It is well known that telling a kid she is smart is wading into seriously dangerous territory. There is a lot of research indicating that children who are praised for being smart tend to be fixated on performing well rather than trying their best, and in turn shy away from risk taking in order to avoid potential failure. On the other hand, children who are praised for the effort they put in will tend to try harder and persist with a task for longer in comparison to children who are praised for being smart. Children praised for effort have a mindset characterised by resilience and a thirst for mastery, however, the children praised as smart instead have a “fixed mindset” and believe that intelligence is innate and therefore not malleable.
But now, Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor of psychology who spent 40 years researching, introducing and explaining the growth mindset, is calling a big timeout. It seems the growth mindset has run amok. Kids are being offered empty praise for just trying. Effort itself has become praise-worthy without the goal it was meant to unleash: learning. Parents tell her that they have a growth mindset, but then they react with anxiety or false affect to a child’s struggle or setback. ‘They need a learning reaction – ‘what did you do?’, ‘what can we do next?’ Dweck says.
Teachers say they have a ‘growth mindset’ because not to have one would be silly. But then they fail to teach in such a way that kids can actually develop growth mindset muscles. It was never just effort in the abstract,” Dweck explains. “Some educators are using it as a consolation play, saying things like ‘I tell all my kids to try hard’ or ‘you can do anything if you try’. That’s nagging, not a growth mindset,” she says.
In order to adopt a growth mindset, the key is to teach children that their brains are like muscles, which they can strengthen by working hard and persisting with tasks. Therefore, instead of teaching the child that not everybody is a good at maths and they should just do their best, educators need to say to children that when we learn how to do a new math problem, our brains are actually growing making us smarter. Encouraging the child to understand that maths may not be their strength yet, however with enough practice it can be, is the direction that parents and educator should be choosing.
Dweck’s mindset research is particularly fascinating as it shows that intelligence is malleable. Furthermore, any individual has the ability to change their mindset if encouraged in the right way, as it is not set in stone or outside of our control.
I was very invested in being smart and thought to be smart was more important than accomplishing anything in life, she says. But her research made her realize she could take some risks and push herself to reach her potential, or she could spend all her time trying to look smart.
Dweck’s research has shown that growth mindsets in adults do not necessarily get passed on innately to their children or students as we would assume. Interestingly, those with growth mindsets can also be transported by a trigger to a fixed-mindset mode. One example is the effect of criticism, which can make someone with a growth mindset defensive and shut down how the person approaches learning. The result indicates that all individuals have in some ways both mindsets, and we must work to encourage a better mindset.
Dweck is also interested in uncovering just how early a fixed and growth mindset formed. are conducting a longitudinal study at the University of Chicago monitoring how mothers praised their babies at yearly intervals between 1 and 3 years old, then again 5 years . These studies have so far shown positive results.
In a follow-up, the kids who had more early process praise—relative to person praise—sought more challenges and did better in school. The more they had a growth mindset in 2nd grade, the better they did in 4th grade, and the relationship was significant, Dweck wrote in an email. It’s powerful.