In her landmark book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), Carol Dweck introduced the concept of Fixed and Growth Mindsets to the world. Since then, schools around the globe have raced to try and implement her ideas. Classroom walls have been adorned with posters and classrooms filled with “not yet”.
But in this rush, have we missed something important?
Dweck was introducing her ideas; she gave examples highlighting the importance a student’s Mindset has on their learning; she made us sit up and take notice. But Mindsets don’t end with fixed and growth – there’s so much more depth and complexity behind Dweck’s ideas.
In the real world, there aren’t two types of people. Our differences are much more subtle and complex. Our Mindset doesn’t fall into one of two categories; rather, it falls along a continuum between the extremes of fixed and growth.
Take a moment to reflect on the Mindset Continuum™ shown in the diagram. I invite you to explore the subtleties and complexities of the changing behaviours as students move up and down the continuum. Does this look more like what you experience in your school and classroom? How might learning outcomes improve if your students could move just one column to the right?
The Problem of the False Mindset
As social media jumped onto the Growth Mindset bandwagon, the Fixed Mindset was quickly stigmatised. Fixed and growth turned into fixed versus growth. The Fixed Mindset was bad; the Growth Mindset was good. And everyone was supposed to “have” a Growth Mindset. This adversarial view of Mindsets gave rise to perhaps our biggest challenge to successfully implementing Growth Mindset strategies: the False Mindset.
A teacher with a ‘False Mindset’ is one who has recognised the benefits of the Growth Mindset, but has allowed the negative spin placed on the Fixed Mindset to force them into “adopting” a Growth Mindset. Rather than taking the time to understand the Mindset they’ve actually got, they latch onto some catchphrases and, with good intent, begin to advocate for a Growth Mindset. Because they haven’t spent the time deeply examining their own beliefs, what they say and do can send much more fixed messages – particularly problematic if they are a leader in your school!
For example, I worry about the number of teachers that have adopted “Praise Effort” as a Growth Mindset strategy. But implemented it as “Praise struggling students” for effort. Dweck talks about exactly this issue in “How praise became the consolation prize”.
The Mindset Continuum addresses the False Mindset by helping us recognise that we don’t have a Fixed Mindset, and we don’t have a Growth Mindset, either. Recognising this opens growth opportunities. The Continuum helps us more accurately assess our own approach and understand that we are capable of becoming increasingly growth-oriented.
Changing Mindsets is about Changing Beliefs
Our Mindset arises from some of our deepest-held beliefs about who we are. These beliefs have been developed over a lifetime, influenced by what I refer to as Mindset Movers. These Mindset Movers come from the subtle messages about our abilities our parents and teachers instilled in us when we were young, and that are reinforced by the media and other influences over our lifetime. We can’t replace these long-held beliefs in a moment by simply declaring that we have a Growth Mindset.
The behaviours associated with our Mindset (where we fall along the Mindset Continuum) are not conscious choices. A student with a Fixed Mindset doesn’t decide to feel threatened by challenges; they just find themselves taking the easy option. They don’t want their stomach to get tied in knots when they get things wrong; it just happens.
Similarly, for the student with a Growth Mindset, there’s no rational, well-considered decision to persist for long periods. It just makes sense to do so because they know that time is necessary to achieve growth. Likewise, seeking feedback from someone more skilled than you, doesn’t make you feel less; it makes you grateful that you have the opportunity to learn from someone who can teach you.
This helps us understand why the commonly seen “Change your words, change your Mindset” posters get the message exactly back-to-front. It’s not change your words, and your Mindset will change. It’s change your Mindset, and your words will change! See here for more.
Changing these beliefs takes time. It’s a slow, gradual process. As Dweck has stated: “A Growth Mindset is not a declaration, it’s a journey.” That journey takes place along the Mindset Continuum.
Recognising the journey of growth also helps us reset our expectations for changing other people’s Mindsets. Our success will not be measured by the number of people in our school who “have” a Growth Mindset. Instead, it will be measured by how far along the Mindset Continuum they have travelled.
How to Change Mindsets
Of course, the most pressing question for most schools is: How do we change someone’s Mindset? It turns out that changing Mindsets is much more complicated than we first thought.
Most strategies that have been widely adopted turn out not to have a significant impact on Mindsets – or any impact at all. They tend to focus on teaching ABOUT a Growth Mindset. They advocate the advantages of the Growth Mindset over the Fixed Mindset, and then tell people to have a Growth Mindset
The strategies I advocate teach FOR a Growth Mindset. They involve surrounding people with the kind of Growth Mindset Movers that create the authentic Growth Mindset above. By creating a Growth Mindset Style Guide for your school, we generate many subtle and repeated nudges that slowly challenge and shift people’s beliefs.
The Mindset Continuum™ is an essential tool for understanding the subtlety and complexity of Carol Dweck’s work. It not only reflects the diversity of the Mindsets we see in the real world, but it also helps us understand how to avoid the common pitfalls of implementing ineffective Growth Mindset strategies in schools. Importantly, it helps us change people’s Mindsets more effectively.
If you’d like to find out more about how to apply the Mindset Continuum and avoid many of the common pitfalls to successfully implementing Growth Mindsets, you can download James’ free ebook The Mindset Continuum: How to implement Growth Mindset and increase Learner Agency ( https://www.jamesanderson.com.au/mindset-continuum).