What is growth mindset and how does it work?

by 19 Nov, 2018

Growth mindset is rapidly growing in popularity in schools and other places of education. It is something I have looked at in depth and I believe has a huge part to play in helping children (and all of us) in learning. But I also think there is a danger of not getting the most out of this for our children if it is misused or misunderstood. Growth mindset has often been reduced to a motivational poster or a token gesture in an educational environment dominated by practices and language that actually promote the opposite of a growth mindset.

In this three-part series we will look at the basics of what growth mindset is, the impact a culture focused on measurable targets, competition and accountability has on mindset and practical ways to use growth mindset in children’s learning.


What is growth mindset and how does it work?

The theory of mindsets is a way of thinking about ability. It was first put forward by Carol Dweck, a professor of Psychology at Stanford University in California. Dweck’s insight is that people generally fall into one of two ways of viewing ability and intelligence: fixed or growth.

A fixed mindset views ability as something that is fixed. You either have the ability or you don’t. Learning situations show if you have an aptitude or inherent capability for a subject. If something is easy to achieve it means you are good at it. If something is a challenge or you fail at it then it is something you don’t really have the ability to do.

A growth mindset views ability as something that can grow. The brain is a muscle we can develop. If something is a challenge then it is an opportunity to get better at it or to learn something new. Growth mindset sees failures as chances to learn and get better, rather than showing a fixed lack of ability.

Dweck talks about praising the process rather than the person to help develop a growth mindset. This is not about saying that putting in lots of effort is always a good end in itself, or that if you work hard you can do anything you like (although trying hard is important and means you can achieve more). Rather, it is looking at why something went well and was successful or why it wasn’t. Which parts of the process we should repeat next time and which we might need to change.

To praise the process rather than the person it is important to avoid using well-meaning phrases to comfort a child when they fail. Phrases such as, ‘it’s ok you can’t be good at everything’ or ‘that’s just not your thing don’t worry about it’. Although we mean well – and I have said these things plenty of times myself – it actually tells the child that their failure shows a lack of some innate ability and there is little chance of them ever being able to do that thing.

Similarly, praising children when they succeed using phrases such as, ‘you did it – you’re so clever!’ also fosters a fixed mindset. It sends the message that if in another situation they can’t do it that means they aren’t clever after all. The child will likely live in fear of failing and will be more reluctant to take on challenges in case that proves they lack ability. Being aware of this in how and why we give out praise and rewards will enable us to help our learners develop healthy attitudes towards learning and towards themselves as learners.

I have seen first hand the real difference an awareness of mindset, and working hard to change a child’s mindset from fixed to growth, has had. A concrete example was when a child was trying to master a skill at swimming and the coach was telling him what he had done well and what he needed to change to get better. It was great coaching and very encouraging but the child came out upset and angry with himself saying he couldn’t do it and was rubbish.

I explained how the coach was saying all the things he’d got right and was helping him by saying how he could get even better. I said it wouldn’t be much use to have a coach who just said, ‘yeah that’s great you’ve done it perfect’. It wouldn’t help him get better. Plus, the coach saying what he could do better means she believes he can do those things.

He was still upset.

I tried a football analogy. I asked if he thought Ronaldo (the best free-kick taker in the world in his opinion) wants a coach who says to him, ‘you’re so amazing at free kicks,’ or one who tells him how to do it better because he believes he can get even better? His response was that Ronaldo would want a coach to say he’s amazing because that means he’s good at free kicks, and if he says what he can do better that means he’s rubbish.

It was such an interesting insight into his mindset and made sense of why he struggles with confidence in learning even when he’s doing really well. It is a long journey to help him change his mindset, but it is changing and he is becoming more able to take on challenges without falling into despair when he can’t do something perfectly straight away.

Growth mindset shouldn’t be used as a way to try and make children feel better about not being able to do something. It shouldn’t be treated like a magic wand to fix everything, nor scoffed at as a fluffy cotton wool wrap in place of challenging learners. When used to help our understanding of how people learn and how they respond to failure and success, growth mindset has the potential to help learners of all ages and abilities to take on tougher challenges, learn from their failures and thrive in their learning.

In the next post we will look at the impact the culture in education (as well as wider culture) has on trying to foster a growth mindset.


Take a look at these links to read more about growth mindset:

A YouTube clip of Carol Dweck talking about mindset theory:



Dweck’s website on mindset:



Some articles on Dweck’s concerns with how the now popularised growth mindset is potentially misused or misunderstood:




This article is an interesting critique of growth mindset and includes Dweck’s concerns about how it is being used. I will look at this article more when contemplating what impact the culture of competition, measured standards and data has on learning mindset.



Rachel Valler is the Founder of Wild Literacy.

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