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 PDF.

 

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