Why is it that one person naturally sees new situations as challenges and tackles them with two hands, while another in the same situation sees only bears on the road?
In addition to experiences that you gain in your life, which work out good or bad for you and thus influence your (self) confidence, the way in which you deal with situations has everything to do with your mindset.
The American psychologist Carol Dweck did extensive research on performance and success and discovered that in addition to skills and talent, success also depends on the mindset. She describes 2 kinds of mindsets; the fixed and the growth mindset.
In a fixed mindset you assume that your intelligence and abilities are fixed and therefore you can no longer develop in them. People with a fixed mindset are often not open to new situations or learning new skills because they are afraid to fail. After all, they may not be capable enough in their experience. Think about the phrase, “I’m not a math person.” This statement indicates a fixed mindset about math, because it attributes math ability to an unchangeable quality. The fixed mindset impedes performance and has a negative influence on the train of thought. This has a bad influence on learning development. Not only in children, this also applies to adults!
With the growth mindset people assume that you can develop basic qualities and talents if you just want to make an effort. Intelligence can be developed and therefore people with a growth mindset are often eager to learn. Someone with a growth mindset is happy with challenges and does not give up on adversity. Think about the phrase, “Math was really confusing at first, but I’ve studied hard all year and I understand it a lot better now.” This indicates a growth mindset, because it shows a willingness to dig in deep. People with a growth mindset are motivated to take on challenges.
In this diagram by Carol Dweck, the differences are clearly displayed alongside each other.
A mindset is never just a fixed or a growth mindset. It lives on a continuum and we actually have a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, and that mixture continually evolves with experience.
In recent years, scientists have found that our brain is actually far more malleable than we ever knew. Connections between neurons in our brain are made with learning, trying and experience. New connections can be made and existing ones can be strengthened.
At the same time of these neuroscientific discoveries, the link between mindsets and achievement became more clear. It turns out, if you are convinced your brain can grow, you change your behavior and motivation is increased.
How to encourage the development of a growth mindset
Parents and teachers can have a powerful impact on their childrens’ mindsets. The language you use and the actions you take show your children what you expect. Talking about the trainability of the brain, helping them with growth mindset words, giving praise on the way they do things, accepting mistakes as learning opportunities and understanding the role of emotions in learning are helpful in supporting your child in developing a growth mindset. Your own mindset will shift too!
The brain is far more malleable than we once thought. We can support our kids by telling them that they actually have control over growing their brains through the actions they take. When they work hard, that’s the feeling of their neurons connecting. The dendrites are reaching out to other dendrites, trying to connect to make a stronger brain. Those connections are made and strengthened by practice, asking questions, trying new ways of doing things and actively participating in learning. This short video from Khan Academy explains how you can train your brain like a muscle and what actually happens in the brain when you do this. Great to watch together with your child!
Growth Mindset vocabulary
‘This is too difficult!’ is probably something you have heard at one time or another from your child while doing homework, practicing an instrument or doing another challenging activity. Alternative phrases are helpful in those moments towards building a growth mindset and supporting your child in overcoming and conquering their challenge. Have a look at the rephrased vocal in the picture.
Feedback that parents and teachers give, can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. Studies on praise and feedback have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, but praising hard work and effort stimulates a growth mindset.
This was demonstrated in experimental research done by Carol Dweck. Young children were asked to make an easy puzzle. When the puzzle was completed, some were praised for their intelligence (You did well! You are so smart! = fixed mindset feedback) and others for their efforts (You did well! I saw you worked hard and tried out different ways to solve the puzzle and it worked! = growth mindset feedback).
Then they were all presented with a choice between 2 new puzzles to solve; a same level puzzle or a more challenging puzzle. The children were asked which puzzle they wanted to solve and why.
The research showed that it was mainly kids from the second group who spontaneously chose to make a more challenging puzzle. They considered this an opportunity to learn new things. The kids that received a fixed mindset feedback we more prone to choose the easy puzzles. Their motivation was that they would be sure that they could complete the task, so that they would receive continued praise on their smartness.
A growth mindset is not just about praising and rewarding effort. This is true for students in schools as it is for employees in organizations. In both settings, outcomes matter. Unproductive effort is never a good thing. It’s critical to reward not just effort but learning and progress, and to emphasize the processes that yield these things, such as seeking help from others, trying new strategies and using lessons learned from setbacks to move forward effectively.
Mistakes and challenges as learning opportunities
Speaking to your children in a positive way about the mistakes you’ve made, and what you’ve learned from them will show them that taking risks and making mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. Trying hard things is what helps us grow and you can’t be perfect when you are a ‘risktaker’ and try to do things in different and novel ways.
Emotions of learning
Inspiration, awe, confusion, frustration to name just a few…. we all encounter these emotions when learning or finding ourselves in a novel or challenging situation. Emotions are processed in the amygdala, part of our limbic brain structure. This is also the system of our brain that triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response when we feel ‘threatened’ and it has the ability to override our rational processes. If we have more of a fixed mindset, emotions of learning, and especially the the negative ones, impact our amygdala, focussing our attention on negative feelings and bodily sensations, impairing our cognitive learning.
Related to emotions is the concept of feelings, which are the subjective experiences of emotions, and therefor learned. From a growth mindset perspectief these feelings can be altered and used towards learning. So, if a child feels frustrated about solving a problem, use the techniques as mentioned earlier and help their mindset towards trying again, finding an alternative way to solving the problem, asking for help, instead of giving up and feeling they can’t do it.
It’s still not easy to attain a growth mindset. One reason why is that we all have our own fixed-mindset triggers. In the face of challenges, criticism or if we compare ourselves with others, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth. Our work environments, too, can be full of fixed-mindset triggers. Identifying and working with these triggers helps us and our children to remain in a growth zone.
To wrap up this piece on mindset, I would encourage you to take a look at this lecture by Benjamin Zander, a famous conductor and the musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, as he gives us a wonderfully engaging and inspiring glance at growth mindset and his passionate way of thinking on this subject.
psychologist | counselor | personal coach