A Review of Mindset – Carol Dweck
28th May 2014
This article was first published in Teach Primary Magazine and is republished here with their kind permission.
First published in 2006, Mindset has become one of the most influential books in modern day education. Drawing on her research from Stanford University and including many stories of high-achievers from the fields of art, sport, and education, Dweck argues, when it comes to our beliefs on successful learning, people fall into one of roughly two camps: those that believe in the primacy of innate talent and those that belief in the overriding importance of sustained practice. People from the first group she describes as having a ‘fixed-mindset’, those from the second a ‘growth-mindset’.
Fixed-mindset people are unwilling to take risks, often protective of their own image, and defensive about making mistakes. They are quick to make judgements about themselves and others, and take criticism badly. They believe talent and intelligence are things people are born with and are generally fixed and unchanging – if you are good at something then it is because your have an aptitude for it. There is not much point in trying to change things that can’t be changed, so don’t bother – They are impressed with those that achieve without apparent effort or application.
Growth-mindset people view mistakes as opportunities to learn. They welcome risk and are open to feedback, including constructive criticism. They don’t make judgements about themselves or others and believe everyone is in a process of change and development. They see talent as a starting point, not as a gift to be worshipped. They value hard work and application and don’t see intelligence as fixed and unchanging. Test scores and levels tell us only where people are and nothing about where they might go.
People with growth-mindsets, Dweck suggests, are more successful, more open to learning, and happier. They know failure can be painful, but it doesn’t have to define them. They see failure as a problem to be faced, dealt with and learned from: “you aren’t a failure until you start to blame. You can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.”
She concedes some people have more resources and opportunities than others – particularly those people with money – and these assets can have a huge influence over their chances of success. But, she maintains, for growth-mindset people, success is not measured by money or fame, but by the satisfaction of “doing something because the effort was worth while.” This is what it is to be a happy and effective human being, someone in control of their life, in control of their relationships with others, and focused on self-improvement.
This is why the idea of mindsets is so influential in the sphere of education. If children can be taught to develop a growth-mindset, in contrast to a fixed-mindset, then they can not only be more successful academically, but for the rest of their lives.
But there are problems. One is in the way the system is based on judging children every step of their way through education. Tests, levels, sets, and so on communicate to children that they are being judged, organized, and taught based on how clever they are. This has a profound effect on their own belief systems and sense of self, developing a tendency towards a fixed-mindset even from a very young age: “children from as young as five can believe their intelligence can be set now and forever, by a test or by an expert and by being set in an ability group.” By the time they reach high school: “many adolescents mobilise their resources, not for learning, but to protect their egos. They view the adults as saying: ‘Now we will measure you and see what you’ve got.’ And they are answering: ‘No you won’t”.
This is further exacerbated by our tendency to label and set children apart as either, ‘Special Needs’ or ‘Gifted and Talented’. At both ends of this spectrum children come to believe their intelligence and talents are fixed, and their futures predestined, creating and reinforcing the fixed-mindset, with all its problems and limitations.
Dweck concludes that we need to teach our children that what is important is their potential: not were they are now, but where they might get to with hard work, support, and dedication. A child might have an aptitude for a subject, sport, or art, but they will still need to work hard to improve. They might be struggling now to grasp something new or develop something different, but one day they will get there.
“Most often when kids are behind they’re given dumbed down material on the assumption they can’t handle more, but the results are depressing. Students who repeat the whole grade don’t learn anymore than they knew before.” Dweck maintains we must not assume children are dumb because they can’t do something (yet) and we shouldn’t dumb down the curriculum to make it easier for them. On the contrary, we must challenge them, expand their horizons, and provide them with a curriculum that is rich in content and possibilities. Of course simply raising standards, without giving students the means of reaching them, is a recipe for disaster. It just pushes the poorly prepared or poorly motivated students into failure and out of school. But, with support, care, and understanding we can set high standards and help children to reach them.
Mindset is a convincing and accessible book with a powerful central message for all in education: “we must teach our students to love learning and to learn and think for themselves.” I would class it as an essential read.