure, not that they simply need to try harder. They believe that the harder they work, the more foolish they will look when they fail, so they act like they don’t care. When children genuinely think they cannot succeed, they will do nearly anything to avoid the task. They will suddenly need extra snacks, trips to the bathroom, lose their pencils, be too tired, get angry, cry, meltdown, or shut down. What they will not do, is the work in front of them, because they don’t believe they can, and their sense of self-preservation is telling them not to do something they will inevitably fail at because it will damage their self-image and emotional health.
A lot goes behind the scenes of a child’s mind before they attempt their multiplication facts, or check their grammar. When you teach a lesson, set a worksheet in front of a child, and ask them to work, you may want more than you realize.
Some kids will look at the worksheet or online assignment, know that they can do it, and maybe even look forward to the positive feedback they will get from their teachers and parents when they do a good job. Some kids will look at the assignment, do a little here, and get teachers or parents off their backs. They don’t feel motivated to work harder because they don’t think the extra effort will make a difference or benefit them. They may believe that extra effort will make them look bad if they fail.
Exercise as an example: Think of an adult that is convinced that extra exercise will not only not help them, but also hurt, be exhausting, waste their time, make them look like a failure for even trying, and prove to them that they are incapable of getting in shape. The chance of them signing up for a 5K is pretty much zero. Looking at it from their point of view it would be illogical to exercise, foolish even. They would probably actively avoid exercise, feel stressed and upset when told that they should exercise more, and feel inferior to those who exercise and get in shape by doing so.
On the other hand, if someone believes that exercising will help them feel better, live longer, is worth the time and energy, is a fun challenge, and makes them look great, they will hit the gym whenever possible.
Whether physical or academic effort is involved, having a growth mindset is the foundation for success and only grows more critical. Working and trying hard on small things, day in and day out will exponentially increase the odds of success. On the other hand, putting off and avoiding challenges will, over time, lead to failure.
For now, look around you at examples of people you know with growth and fixed mindsets. How are their lives different? What areas of your life would you like to develop more of a growth mindset? I, for one, would like to work on exercise.
Up next: Ways to encourage a growth mindset in students.