Why are we still talking Fixed vs Growth Mindsets in our Schools?

In her landmark book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck introduced the concept of Fixed and Growth Mindsets to the world. She highlighted the influence our Mindset has over our behaviour, and she gave dozens of examples of how students’ Fixed or Growth Mindset impacted their learning.

But we must remember that Dweck was introducing her ideas. She gave examples designed to highlight the importance a students Mindset has on their learning, and she made us sit up and take notice. But Mindsets don’t end with fixed and growth – there’s so much more depth and complexity behind Dweck’s ideas.

In the real world, there aren’t two types of people. We don’t live in a world where some students have a Fixed Mindset, and others have a Growth Mindset.

In reality, our differences are much more subtle and complex. Our Mindset doesn’t fall into one of two categories; rather, it falls along a continuum between the extremes of fixed and growth.

The Growth Mindset Continuum

Take a moment to reflect on the Mindset Continuum™ described above. Explore the subtleties and complexities of the changing behaviours as students move up and down the continuum. Does this depiction of Mindsets look more like what you experience in your school and classroom? How might learning outcomes improve if I could help you move your students one one column to the right?

Thinking of Mindsets as being either fixed or growth has helped us understand the importance of Dweck’s work. But it has also introduced some problems, which the Mindset Continuum helps us solve.

The Problem of the False Mindset

As social media jumped onto the Growth Mindset bandwagon, the Fixed Mindset was quickly stigmatised. Fixed and growth turned into fixed versus growth. The Fixed Mindset was bad; the Growth Mindset was good. And everyone was supposed to “have” a Growth Mindset.

This adversarial view of Mindsets gave rise to perhaps our biggest challenge to successfully implementing Growth Mindset strategies: the False Mindset.

A teacher with a False Mindset has recognised the benefits of the Growth Mindset but allowed the negative spin placed on the Fixed Mindset to push them into “adopting” a Growth Mindset. Rather than taking the time to understand the Mindset they’ve actually got, they latch onto some catchphrases and, with good intent, begin to advocate for a Growth Mindset.

But because they haven’t spent the time deeply examining their own beliefs, what they say and do can send much more fixed messages – which is particularly problematic if they are a leader in your school!

For example, I worry about the number of teachers that have adopted “Praise Effort” as a Growth Mindset strategy. But implemented it as “Praise struggling students” for effort. Dweck talks about exactly this issue in “How praise became the consolation prize”.

The Mindset Continuum addresses the False Mindset by helping us recognise that we don’t have a Fixed Mindset, and we don’t have a Growth Mindset, either. Recognising this opens growth opportunities. The continuum helps us more accurately assess our Mindset and understand that we are capable of becoming increasingly growth oriented.

Changing Mindsets is about Changing Beliefs

Our Mindset arises from some of our deepest-held beliefs about who we are. These beliefs have been developed over a lifetime, influenced by what I refer to as Mindset Movers. These Mindset Movers come from the often subtle messages about the nature of abilities that were told to us by our parents and teachers when we were young, and that have been reinforced by the media and other influences over our lifetime. We can’t replace these long-held beliefs in a moment by simply declaring that we have a Growth Mindset.

The behaviours associated with our Mindset (where we fall along the Mindset Continuum) are not conscious choices. A student with a Fixed Mindset doesn’t decide to feel threatened by challenges; they just find themselves taking the easy option. They don’t want their stomach to get tied in knots when they get things wrong; it just happens.

Similarly, for the student with a Growth Mindset, there’s no rational, well-considered decision to persist for long periods. It just makes sense to do so because they know that time is necessary to achieve growth. Likewise, seeking feedback from someone more skilled than you doesn’t make you feel less; it makes you grateful that you have the opportunity to learn from someone who can teach you.

These are all reactions driven by long-held beliefs. Beliefs that we’ve built throughout our lives, through the accumulation of hundreds of reinforcing messages. In the first set of instances above, these messages have created a relatively Fixed Mindset. In the second, a different set of messages have resulted in a Growth Mindset.

This helps us understand why the commonly seen “Change your words, change your Mindset” posters get the message exactly back-to-front. It’s not change your words, and your Mindset will change. It’s change your Mindset, and your words will change! 

Changing these beliefs takes time. It’s a slow, gradual process. As Dweck has stated: “A Growth Mindset is not a declaration, it’s a journey.” That journey takes place along the Mindset Continuum.

Recognising the journey of growth also helps us reset our expectations for changing other people’s Mindsets. Our success will not be measured by the number of people in our school who “have” a Growth Mindset. Instead, it will be measured by how far along the Mindset Continuum they have travelled.

How to Change Mindsets

Of course, the most pressing question for most schools is: How do we change someone’s Mindset? It turns out that changing Mindsets is much more complicated than we first thought.

Most strategies that have been widely adopted turn out not to have a significant impact on Mindsets – or any impact at all. They tend to focus on teaching ABOUT a Growth Mindset. They advocate the advantages of the Growth Mindset over the Fixed Mindset, and then tell people to have a Growth Mindset.

The strategies I advocate teach FOR a Growth Mindset. They involve surrounding people with the kind of Growth Mindset Movers that create the authentic Growth Mindset above. By creating a Growth Mindset Style Guide for your school, we generate many subtle and repeated nudges that slowly challenge and shift people’s beliefs.

The Mindset Continuum™ is an essential tool for understanding the subtlety and complexity of Carol Dweck’s work. It not only reflects the diversity of the Mindsets we see in the real world, but it also helps us understand how to avoid the common pitfalls of implementing ineffective Growth Mindset strategies in schools. Importantly, it helps us more effectively go about changing people’s Mindsets.

If you’d like to work together to help move the students (and teachers) in your school along the Mindset Continuum, simply reply to this email and tell me a little about your context. Alternatively, use this link to book a time in my calendar to discuss how I can support your work.

Best wishes,


James

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