Over 30 years ago, Carol Dweck and her colleagues became interested in learners’ attitudes about failure. They noticed that some learners rebounded while other learners seemed devastated by even the smallest setbacks. After studying the behaviour of thousands of children, Dr. Dweck coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. When learners believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.


Recent advances in neuroscience have shown us that the brain is far more malleable than we ever knew. Research on brain plasticity has shown how connectivity between neurons can change with experience. With practice, neural networks grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and build insulation that speeds transmission of impulses. These neuroscientific discoveries have shown us that we can increase our neural growth by the actions we take, such as using good strategies, asking questions, practicing, and following good nutrition and sleep habits.


At the same time that these neuroscientific discoveries were gaining traction, researchers began to understand the link between mindsets and achievement. It turns out, if you believe your brain can grow, you behave differently. So the researchers asked, “Can we change mindsets? And if so, how?” This began a series of interventions and studies that prove we can indeed change a person’s mindset from fixed to growth, and when we do, it leads to increased motivation and achievement. For example, 7th graders who were taught that intelligence is malleable and shown how the brain grows with effort showed a clear increase in math grades. 

In addition to teaching kids about malleable intelligence, researchers started noticing that teacher practice has a big impact on learner mindset, and the feedback that teachers give their learners can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset. When learners have a growth mindset, they take on challenges and learn from them, therefore increasing their abilities and achievement.


Ability is defined as “the means or skill to do something.” Where do we get our abilities from? Are they something we are born with or are abilities able to be developed? The answers to those questions depend on the mindset of the person.

Based on studies completed by Dr. Carol Dweck, learners who had the fixed mindset blamed other people or things when their abilities were limited. Our fixed mindset learners will state things such as “I’m too stupid, so I can’t do this” or “If Johnny wasn’t tapping his pencil so loud I would have been able to finish.” These students feel their abilities are dependent on other things, not themselves.

In Dr. Dweck’s book Mindset she explores people who had phenomenal abilities. These examples might help put things into perspective for our learners. She cites that before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb he worked on a team with thirty assistants and they spent countless hours working on their project. Dr. Dweck mentions how it took Charles Darwin half a lifetime and hundreds of consultations with colleagues before piecing together The Origin of Species.

It would have been very easy for these scientists to give up and just claim they didn’t have the ability to reach their goal, but they kept working and created their skills. They had the growth mindset.

With a growth mindset, we realize that our abilities are based on how much effort we put into the project. If we are not skilled in something yet, we need to keep working and studying so we will achieve our goals.


A lack of learner effort and motivation is one of the top five complaints from teachers. What Dr. Carol Dweck has found is that our learners who display a lack of motivation and effort are in the fixed mindset.

Learners have been conditioned to believe that when they have to work hard at something, they are not very smart. These learners consider themselves to be inadequate if they are in a class that is difficult and requires many hours of studying. They believe and say to themselves, “Things come easily for learners who are intelligent.”

We might see some of our highest performing learners display a lack of effort. This is because, according to Dweck, they have been tagged as gifted, genius, or a natural. If they try and put forth effort and are not successful, they feel like a failure. It’s easier to not try so they cannot fail.

Learners who choose to display a growth mindset understand that even the best and brightest people have to work hard to achieve goals. Growth mindset learners try their hardest and if they fail, they use that failure to learn what they should do differently next time. In our classrooms, we must encourage our children to make mistakes and teach them how to analyze and learn from them.


Dr. Carol Dweck cites a New York Times article that references when failure becomes transformed from an action (I failed) to an identify (I am a failure) we are in the fixed mindset.

Failure for our learners who display a fixed mindset is something that is always remembered, and will often times prevent them from opportunities. When our learners are afraid of failing, they will often times not take risks, such as participating in an academic competition. If he or she is already the best speller in class, why enter a competition and risk losing (failing)?

Learners who choose a growth mindset are still affected by failure, but they learn from it. The learner choosing a growth mindset would enter the spelling competition and when he or she lost, approach the winner and learn about the strategy that was used. If a learner who chooses a growth mindset fails a test, he or she analyzes the errors that were made, and studies to ensure not making that same mistake.

Through research, scientists have learned that we can actually help our brain grow based on how we process failures. When we learn from our mistakes, as growth mindset people do, we become more intelligent.


What we praise our children for will determine what they focus on. While we can all agree that it is important to praise our learners, we must be mindful of our attention.

Dr. Carol Dweck shares how praise impacted learners she worked with. When learners were praised for their effort and hard work, they continued to learn and grow. When learners were praised for being “smart,” they developed a fear of failure and losing that title of “smart,” and their learning was stifled.

Learners love to be praised and will continue to perform the action that earned the initial praise. If we say “An ‘A’? Wow, you worked so hard on this!” our learners will continue to work hard so they receive praise. If we say “An ‘A’? Wow, you are so smart!” learners focus on the outcome and the identity associated with it (being “smart”) instead of the effort they had to put into earning that score.

In the classroom, let our motto be “Praise the process, not the person.”


Dr. Carol Dweck’s section in her book Mindset titled “Is success about learning – or proving you’re smart” takes us through the two mindsets and how they process success. For our learners who chooses a fixed mindset, everything is a competition. School is not about learning something; it’s about proving you are better than others. These learners are afraid of taking risks and trying to learn something new because if they do not learn the concept faster than others, they have not succeeded.

Our learners who choose a growth mindset thrive on learning. These children believe that you are only successful when you have learned something new. School is about learning and they try hard to feel that success.

To help our learners displaying a fixed mindset begin to display a growth mindset, we must create a safe learning environment where they are not afraid to take risks and mistakes are embraced. We should praise our learners for hard work and effort and make them feel good about trying.

When our learners are struggling to reach a goal, we let them know that they just aren’t there “yet.”

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