What’s your mindset? Who’d want just one?

Sometimes I’m asked “James, what’s your mindset? And I’m inclined to reply “Which one? I’ve got lots of them”. But that’s only partly true.

In Carol Dweck’s research she often talks about a person’s mindset and it’s easy to be mislead into believing that people have just one. But that’s not true. The research only reads that way because it’s usually talking about a person’s mindset in a particular context. In different contexts we can have a completely different mindset.

Take a moment to reflect on your own mindset(s) in the domains of music, maths, language, parenting, relationships, business etc. You’re likely to find that in some of these domains you’ve got quite a strong growth oriented mindset; you’re prepared to take on challenges, respond to feedback, embrace mistakes as learning opportunity etc. In other domains you’re more likely to see those people who excel as being somehow different and you’re more likely to feel that applying effort in those areas probably isn’t going to pay off.

Why should people have different mindsets in different domains?

The short answer is that we have different mindsets in different domains because we have different sets of experiences in those domains. As I discuss in this blog (link to “You’re Not Born with a Mindset, you catch it) we catch our mindset from the sum total of the messages received and the experiences we have.

For example, if we are given lots of encouragement to play music, praised for our growth and effort, given opportunities and effective training that allows us to experience growth, then we’re likely to develop a high growth orientation towards music.

On the other hand if at the same time in the area of, say, maths, we are given tasks well outside our current capabilities that we tend to fail at. If we are not taught effective strategies to help us master new topics. If we are told that some people “just aren’t good at maths”. If we aren’t shown that even people who are “good at maths” once struggled with new topics. Then we are more likely to develop a lower growth oriented mindset.

Interestingly, my observation has been that many people tend to have a higher growth orientated mindset towards the areas they are good at – which is to say “Give me some credit for all the hard work I’ve done!” And a lower growth orientation in the areas they struggle with – which is another way of saying “You can’t blame me for not being able to do this, I’m not like that”. (I’d be excited if anyone wanted to take that idea up as a research project and test my observation!)

Ideally we’d like students to have a high growth orientation in all areas – to have what I might call a pervading growth mindset. But does it really matter if students or teachers, have a high growth orientation in some areas and a low growth orientation in others? I think it does matter – a lot.

A growth mindset reflects the reality that you are capable of growth in all those domains. That there’s nothing about who you are that stops you improving in any area in which you apply effort effectively. If we allow the misunderstanding that there are exceptions to that rule to creep in, that you are only capable of growth but only in some areas, we begin closing the door to future possibilities.

As parents and educators if we send the message to children that they are capable of growth … but just in some areas… which areas will they be? Is it most areas, or just a few? What opportunities are being lost when we lead children to believe they can only develop in some areas?

What happens if a child has their imagination captured by something or someone; an area that could become their passion and their contribution in life?

And what if they believe they can only be good at some things, and that this isn’t one of those areas? What if they believe they aren’t or can’t be smart enough, or talented enough, for pursuing their passion? What if they believe they “aren’t’ cut out” for their dreams?

How many of us have already experienced this? And as result we’ve limited ourselves. We have become an interested spectator where we might have been the champion?

A growth mindset is an invitation to grow, in each and every area of your life. It reflects the underlying reality that as humans we are not limited in our capacity to grow. So we must be careful to develop in our children a pervading growth mindset, lest we inadvertently withdraw that invitation from an area our children might want to pursue.

I do have multiple mindsets. I recognise that I am more strongly growth oriented in some areas than others. But I also believe I have a pervading growth mindset and as a parent and educator I think it’s essential to pass that message onto the children in my care so they may learn that they can grow in any area they choose.



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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