Understanding the Fixed and Growth Response: The First Step to Changing Mindsets

The Fixed Mindset has been getting a bad rap.

We know how people with a Fixed Mindset tend to behave. They avoid challenges. They give up easily. They dislike effort. They are threatened by the success of others.

These behaviours are sometimes described as “lazy”. It’s often assumed that people with a Fixed Mindset simply aren’t prepared to get off their backsides and do the hard work!

While it’s absolutely accurate to list the characteristics of the Fixed Mindset, it is not accurate to call someone with a fixed mindset lazy.

If we are to make any headway in our work with Mindsets, we need to go beyond merely describing the behaviours, or symptoms, of the Fixed and Growth Mindsets. We need to understand the causes behind them. Let me give you an example.

I regularly run workshops for adults about Mindsets. I also used to teach middle-school students mathematics. Let me compare these two experiences.


Adults in a Mindset workshop

Children in a mathematics class

I tell participants I have a challenge for them. I want to find out who in the room is tall enough to touch the ceiling.
I tell students I have a challenge for them: a difficult maths problem I want them to solve.
Most people look at me as though I’m stupid for even asking, and stay in their chairs.
Some of the students look away, find other things to do and don’t even start to address the problem.
I repeat the instruction that I want people to stand up and try to touch the ceiling.
I admonish these students, telling them that I expect them to make an effort!
Participants reluctantly stand up. Some wave their hands in the air, resigned to the fact that they can’t touch the ceiling.
Some students make half an attempt, not wanting to put too much effort in (at least people might believe they could do it if they tried “properly”).
Others make a joke out of the exercise, jumping up and down and laughing at how ridiculous it is.
Others muck around and complain about the task. “It’s impossible. No one could do this.”
In one workshop, a “vertically challenged” woman outright refused to do the activity (because it would highlight how short she was).
Some students refuse to attempt the problem at all. They tell me it’s “too hard” for them.
A few participants try standing on chairs or tables. If they’re not tall enough to touch the ceiling, at least they can make it look as though they are taller than they are, and taller than other people in the room.
A few students copy answers from other students. If they can’t do the maths, at least they can make others think they can– and do it better than some of the students who truly are trying.


Are the adult workshop participants being lazy and unreasonable? Are the students?

The answer is that the workshop participants and the students are behaving perfectly reasonably – from their world view.

When psychologist Carol Dweck describes Mindsets, she describes how people perceive their most basic characteristics: their talents, abilities and intelligence. Someone with a Fixed Mindset sees these characteristics as fixed and unchanging, while someone with a Growth Mindset understands that they can be changed.

From the perspective of someone who doesn’t believe they can change, it makes perfect sense to not take on the challenge, to not waste effort trying, and to even try to look better than their peers by cheating.

Of course, the height of the adult participants is something that is categorically fixed. All the effort in the world isn’t going to make them any taller!

The problem is that some of the children, when faced with the maths challenge, behave the same way as the adults. This is because they – incorrectly – believe their maths ability is similarly fixed.

Changing Mindsets is not only about changing behaviour. Behaviour is the symptom. Changing Mindsets is about addressing the underlying cause: the beliefs and understandings that lead to the behaviour. If we can address the cause, the behaviours will change too.

That’s why the “what can I say to myself?”-type strategies are likely to have a limited long-term impact on student’s Mindsets. They address the symptom, not the cause. It’s like giving someone with a fever an aspirin. It will reduce their fever, but will not effect the underlying cause – the fever will come if not treated properly.

There is a place for these types of strategies. Just as giving the aspirin may reduce the fever and give the body the chance to attack the underlying cause, so too may this sort of self talk lead students to take actions that lead them to experience growth.

However the better long-term strategy is to go deeper and look to the cause of the fixed mindset. And in order to go deeper we must have a clear understanding not simply of what students with a fixed mindset do, but why they do it.

The infographic below helps us understand the thinking and reasoning behind the Fixed and Growth Mindset responses. Addressing the underlying cause is a critical starting point if we want to deeply understand students’ responses. Only then can we begin to create effective strategies to help them develop a more Growth-oriented Mindset.

Click on the image to download the resource along with a suite of other helpful (and free!) Mindset resources.





James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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  • Lynn May 11, 2020 at 9:16 pm

    you have a brilliant idea that changing mindset cannot be limited to changing behaviour, it is about changing the cause, however, it is still not explained what is the cause of a fixed mindset. the infographic shows what are the thinking process when having a fixed mindset, it doesn’t explain why anyone thinks like that in the first place.

    Is a fixed mindset inherited or strategically learned/taught? of course not! so what is the cause of a fixed mindset?

    • James May 11, 2020 at 10:03 pm

      Thanks for your comments Lynn.

      I actually believe that both the fixed and growth mindset are learned. I write about this extensively elsewhere in my blogs, and in my book, The Agile Learner. You might like to look at my blog Authentic V’s Learned Mindsets, or Four Pathways to a Fixed Mindset. I also discuss the issue in my free ebook, the Mindset Continuum.

      Would love to know your thoughts


      • Lynn May 13, 2020 at 12:24 pm

        Can you provide a link to your article/book?

        I disagree that the mindset is all learned but this is for discussion. If my fixed mindset is learnt, the it means:
        1. I want to learn it to begin with – otherwise why wouldn’t I learn something else?!
        2. And even if I learnt it subconsciously, it still means the origin of a fixed mindset is from an outer environment (family, teacher, friends etc.), therefore as long as I am in that environment, I cannot be immuned to it, and if that environment is so strong, or if there is no other environment around me (a growth mindset envionrment, for instance) then there is no hope in me — I can only learn to have a fixed mindset.

        Even if we say the mindset is learnt, then it still boils down to my personal choice “to learn it”. So what has been influencing my choice?

        • James May 14, 2020 at 2:41 pm

          Hi Lynn,

          thanks again for your comments.

          You can find my free ebook here I think it will answer many of your questions.

          The Authentic V’s Learned Growth Mindset blog is here.

          And the first chapter of The Agile Learner is available for download here.

          Let me know what you think about where you get your mindset from after reflecting on the above. The next powerful question to ask, is as teachers what do we do to ensure that students are developing a Growth Mindset in schools and classrooms?

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