Four Pathways to a Fixed Mindset

There is a common assumption that someone with a Fixed Mindset is a low achiever, and someone with a Growth Mindset is a high achiever. This is simply not true.

As I mentioned last week, in the first chapter of her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck gives many examples of very high achievers with a Fixed Mindset. You don’t need a Growth Mindset to be a high achiever, but it helps.

It is entirely possible to develop a fixed view of your abilities with and without achieving growth.

As educators interested in developing a Growth Mindset in students, we need first to understand these four pathways to a Fixed Mindset, then develop measures to counter them.

4 pathways to a fixed mindset

A Fixed Mindset – Without Growth

1. Powerful Messages Can Change Beliefs – “I’m Not”

Sometimes, students develop a learned Fixed Mindset through the powerful messages they receive from the adults and community around them.

I describe these as “you’re not” messages.

These messages categorise people into different “types”. If you’re not one of those types, then you can’t be expected to do or be those things.  For example, if “you’re not” “mathematical”, “creative” or “smart”, you can’t expect to do maths, be creative or achieve at high levels.

These messages directly affect your beliefs about your abilities. If you’re led to believe you don’t have the abilities in the first place, then you don’t engage in the sorts of actions that would create those abilities. Another self-fulfilling prophecy.

2. Ineffective Actions Stop Growth – “I Can’t”

 In The Agile Learner, I describe how some students develop an authentic Fixed Mindset by learning that they don’t grow. This is the “I can’t” problem.

These students try to achieve growth but engage in the wrongs sorts of actions. They fail to develop the Habits of Mind required and/or they fail to engage in Virtuous Practice. As a result, their efforts, although they might be significant, fail to result in any real growth.

Subsequently, the growth of these students slows and eventually stops as they reach a Performance Plateau.

In the face of their lived experience of failing to achieve growth, despite significant (but ineffective) effort, these students develop a personal truth “I can’t”. Rather than trying new, more effective actions, they believe they can’t grow. We recognise this as a Fixed Mindset.

A Fixed Mindset – With Growth 

3. Moving Measuring Sticks Obscure Growth – “I Don’t” 

Of course, achieving growth is not the same as experiencing it. Unfortunately, many students go through school without ever recognising much of their growth.

For example, how many students describe themselves as a grade? These students grow and improve each year, but each year, they get the same grades. They fail to recognise their growth because schools use the same name to describe different standards!

Consequently, some students learn to associate the grade with who they are, not where they are. They become “the B student”. They fail to recognise that there has been growth, that this year’s “B” is better than last year’s “B”.

The student comes to perceive “I don’t” grow.

Dewy recognised that “we do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on our experience”. If students are never encouraged to reflect on their growth, to recognise that their standards are improving, they fail to perceive it. The net effect is similar to never achieving growth in the first place – a negative Mindset Mover that leads to a more Fixed Mindset.

4. Misattribution – “I Am” 

Sometimes students achieve and experience growth, but still end up with a Fixed Mindset.

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine how someone might achieve and experience growth, yet still develop fixed views of their abilities. After all, if you can see you’re better today than you were yesterday, shouldn’t that evidence naturally lead to a Growth Mindset?

The problem is that instead of recognising their efforts are creating new abilities, the student believes they are discovering something they already had inside themselves.

In this case, the student misattributes their growth to who they are, rather than what they do. They fall victim to the “I am” problem.

For example, the student may work hard and succeed at something difficult. They then credit their success to “being” smart. Dweck uses many examples of high achievers with a Fixed Mindset, most of whom have fallen victim to the “I am” misattribution problem.

When someone attributes their success to who they are, they experience the sensation of discovering their abilities, rather than creating their abilities. They believe they “already had it in them”, so of course they succeeded.

How Style Guides Help 

One of the best ways to ensure students do not develop a Fixed Mindset is to minimise the number of times they are exposed to the “I’m not”, “I can’t”, “I don’t” and “I am” messages.

Of course, schools and teachers don’t intentionally create these messages. Rather, they are the result of our unconscious bias and past experiences, and creep into our practice unintentionally (see my personality test blog).

A Growth Mindset Style Guide is a set of principles that gently nudges schools towards creating more growth-oriented messages. It doesn’t add to your workload or create new practices – it simply helps shape existing practice in a growth-oriented way.

Join me at one of my upcoming workshops to learn how to create your own style guide and start developing authentic Growth Mindsets in your school today!


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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