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.
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.
And you can see how it declines as you get from biology to math, engineering, computer science and physics. What they did was a National Survey of scholars in those disciplines, to find out from professors and graduate students: what brings success in your discipline? Did they believe being a top scholar or let’s say in math requires a special aptitude that just can’t be taught or did they believe when it comes to math the most important factors for success are motivation and sustained effort. Raw ability is secondary.
The more a discipline believed in a fixed mindset that it was sheer brainpower that could not be taught, the fewer women and minorities were in that discipline.
Conversely, the more they upheld a growth mindset, the more there were women and minorities in the discipline. Apparently, women do not see this culture of genius as hospitable or amenable to them.
So in summary, growth mindset and growth mindset environments allow students to embrace learning and growth instead of worrying all the time, will they look clever or not?
It allows them to understand that effort creates talent rather than believing if you have talent, you shouldn’t need effort. And it allows them to stay resilient in the face of setbacks instead of running from errors, and best of all, it can be taught.
Dr. Jonathan Rowson: In terms of teaching you say it can be taught.
Carol Dweck: Absolutely.
Dr. Jonathan Rowson: But the way you present there, it sounded like you were teaching at the level of kind of information, to sort of know that of growth and fixed. And to what extent does this sort of get under the skin and become dispositional and how does that come about?
Carol Dweck: Well, we have students do exercises as they’re receiving the information. For example, they summarize the evidence for growth mindset in their own words. Or they write a letter to a struggling student or friend of theirs, encouraging them in terms of a growth mindset. So we really create this personal engagement as they are receiving the material.
Dr. Jonathan Rowson: I guess the only thing with that is I mean if the children become informed of these two different ways of being, even with all the providers that you mentioned, is there a danger, that sometimes when you say, very well tried, did effort praising the process that the child thinks you’re only saying that because you think I’m not very smart.
Carol Dweck: You have to praise the process within a growth mindset, because if you’re just exhorting someone to try and they have that negative view of effort it won’t be effective. And if they try and then don’t succeed, they’ll feel even worse. You’ve got to have that growth mindset framework.
Resources for Further Reading: