“You’re really clever!”
“You’re so talented.”
“I wish I was as clever as you.”
Susan had always done really well at school, particularly academically. Her teachers and parents recognised this, regularly told her how great she was and would praise her to other people in her presence. Susan loved the attention and was really proud of what she was achieving.
The problems started when Susan started to find things challenging. She moved to secondary school, or to a new teacher, and what used to be easy was now tough. This really hit her confidence, she now thought she wasn’t successful academically and switched off.
When children (and adults) have part of their self-image built on success, they dislike situations that call that into question. They will often avoid challenge or not admit when they need help. Those are two of the most important things that any of us need to learn deeply and widely.
Susan has a fixed mindset about her ability and, while it initially doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact, the long-term effects can be significant.
What does mindset have to do with it?
We’ve all heard Olympians talk about having the right mindset to push through the training and to get to the podium. Our mindset is how we view ourselves and our abilities – the frame that we see the world through, that helps inform who we are in relation to it.
Carol Dweck is a renowned academic working in Stanford and her book Mindsets summarises her lifelong work in bringing this topic to the fore for parents, teachers and business leaders (here is a link for the book, full disclosure it is an affiliate link so if you buy it there I get a little bit of money). Dweck is a really engaging writer and she helpfully explores two distinct mindsets that can have a big impact on learning – she calls them a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
What is a fixed mindset?
There are two extremes here. On one side, you have the Susans of the world who are convinced they are brilliant at something – academics, sport, music – and will avoid putting themselves in challenging situations in case they are proved wrong. On the other, you have those who are convinced they are terrible at something and will refuse to put themselves in a situation where that will be exposed or where they will be proved wrong.
‘Knowing’ how good or bad you are at something limits you – you don’t want that to be disproved as it can become a part of your identity. I struggle with this in how I view my artistic abilities. “I find myself saying I’m really bad at art.” Others will introduce themselves and tell you quickly “I’m terrible at sport – I was never a sports person.”
One of the most exciting things we know from recent developments in neuroscience is that our words change our thinking and limit (or free) our abilities.
What is a growth mindset?
Across the room from fixed mindset, we have the growth mindset. This person is looking at the world and recognising that they are on a journey. They are learning, this experience may go wrong but there will be benefits from it, I may find this hard but that is not a bad thing.
In classrooms (and living rooms) in which speed is treasured, we can forget to nurture this mindset but it seems obvious that seeing the world like this will improve how we learn and think. Helping our kids have a growth mindset will be a step in allowing them to admit when they need help not be afraid of challenges.
The language we use can have a big impact on the mindset we encourage. We want our kids to be resilient, persistent and focused – choosing the right words can give that a head start.
6 key phrases to replace
- “Mistakes are a part of learning.” instead of “I failed.”
- “Learning takes time.” instead of “This is too hard.”
- “How can I improve?” instead of “I’m no good at this.”
- “Let’s try a different way” instead of “I give up.”
- “You put a lot of effort into this.” instead of “You’re so clever.”
- “What can I learn from you?” instead of “I wish I was as good as Susan.”
Other general principles
- Praise the effort rather than the outcome: By focusing on the effort, we say that we’re proud with both success and failure. This can encourage our kids to try things even if they think they might fail.
- Recognise your own fixed mindsets: I have been talking about mindsets for 6 or 7 years now and I still find myself saying things that limit my abilities. I’m not a great writer, I’m terrible at sport, I can’t draw – all of these are fixed mindsets that stop me from flourishing. As I recognise how difficult it is to challenge my own mindsets, I’m reminded to be even more diligent to help my boys and students develop theirs.
- Start small: I used to have a fixed mindset about my mindset – “I’ll never be able to develop a growth mindset” – recognise that you are on a learning journey and that every time it doesn’t go well is a moment of growth rather than a proof of your uselessness.
If you want to think more about mindsets then I’d reccommend Carol Dweck’s book. If this seems overwhelming then take this word with you – yet. Use this to challenge your own mindsets and those of others.
“I don’t get this” becomes “I don’t get this, yet”
“I’m no good at this” becomes “I’m not good at this, yet”
As we look at our society there are lots of fixed mindsets around. Remember though, even then, change “not everyone has a growth mindset” to “not everyone has a growth mindset, yet.” Let’s have a growth mindset about growth mindsets.