Full text of Carol Dweck’s talk: How to Help Every Child Fulfil Their Potential.
We all come like this: infinitely curious, always experimenting, always learning and addressing the most difficult tasks of a lifetime with tremendous gusto.
You never see an unmotivated baby. No. And yet just a few years later you start seeing lots of kids who look as turned off as that baby. Not so different from the baby.
But what we have now discovered is that mindsets are at the heart of this kind of problem. Mindsets that make kids afraid to try and make them easily derailed by setbacks. But what’s important is that we are also discovering why this happens and what to do about it.
In my work we find that some students have a fixed mindset about their intellectual abilities and talents. They think intelligence is just a fixed trait; you have a certain amount and that’s that. This is the mindset that makes kids afraid to try. Because they’re afraid to look down.
But other students have a growth mindset. They believe that intelligence can be developed through their effort, dedication, learning, and mentorship from others. They don’t think everyone’s the same or that anyone can be Einstein. But they understand that even Einstein wasn’t the guy he became before he put in years and years of dedicated labor.
What I’m going to talk about today is how these mindsets work and how they can be changed.
How do they work? They work by creating a whole psychological world for students where everything has a different meaning. And I’d like to take you through those worlds now in terms of three mindset rules. So if you’re ready here we go.
I’m going to organize this by telling you about a study we did with hundreds of students making the transition to seventh grade. They’re about 13 years old; it’s an extremely difficult transition. The work gets substantially harder, the braiding gets more stringent, the environment becomes less personal.
And that’s a crucial time. It’s a time when many students turn off to school. And you start to see lots of declining grades.
So as they entered we measured their mindsets… that is we saw whether they believed intelligence was fixed or could be developed. We monitored their grades and math over the next two years.
We also measured a lot about their attitudes toward learning.
Now, look what happened? They had entered seventh grade with just about identical achievement test scores. But by the end of the first term, their grades jumped apart and continued to diverge over the next two years. The only thing that differed were their mindsets.
Now let’s see why and how this happened.
The first thing we found after the math grades was that they had completely different goals in school. The number one goal for kids in a fixed mindset is look smart at all times and at all costs. And above all, never look down. So their whole lives are oriented toward of waiting tasks that might show a deficiency.
But in a growth mindset, where they believed intelligence can be developed, their cardinal rule is learn at all times and at all costs. And you can see how a focus on learning would create greater achievement.
We found the same thing in pre-medical students at an elite University in the US. They cared about grades because they weren’t going to get through the pre-med curriculum without them. But those with the growth mindset said they cared even more about learning.
And our analyses showed that because of their emphasis on learning, they actually earned higher grades in their organic chemistry course. They studied more deeply and if they had a setback on their original exam or two, they did everything in their power to recover.
We’re finding the same thing in our research in Fortune 500 companies. Those employees who have a fixed mindset, say, they want to be the smart ones… they want to be the star of any team they’re on, they always want to be right there in that culture of genius.
But those with a growth mindset say they care first and foremost about learning even more than garnering the accolades.
The second mindset rule is about effort. In a fixed mindset effort is a bad thing. They believe if you have ability you shouldn’t need effort. And if you need a lot of effort, it’s a sign that you don’t have ability. They subscribe to Homer Simpson’s motto: trying is the first step towards failure.
I believe that belief that if you have ability you shouldn’t need effort is one of the worst beliefs that anyone can have.
I think it’s why so many of our promising students don’t fulfill their potential. They go coasting along not trying that hard, the other kids have to try. One day they have to try too and they can’t do it.
Whereas students in a growth mindset say effort is what activates their ability. It allows them to use it to the fullest and it increases their ability over time. They understand what psychological research is showing that even geniuses have to work super hard for their great discoveries. In fact, in many cases their hard work is what made them geniuses.
And rule number three: in a fixed mindset, a setback or deficiency measures you and reveals your limitations and fix ability.
So what we find is that those students in the fixed mindset try to hide their mistakes or run from their mistakes, conceal their deficiencies. But those in the growth mindset think mistakes, setbacks natural part of learning. It’s what happens when you take on challenges. So their view is capitalized on – mistakes confront your deficiencies.
Do you want to see how this works in the brain?
Let’s take a look. In this study by Jason Moser and his colleagues, they measured students — they measured the electrical potential from the part of the brain where errors are processed. These students worked on a task periodically made errors.
On the right you see the brain activity of growth mindset students. All that red hotness is telling you they detected the error, they processed it and they corrected it.
But look at that brain on the left; that’s the fixed mindset brain. You hardly see anything. As soon as there’s an error they run from it as quickly as possible. They’re not processing it, they’re not correcting it.
The good news is that when these students were taught a growth mindset, they started looking like the brain on the right. So it’s not an inherent property of a person’s brain. It’s whether you see errors as something you flee from or something that you learn from.