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Fixed and growth mindsets

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

There’s a fascinating distinction in education between the fixed and growth mindsets. This was proposed by Carol Dweck in her influential bestseller, Mindset. It’s well worth a read in full, but I’ll give you the summary here.

The fixed mindset is the bad one. It’s the idea that intelligence and skill are static and innate, something you’ve either got or you haven’t. This might not be a conscious thought you’ve ever voiced out loud, but could still be part of your beliefs. It doesn’t seem crazy, since nature and nurture interact to form who we are, and the nature part of that may have put limits on certain skills, including intelligence. However, the pernicious effects of the fixed mindset are many and varied:

  1. Since skill is innate, if you don’t have it, then there’s no point trying harder, because you won’t change that fact

  2. Since skill is innate, if you do have it, then there’s no point trying either. Awards and accolades should come your way simply for showing up

  3. A bad test result, or not winning a competition, is evidence that you don’t have that skill, and shouldn’t bother any more

  4. Any test holds the risk that it’ll show you don’t have that skill and might therefore be feared and avoided

  5. The harder the test, the more likely it is to show that you don’t have that skill. Those are the scariest, and to be avoided most

As you see, the plausible idea that intelligence is innate has catastrophic implications for effort and motivation. If intelligence is fixed, that’s a reason not to put in more effort, and to expect plaudits regardless of actual achievement. Worse, it encourages people to avoid tests and competitions for fear of challenging a comfortable self-belief. Bad results are a disaster, suggesting you don’t have that skill at all and should give up.

Now compare those same situations viewed from the perspective of the growth mindset. This is the idea that skill and intelligence come primarily from practice. They’re flexible, changeable and within our power to improve. Like exercising a muscle, the more effort you put in, the more you’ll get out.

  1. Since skill can be improved, if you don’t have it, then you’d better practise more

  2. Since skill can be improved, if you do have it, then practising will make you even better, and you need to try hard to earn any accolades

  3. A bad test result, or not winning a competition, is valuable feedback about how to improve

  4. Any test is a learning opportunity to practise more and identify weaknesses

  5. The harder the test, the better the learning opportunity and the more you might get out of it

Those same situations, viewed with the growth mindset, now look very different. Whatever your skill level, more effort is worthwhile. A bad test result is exactly what you need to learn from. Far from being a depressing reason to quit, it now shows what to practise in order to improve. You should seek out tests because that’s how you learn, and the more challenging the test, the more you’ll learn. Suddenly, with this new mindset, effort makes perfect sense, and you should seek out challenges, the harder, the better.

However, Dweck is patently wrong on one level. The older of my sisters, for instance, has a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome. Due to an error on chromosome fifteen she suffers from a range of life-long symptoms including learning difficulties. She managed to go through the normal school system and took the normal exams, although did not receive high marks. For a measurable, physical reason, the limit on her ability is absolutely innate, and pretending otherwise is never going to help her learn more.

Dweck’s book is a sales pitch rather than an academic text, trying to convince readers rather than examine all the evidence. That’s a shame, as it would have been more convincing if she had considered counter-examples and the reasons they were incorrect. As it is, she mentions learning difficulties only in passing. She approvingly quotes educational researcher Benjamin Bloom: “’What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with appropriate prior and current conditions for learning.’” (Emphasis in the original.) Dweck explains that: “He’s not counting the 2 to 3 per cent of children who have severe impairments.” (Mindset, p. 66.) While the growth mindset may be suitable for the vast majority, it is not correct for everyone.

The difference may be limiting factors. The limiting factor on what someone will learn will either be their innate ability or the teaching they receive. Dweck proposes, in effect, that for all but the lowest achievers it is teaching, not ability, that limits them. For almost everyone, more teaching will lead to more achievement. The limits of Dweck’s theory need to be tested empirically, with carefully controlled experiments to see if that proposal is right.

On the flip side, the fixed mindset is fatalistic. It gives you a reason to avoid practice and testing. Not training will definitely impair your progress, so it’s safe to say that, at the very least, the growth mindset is a useful fiction.

Dweck’s book Mindset is one of a raft of pop psychology books arguing the same broad point – that practice rather than talent determines your eventual achievement. See Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, Bounce by Matthew Syed and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle for similar perspectives. They vary in the amount of natural talent they claim is required to achieve true greatness, but they agree that you need the opportunity for massive amounts of training. That may be playing table-tennis daily by having a table at home (as described by table-tennis champion Matthew Syed in Bounce), or the chance to play hundreds of gigs in Hamburg (like The Beatles, as described in Outliers) but each tell the story that, with sufficient coordinated effort, almost anyone can be a high achiever and the lucky few, in the right place at the right time, can be truly great.

The growth mindset is clearly the one to promote, so this section describes how to do that with your kids. For instance, my son and I have had the same exchange countless times, and I always give the same growth-mindset response.

D: How did you get so good at that?

Me: Practice

See also

No, they're not 'good at maths'

It's never easy

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