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.
How are these mindsets transmitted?
We’ve studied this in a number of ways but maybe the most interesting way is through praise. For 15 years, we have studied how adults praise affects students. We undertook this work at the height of the self-esteem movement when the Gurus were telling us all to praise our children’s ability, tell them how brilliant and talented they are.
But for 15 years we have found praising children’s intelligence harms them. It puts them into a fixed mindset and turns them off to challenging learning.
A few months ago, we published a study showing that mothers’ praise to their babies 1 to 3 years of age, predicted that child’s mindset and desire for challenge 5 years later. So remember praise process.
But it’s even more than that. It’s conveyed to children a new value system. Not about quick easy smart things but like this: sit around the dinner table and say who had a fabulous struggle today?
Recently, I have fallen in love with a new word ‘Yet.’. I heard of a high school in Chicago where when they didn’t master a unit, instead of a failing grade they got the grade ‘Not Yet’ and I thought, isn’t that great?
Because ‘not yet’ means, hey, you’re on that learning curve. You’re somewhere, not at the finish line but you’re somewhere on the learning curve. And so if a child says I’m not good at maths yet, it’s like get back on that learning curve.
When we saw that a growth mindset had so many benefits, we asked could we teach it. And we did.
So in one of our first studies, the control group which you see on the bottom got eight sessions of great study skills that teacher said were important that year. But the growth mindset group got eight sessions of study skills with the growth mindset.
The growth mindset sessions kicked off with this article: ‘You Can Grow Your Intelligence, New Research Shows the Brain Can Be Developed Like A Muscle.’ And they learned that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brains form new connections. And over time they could get smarter.
Look what happened: the students who just learn the study skills, these are seventh graders already showing declining grades in math, those just with the study skills continue to show declining grades. But those who learned the growth mindset with the skills showed a sharp rebound in their grades.
Is it ever too late?
We did a study in 13 high schools around the U.S. and we focused on the lowest achieving students, the lowest thirds. The ones that the schools give up on. And we sent them over the internet; they did two growth mindsets sessions. They learned about the brain, how it grows through learning and how they could put that into practice.
The control group just learned about the brain and about memory improvement but not the growth mindset.
Look what happened? After only three months the grade point average and that’s across every subject average was significantly higher in the growth mindset group than the control group. And look at this, the control group was passing fewer and fewer courses. But those in the growth mindset group were passing more and more courses.
We also, I should mention, did a study of kids from the top charter schools. About 90% of them in these top charter schools get into university but only 30% to 40% get through.
We taught the graduating high school students, half of them. We taught a growth mindset not just about their intelligence but about know-how. About making their way in the new university environment, which many kids from poorer backgrounds don’t know how to do.
We found that more than 20% more or about 20% more of the students in the growth mindset condition were still at university by the end of their first term, than those in the control condition. It’s a growth mindset for everyone.
Stephanie Freiburg, a professor in the U.S. went back to her Native American reservation where she grew up. And she started trying to transform the grade school, the elementary school, in terms of a growth mindset. It didn’t take it first. They didn’t really care about getting smarter. What’s that going to do for us?
But when she gave it a cultural framing, a cultural meaning saying and then you can really help your family and community, contribute to them better. It just took hold and took off.
The teachers and the parents were brought into the intervention. This elementary school was 90% minority and that school was in the bottom 5% of the state in achievement. After a year to a year and a half of growth mindset immersion in the community, the kindergarteners and first graders now lead the district in oral reading fluency.
And it’s actually quite an affluent surrounding district in the Seattle area. But the most exciting thing was the students were now believing and expressing the idea that their potential as native students is unlimited.
I want to end with some striking new findings by Leslie, Cimpian, & Meyer. They asked whether mindsets could shed light on gender and minority representation in academic disciplines.
So here’s the number of the proportion of women getting PhD across what we call STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and maths.