Carol Dweck is the principle figure behind mindset theory and in my opinion is one of the giants in the science of learning. To understand where Dweck is coming from, we need to go back decades. In the early 1980’s Dweck started looking into the perplexing question of why females consistently score lower than males (in the aggregate, not necessarily individually) in math. There is no genetic or biological reason for this. When it comes to the brain wiring, there is simply no differences to account for why males consistently outperform females in math. In looking at the problem, Dweck formulated the concept of mindset, which she then extended (through research) to a variety of observable phenomenon.
I’ll explain mindsets in terms of intelligence (whatever that might be) because it is easier to understand that way. Then I’ll come back to the math problem. People can be roughly divided into two groups when it comes to their understanding of how intelligence works. They believe that either intelligence is determined by genetics, or intelligence is determined by our environment. Actually, both are true, but mindset theory is not determined by the actual state of the world, but by what a person believes. What Dweck found, is (in my humble opinion) one of those critically important principles that explains much of what motivates us and how we react to the world.
If a person believes that intelligence is determined by genetics, then that means that you are born with a certain intellectual capacity. The amount of intelligence that you have is determined by your genetic endowment. If you are born with a small genetic endowment for intelligence, then you will never be able to learn very well. That’s what your DNA inheritance dealt you, and that’s all you have got. As a result, when you hit the wall, in terms of what you can learn, you hit the wall. There is no need to keep batting your head against the wall, because, if you haven’t got it, you can’t get it. Your genetic make-up is the limiting factor in learning. You know that, and so you move on to something that you can do. The majority of people in the world believe that intelligence is inherited, or at least that genetics has the greatest influence on intelligence.
However, if you believe that intelligence is largely determined by your environment, then you approach learning with a different mindset. If you believe that your intelligence can change with effort, or that if you try, you can figure out pretty well anything, then you’ll try. Depending on how much you want the solution, you will work and work until you figure out how to solve the problem.
Notice, I didn’t say anything about what the real ability is of either kind of person - the one who believes intelligence is determined by your genes or the one who believes that intelligence is determined by your environment. Your mindset is based entirely on what you believe. Dweck calls the two types of mindset either a fixed or growth mindset. Either people believe their ability is fixed, or they believe that their ability is a result of their effort. Reality doesn’t matter here, it is what the person believes.
An example I use with my students to illustrate a fixed mindset might be useful here. If you have a bull that believes that butting his head against the concrete wall in a certain place will allow him to escape (you have to assume here that he wants to escape - which most bulls do), he will butt his head against the wall incessantly so he can get out. It doesn’t matter that he will never succeed, what matters is what he believes.
The mindset principle has been found in a multitude of observable behaviors. Athletes and their belief in talent or hard work. Singers and their belief in an X factor or hard work. Girls and their belief in math ability or hard work. The list goes on and on.
The cruncher, as far as education goes, is where these beliefs come from. Here is an extreme interpretation of what Dweck found. For at least a century now, there has been a belief in teachers (again no evidence) that boys are better at mathematics than girls are. When girls math performance is lower than boys, it is customary to attribute this to the fact that they are girls. Everybody knows this including the girls. They know they can’t do maths, and, as a result, don’t try (they can’t do it, even if they try – because they are girls). The power of a mindset.
This also works when your child believes that they are good at math (or talented at sports, intelligent, or can sing etc.). Illustrated wonderfully by Dweck’s Self-Theories: The Mindset of a Champion article about the baseball player, Billy Beane. Beane was a natural with enough talent to become one of Baseball’s greats. He easily made the major league, but then everything fell apart on him. As a natural, his baseball ability was something that he just had. When you believe that, what is the use of practice, or learning from mistakes – naturals don’t make mistakes. They just know how to do it. However, when Beane entered the majors, he was playing against some of the best players in the world, and his natural ability wasn’t up to it. Instead of working harder, and improving his ability that way, Beane’s mindset meant that he had reached the limit of his talent. His ability was innate, and so, when he hit the wall, there was nothing more he could do about it. You can’t increase something that you were born with. All you can do is take as much advantage of what you have as you can.
Just like Billy Beane and his baseball brilliance, telling someone that they are clever or smart or intelligent provides them with a fixed mindset. As a result, when they come up against a problem that they can’t deal with, that must be the limit of the intelligence that they have, and they stop trying. It has nothing to do with reality, only what they believe about themselves; their mindset.
I know that education has moved on from the days that children were regularly told how stupid they are (I hope, anyway). I would hope that there aren’t very many teachers out there who tell girls that they can’t do math (I know that is not true). However, we all know adults who have grown up believing that they are stupid (because their teacher told them they were). For many years I have taught statistics in university and have had to deal with large numbers of females who had been told that they couldn’t do math. This is difficult to overcome and is sad considering that it is simply not true.
The point I’m making is that educators love to label people. And people believe the labels. When your father/sister/grandmother/nephew was told by their teacher that they were stupid, that label became a part of what they are. They believed the label, and the principle of mindsets meant that they stopped trying because they believed that they were truly stupid. People become their labels. In the modern educational world, there is no room for labeling, or is there?
In education, it is good to cater to various learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, tactile, left foot) and to vary the presentation of material to make lessons align with a learners learning style. There is no evidence (other than anecdotal evidence) that there is such a thing as a learning style that helps people learn, with a mountain of evidence telling us that a learning style is a myth. However, over 95% of teachers at all levels believe in learning styles, and over 90% of the students know what their learning style is as a result of having taken a test to measure it. In other words, virtually all students had been labeled as one style or another.
Teachers in today's world label children with a learning style – making people believe that their learning style is what they are. They are a visual /auditory /reading /kinaesthetic /olfactory learner. Mindset theory, for which the evidence is rock solid, tells us that if I believe that I am a visual learner, then I won’t listen to instructions because I learn visually and not auditorily.
Learning styles are pretty well ubiquitous in education today and have been for 30+ years. What started out as a classroom management technique has become a firm theory of learning, with no scientific evidence whatsoever, to support it, and solid evidence that it damages learning opportunities. It destroys learner’s motivation for learning because people believe the labels that they are given.
This is only one example of how labeling in schools can be damaging. There is a whole profession that has grown up around making children label-able (not my term) in order to draw down additional funding from government bodies. We are destroying the potential of learners with an ignorance of mindset theory, and when I talk to teachers, they tune out – because they already know as much as they need to know about how to teach. What they don’t know is how their students learn, and what they don’t know is destroying our learners.
Changing mindsets isn’t that problematic. If you deal with young children, just don’t label. Instead of telling them how clever/stupid/good/bad/talented/clumsy they are, talk to them about how well they have done in terms of effort and work. Instead of saying how brilliant they are, praise the work that they must have done in order to accomplish whatever they have done. Keep them focused on their work and effort. This instills a growth mindset. The more you work at something, the better that something can become.
If you deal with adolescents or young adults, talk to them about what a mindset is, and talk to them about how you can change a mindset from a state of being to a state of continuous improvement through work and effort. Whatever they are doing, they can improve on it by incorporating feedback and learning from mistakes that they make. It isn’t rocket science, it is learning, and we are born to learn.
A state of being, as far as a mindset is concerned, is something that you believe that you are. Anything that can be used to define you can create a mindset that can create limitations on your potential. Grades can create a state of being – I am a C grade student. Anything that makes a person believe a process is finished and therefore defines what they are, creates or reinforces a mindset.
Mistakes (in education) are another thing that can reinforce a negative mindset. In formal education, you are defined (graded) by the number of mistakes you make – the more mistakes, the lower your grade. In life, mistakes are one of the most powerful learning catalysts that exist. A huge amount of my learning has arisen through the mistakes that I have made (needless to say – I have learned a lot). This is the same for virtually every normally functioning human being (I might be a bit extreme), and yet in formal education, mistakes are intolerable. This is part of education's medieval clerical training heritage – if you are copying manuscripts, you can’t have mistakes.
I think mindset is a core principle and is key to understanding what motivates people to learn – and illustrates how such a simple and core principle is so often ignored when you focus on teaching and not learning. Believing that you can succeed is one of the critical components for academic motivation and we need to do all that we can to instill that belief in our learners.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.