On the Effects and Instillment of a Growth Mindset

The following is a paper I wrote for Professor Albert Bandura during the last course of his illustrious teaching career, “A Seminar On Personal And Social Change,” 2010 at Stanford University:

When it comes to the outcomes of people’s lives, our world is one of extreme variance. Some individuals become successful, some do not, and the degrees of success people obtain therein range greatly. Of course, individual measures of what it means to be successful also vary. But the fact remains that some people thrive in areas of life where others do not. An interesting question that stems from this variability that has spurred the thoughts of many an academic (and indeed many a businessman, politician, athlete, etc.) is: What are the determining factors of this success? Or, in other words, what separates those that thrive in aspects of life from those that do not?

Canadian sociologist Malcolm Gladwell has recently brought these questions even more into the eye of the general public with his 2008 publication, Outliers: The Story of Success. Beyond Gladwell, much has been said in attempts to provide insight to the influence that one’s environment plays in determining one’s success. It is evident that many children born into affluent families with much support have followed in the footprints of their parents and become successful themselves. Often the wealth of resources that can accompany such an upbringing is instrumental in developing the way these children do. On the reverse, it is true that many children that are born into poverty without much familial support, cognitively and otherwise, have ended up squandering their lives and not thriving. A host of other environmental factors beyond the immediate familial situation also play a role. It is indeed impossible to address the factors that lead to success without examining the external, environmental aspects that help shape a life towards that end.

However, people born into poverty or uninspiring homes have led lives that thrive, in every sense of the word. The same is true for the reverse scenario: people born into well-off homes have squandered their opportunities. One need not even look very far see cases of each—inspiring stories of individuals rising from destitute and droll beginnings to pinnacles of life fill our history books, newspapers, and magazines. Thus, it can be said that immediate environmental influences cannot be the sole determinants of success. There must be other factors at play, namely factors that lie in the internal thoughts of the mind.

The Power of Mindset on Life Outcomes

“A simple belief about yourself…permeates every part of your life.”
-Carol Dweck, Mindset

As humans, our ability to think affects our actions. In turn, our behaviors have substantial effects on our thinking. The system continues in a way that clearly demonstrates that exercised thought is tied directly and jointly with behavior. Naturally, other factors than our conscious thoughts sometimes guide our actions, but the key point is that humans can exercise a significant degree of free will in determining what manner they conduct themselves in on a day to day basis. Thus, it can also be said that thinking in different ways can produce markedly different patterns of behavior, which stretched out over a long period of time produce widely different results. As differences emerge some patterns of behavior are conducive to thriving in life and some are conducive to lamentable struggle.

In an attempt to lay order to the thought processes that lead in both directions, Carol Dweck and her colleagues have done extensive work showing how an individual’s mindset about their intelligence, personality, and other characteristics can profoundly affect that individual’s success in life. Note, it’s not the individual’s intelligence itself that is the focus, but simply his or her thoughts about intelligence. In the model, two implicit theories of self, as different as can be, govern everything from the activities we take on for ourselves to the ways in which we respond to other people’s actions.

With the first theory of self, the fixed entity mindset, individuals act out their lives under the impression that their intelligence, personality, and other abilities are inherent. An individual with a fixed mindset might believe that some people are inherently good at math and others are just hopelessly bad, some people are naturally kind and others have an innate mean bone, and some people are blessed with great physical abilities and those who are not cannot improve their lot, to name a few examples. As Dweck writes, having the fixed mindset is “believing that your qualities are carved in stone” (6). The world we see around us is a result of people acting the way they do based on skills and characteristics that are inherent and non-mutable.

The second theory, the incremental, or growth mindset, is one of a belief in development. It recognizes the fact that people may have inherent differences in certain abilities, but that these basic qualities are attributes one can develop over time. An individual with this mindset would likely alter the above fixed beliefs by stating that some people become good at math because they practice it, some people are nice because they make an effort to be, and some people are physically nimble because they have worked to accumulate strength and coordination over time. To have a growth mindset is to approach life with a belief in the cultivation of self.

Outlined as they are above, it is pretty clear as to which of the two mindsets is the more favorable one, or the one more conducive to success. It is not particularly difficult to see that in their descriptions. In fact, I would surmise that if a room full of randomly selected people were shown the basic characteristics of each mindset and asked which one they identify themselves with, a very large number of them would state that they hold a growth mindset, because at face value it appears to be not only the most favorable view of the world, but the most realistic. When asked whether or not individuals can get better at something with practice and effort, almost no one would answer the negative. Virtually all people bear witness to individuals growing and improving every day, and recognize that process. On the surface, the question sounds ridiculous. But despite this fact, I am prone to believe that a significant percentage of those in the room who would identify themselves with the growth mindset would actually exhibit a great deal of fixed mindset tendencies.

The effects of a fixed mindset are nuanced and subconscious to an individual who holds that type of mental framework—that is, until he or she understands the gist of Dweck’s theory. One who is constantly going through life with a wary consciousness bent towards protecting one’s own self-perception of competence, a key outcome of the fixed-entity mindset, is rarely going to recognize that she is limiting her growth potential by doing such a thing. Instead, in most cases this type of protective thinking, often taking place at a level somewhere just below consciously directed intent to self-protect, is habitual and occurs naturally without recognition. It would take a keen individual to really be able to dig deep introspectively in order to unearth the limiting nature of her fixed-entity thinking by herself. Thus, many people that take a first glance at the two mindsets and conclude they already possess the growth variety because the fixed one appears unrealistic may actually still possess unviable thoughts more of the fixed variety.

These same people, though, may see more of the true nature of their underlying mode of thinking when presented with a more detailed list of the consequences of possessing each mindset. For instance, a growth nature is one that is geared towards seeking challenges to expand knowledge, while a fixed-entity nature would naturally stay away from tasks that are too difficult to do well because such a task would appear as a threat that might reveal a lack of knowledge. Additionally, those with fixed mindsets tend to make dispositional attributions of their accomplishments or failures. One may get a good grade on a math test because she is really smart, or not do well in an economics class because she isn’t bright enough to understand the material. On the other hand, a person with a growth mindset would be inclined to attribute the same scenarios to the amount of effort put into each task. Analyses of these types of effects, along with hypothetical examples such as the ones above, would make it more likely that a fixed mindset individual would be able to relate to the effects of her implicit theory when presented explicitly in words, and therefore realize her fixed mindset tendencies. In such a case, this would be the first step to a change in her personal thinking and she would be on her way to adopting a more beneficial mental framework.

With these insights, Dweck has outlined two pervasive, fundamental, and underlying modes of thinking that exert enormous power in determining the courses of action an individual will take. These mindsets establish what types of challenges people create for themselves in life, how long they stick with those challenges, how much they are able to draw on the wisdom of others, how much they are able to learn from personal failures, and, ultimately, the types of choices they make in all facets of life, which end up setting the course of life paths, for better or for worse. In other words, these mindsets are crucial determinants of success.

Of course, mindsets have origins. Parents, teachers, friends—the people one spends his or her life around—influence that mindset tremendously. As Dweck points out, children are especially apt to develop fixed mindset beliefs when their abilities are constantly praised, an extremely common practice for many parents. (Of course, repetitive condemnation of abilities can have a similar effect on the negative end of the fixed mindset spectrum). To test out this thought, Dweck conducted a study where two groups of early adolescent students completed a set of 10 fairly difficult non-verbal IQ questions. After doing well on these questions, one group of students was praised for their ability, while the other group was praised for their effort on the task. After the praise, both groups were given an option to take on a new, more challenging task. While the ability-praised students mostly refused this challenge–not wanting to “expose their flaws and call into question their talent,” as Dweck puts it, or maybe just being complacent with where they were–90 percent of the effort-praised students took on the challenge. This discrepancy in whether or not to take on the new challenge was created from one targeted incident of praise. Imagining ability-focused praise or effort-focused praise over the course of a childhood or lifetime shows a powerful way in which the fixed and growth mindsets can become embedded into one’s underlying mental framework, guiding the types of thoughts one has, and by doing so, one’s actions as well. As hundreds of opportunities to seek or dismiss new challenges arise over this period of time, consistent choices to either end will be very powerful in directing the course of one’s life.

In addition to environmental factors such as praise influencing one’s mindset, and that mindset influencing one’s behavior, one’s behavior also has the power to reinforce one’s mindset and alter one’s environment. As a student chooses to read, that act may improve his skills and interest in reading, augmenting his perceived self-efficacy and leading him to read even more in the future. Such a student may even choose to write a story of his own one day, and by doing so change the environment for other readers. Thus, the triadic model of determination is in effect (see Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory) as the environment, personal thought, and personal behavior all interact and influence each other. Spread out over time, these influences have profound effects over where a person ends up in life.

Why The Growth Mindset Works – The Strength of Empowerment

“In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy….”
-Albert Bandura

The key element at the root of the growth mindset’s positive effect is empowerment. It was stated in our seminar (for which this piece was written) that the common pathways for predicting how effective a mode of treatment will be is to examine the degree to which the treatment changes the subject’s view of efficacy. Such a statement cannot resound with a higher degree of truth, for the degree to which one believes one has causative power reflects the degree to which one is motivated to act in the world. Without the belief in the ability that one can effect change there is no reason to behave towards that end.

Albert Bandura published a 1997 book entitled Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control outlining these statements in detail. While the work of Bandura and Dweck coalesce on many fronts, perhaps one of the most fitting to this conversation involves the threat versus challenge responses people make to everyday activities and extraordinary opportunities. In Self-Efficacy Bandura writes, “People who have strong beliefs in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided” (39). This challenge response is at the heart of what makes the growth mindset such a beneficial mental framework. If one believes in one’s capability to improve, one is much more likely to tackle a difficult task head on rather than shy away from it, and the end result is a more valuable experience. However, it is possible for an individual with a fixed mindset to have strong beliefs in his or her capabilities as well, but to approach certain difficult tasks “as threats to be avoided,” rather than as challenges. For example, a bright high school student who has had her intelligence praised, not unduly, since she began her education may have a high perceived self-efficacy with regard to how well she can do in school. She knows that she is brighter than most of her peers. However, because of her fixed mindset tendencies she may become complacent, not apply herself fully to schoolwork or other intelligence-related activities, feel the need to protect her “smart” image by not exerting herself too much, and get by without reaching anywhere near her full potential. Such is an example of a highly efficacious individual with a tendency not towards the beneficial challenge response, but instead to the limiting threat response because of underlying fixed-entity thoughts.

Of course, the threat response is exacerbated when the individual has a low sense of efficacy. As Bandura writes:

“People who doubt their capabilities in particular domains of activity shy away from difficult tasks in those domains. They find it hard to motivate themselves, and they slacken their efforts or give up quickly in the face of obstacles. They have low aspirations and weak commitment to the goals they pursue” (39).

With a sprinkling of the fixed mindset perspective, we see that when people think they are no good at a given task, and they believe they are stuck with being no good at it, they are not motivated to work on such a task, even when by doing so it means that they could improve their skills. Whereas in the illustration of the bright high school girl we had an instance where high self-efficacy still did not lead to tremendously motivated behavior, in this case to doubt your capability and to believe it is fixed is an utterly paralyzing combination.

The missing puzzle piece in both the high-efficacy and low-efficacy examples appears to be the growth mindset. With an incremental theory a challenge response is essentially guaranteed by definition. One sees that regardless of one’s current views of one’s competencies, one can always improve upon them. If one values improvement, then this is reason enough to sustain motivation indefinitely in order to be the best person one can be. A byproduct of this is to approach all difficult tasks as challenges. Bandura writes, “Such an affirmative orientation fosters interest and engrossing involvement in activities” (39). Developing competencies requires such sustained involvement in the relevant activities. What’s more, “such pursuits provide the mastery experiences needed to build intrinsic interest and a sense of cognitive efficacy when they are lacking” (217). The key to any sustained behavior (that is not done for monetary or other similar external compensation) is intrinsic motivation. Thus, if personal change is being attempted, the methods must cultivate intrinsic motivation if the change is to be sustainable. And to do that, one needs to give the individual good reason to make the change.

The reason the growth mindset has such a profound effect is because it comes hand-in-hand with empowerment. The belief that one has the capacity to improve one’s abilities, and by doing so become a more capable person, is the key source of motivation that leads one to struggle past the adversity that others may not make it through. On the other hand, underlying fixed-entity thoughts compromise empowerment as they lead one to feel trapped in the skill state that one presently possesses. With the pitfalls of this mental framework already established, the question then becomes one of how to make someone feel empowered and intrinsically motivated in this context. To explore this, we will begin by touching on some current and past interventions. While the growth versus fixed mindset theory applies to many facets of life, I’m going to focus on its application to personal theories of intelligence in education for the remainder of this treatment.

Current and Past Growth Mindset Interventions

“To improve students’ academic outcomes with scalable, evidence-based programs…[that] challenge negative psychological processes.”

-Project For Education Research That Scales (PERTS) website

Currently, in a subset of the Dweck Lab called the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS), researchers including myself are attempting to further implement growth mindset interventions, as well as other value attribution models, in schools around the continental U.S. and Scotland. One of our main projects being developed and implemented, the Values Attribution Program, builds on well-known and well-established intervention techniques to decrease stereotype threat and inculcate a growth mindset in students during the transitionary phase of schooling from 6th to 9th grade. Specifically, the growth mindset techniques are drawn from Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski and Carol Dweck’s 2007 Implicit Theories of Intelligence studies, and the self-affirmation strategies are based on the work of Geoffrey Cohen, et al., in their 2006 study entitled Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention. A key aspect of the VAP is also its ability to be dispersed and integrated fairly easily and at little cost due to its reliance on Internet surveys and presentations. Such a medium may have some drawbacks in areas when compared to personal interaction, but in terms of replicability it is an asset as long as the schools have a suitable computer lab.

Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck’s 2007 publication drew on prior work by them and others that “show that theories of intelligence can be manipulated in real-world contexts and have a positive impact on achievement outcomes” (248). In the publication’s second study, the researchers carried out an eight-week incremental theory intervention (with one 25 minute period per week) with an experimental group of relatively low-achieving students in New York City with a significant effect on motivation and achievement. The other mentioned publication (Cohen, et al., 2006) aimed at testing a social-psychological intervention designed to improve minority student performance by reaffirming the student’s “self-integrity,” a phrase that overlaps in many areas to the phrase of “self-efficacy” we have discussed above. As stated in the publication, “Self-affirmation, by buttressing self-worth, can alleviate the stress arising in threatening performance situations” (1307). To achieve this self-affirmation, Cohen and his colleagues had students write about traits in themselves that they, or people close to them, valued the most. In many ways, this self-affirmation holds a similar benefit to the threat consequences of a fixed mindset as does a growth mindset framework.

PERTS has modeled their online VAP interventions after the readings and activities used in these studies. In the VAP studies currently under way in a San Jose public school and a Chicago charter school, students undergo two to three 40-minute intervention sessions over the course of around three months. The first sessions use Cohen’s self-affirmation strategy while the second sessions are focused on cultivating an incremental theory of intelligence. With the oversight of the PERTS project coordinator and revisions from Professor Dweck, I recently wrote the material for this second session, modeling the experimental portion off of an article entitled “You Can Teach Your Brain To Grow” (used in Blackwell et al., 2007) as well as Blackwell and Dweck’s Brainology game software. The general aim of these devices is to show middle-school-aged students, in a way that is fun and engaging to them, that they are largely in charge of how smart they are, how well they do in school, and how strong their brains are. The software uses stories, explanations of research, jokes, pictures, videos, and interactive questions to engage them and provide them with incentives to adopt a growth mindset.

All of the above interventions have in common the fact that they try to influence personal mental frameworks through carefully planned psychological molding. The experimental interventions focus on one side of the story—the growth mindset side—and attempt to guide students to adopt aspects of it, often with a good deal of success. However, the inculcation of incremental theory through carefully planned psychological molding may have shortcomings when compared to just explaining both the fixed side and the growth side of the theory. To clarify, instead of presenting statements in the form of “You can grow your brain if you try to,” for example, the intervention could involve using the actual “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” terms to show the differences and effects of each, much like was done at the start of this paper, except with an effort towards catering to a young person’s reading level. I surmise that this type of presentation, especially for older students or those deeper entrenched in fixed mindset tendencies, may be even more successful for influencing long-sustaining change because it is an argument rooted in contextualization and comparison. Students can see both sides of the story, and through juxtaposition, determine which is a more beneficial mode of thinking.

Of course, studies would be needed to provide evidence for this idea. Such studies could use a similar model as Blackwell et al., 2007, with the exception of adding a second experimental group, one that teaches the growth mindset versus fixed mindset theory as a whole, and comparing the results to the control group and the group solely inculcated with growth mindset influences. A key for motivation is to give people the notion that they can exercise control over their lives, and while subliminally suggesting the growth mindset does that, a student may perceive herself as having deeper founded control if she knows the basis of the argument psychologists use to develop the former intervention. We are not doing justice to the student if we do not provide her that knowledge because we underestimate her ability to understand it or if we merely hang onto the former intervention for research purposes when it is already clear it produces some benefits.

Not Forgetting The Real-life, Personal Aspects

“The classroom should be a space where we’re all in power in different ways.”

-bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
Found quoted in Holler if You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students, by Gregory Michie

The above quote was written by well-known author and social-activist Gloria Jean Watkins, or, as she is better known with her pen name, bell hooks. It is a call to action, a plea, for teachers to do away with the all-too-often found one-sided power structures that emerge in classrooms. In this statement, Watkins recognizes the ludicrousness of expecting a child to take charge of her education when she feels she does not have enough power to guide the direction it takes or empowerment to motivate her to direct it in the first place. The classroom, thus, should be a place dedicated to cultivating student control, rather than the control of students. To do this in an efficacious manner, and to do justice to the discussion of incremental theories of intelligence, we must go to the very heart of the individuals we are attempting to influence. We must understand where the students themselves are coming from, and what their background has them thinking. Normally, this would take the firsthand insights of the young targeted students themselves, or for lack of that, the perspective of a progressive and experienced teacher. For lack of being able to provide either personally, I turn briefly for the remainder to a book that makes a strong substitute, and the place that I originally found bell hook’s inspiring quotation.

Gregory Michie garnered well-deserved attention in 1999 when he first published his honesty-laden book Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher & His Students. Packed with innumerable insights, Michie’s work is a blend of his experiences in the classrooms of Chicago’s struggling urban public schools, as well as the stories and commentary of a number of his students as they grew up, in largely their own words. The result is a unique look into the thoughts of some of the most at-risk students in the system and the complexities teachers face in attempting to guide them.

After developing lasting relationships with many of his students, Michie recorded conversations he had with some of these students years after they were in his classroom. These conversations, altered just slightly from verbatim to create grammatical flow, are reproduced in Michie’s book to supplement the insights he gained while developing as a teacher (he began teaching in Chicago’s public schools without any formal training as a teacher, and it is there where his book begins, not shying away from the mistakes he made while illuminating the insights they provided him). Hector, a sixth-grade student of Mr. Michie’s who traffics drugs, has trouble with his mother, and harbors a love for fishing and the outdoors, provides the following commentary four years after his time in Mr. Michie’s classroom:

“I hated school, but I had no choice. I had to go ‘cause my mom would lock the door and throw me out. I hated math the most because I didn’t know how to do it. But I didn’t want the other kids to know, so I just didn’t try. I just acted like I didn’t care. I felt like a lowlife, really. Acting like I was all bad but I didn’t know how to do math….I remember some of the stuff we did….And when I got that award in your class, that Michie Award that you put in plastic and everything. That was cool ‘cause it made me feel like I was doing something good” (39).

Hector’s comments are telling and likely fairly representative of the way many students, minority or not, feel about school. He highlights the aforementioned paralyzing combination of a low self-efficacy and a fixed mindset when it comes to his abilities in math. On top of that, his apathetic actions to cover up his lack of knowledge placed him in a role within his environment that then perpetuated his behavior as he felt he had to act in accordance with this role. But clear insights come through in Hector’s words that might not be so apparent to an outsider examining the situation through watching him. Vulnerabilities come through as the reader sees that Hector was merely “acting” bad and was in fact embarrassed at his math ability. Furthermore, receiving an award from his teacher boosted his self-efficacy, if only a little bit. This is clearly an individual who with a higher degree of empowerment and knowledge that his poor math skills are merely a result of his lack of experience rather than a fixed trait he has to accept, would be a likely candidate to adopt behaviors to turn his life around.

Another insightful recollection comes from Armando, another of Mr. Michie’s sixth graders who was also in a remedial class that year with a teacher named Ms. Ferguson. Armando recounts his feelings as follows:

“In sixth grade, I had Ms. Ferguson. She was a good teacher, but our class, we got left out. They separated us from the other kids. I guess they thought it was for our own good. The other sixth graders would change classes, but we didn’t. They used to tell us, ‘This is the way they do it in high school.’ So I thought the other classes were smarter than us. People used to call us ‘the troublemakers,’ so I used to walk the halls thinking I was all bad. I felt like everybody was scared of me, and that’s the way I wanted it. I wanted to impress them, like for them to think I was always in trouble for something. But now, when I think about how I was back then, I think, ‘What a goof. What a idiot’” (56).

Both Armando’s and Hector’s accounts shed light into some of the other powerful forces, largely outside of the teacher’s control, that shape the ways in which students think and the behaviors that ensue. The label that followed Armondo’s class was largely due to the system, one based upon separating those who were behind from other students. However, the result as Armando makes it known was, I would guess, unplanned for. The label of “troublemakers” created a self-perpetuating cycle of image, expectation, and behavior for Armando that he likely wouldn’t have fed as much had he been in a different class situation, or, perhaps, if he had crossed paths with an intervention that instilled in him the belief that ultimately he has control over whether or not to perpetuate that image.

For again, the story comes back to this issue of empowerment through the growth (or, in this case, controllable) mindset. Michie’s book contains innumerable insights into the lives and minds of a group of students who happen to live within a struggling demographic, but a common theme throughout for many of his kids is that they lack attainable goals for themselves that are valuable outside the streets they grow up in. As Nancy puts it after showing Mr. Michie around the campus of her new college, DePaul University, a good number of years after being in Michie’s class: “I’m not any better than anybody else who works there [at the Swap-O-Rama flea market, a former workplace of hers]. It’s just that maybe I see farther than them. They see tomorrow only. That’s all they can see” (76). Foresight past the struggles and current capabilities of today is one of the most valuable effects of the growth mindset. It leads to the development of goals and the motivation for executing them. The mindset is a powerful tool and one that brings with it all the senses of empowerment one needs to enact personal change in the direction of success in one’s own life. In thinking about disbursement through education, psychologists must keep the individual—their thought processes, their backgrounds, and their current situations—in mind. If these models of successful thinking are capable of being disseminated and absorbed in masse throughout the education system, the implications for both the individual and for society are enormous.

Sources

Bandura, Albert. Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. W.H. Freeman and Company, 1997.

Blackwell, L. S. Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention.” Child Development, 78 (1), 246-263.

Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaugns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). “Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention.” Science 324 (5925), 400-3.

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2006.

Michie, Gregory. Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009.

Post-Inspired Photo:


The above is a piece I composed while a student at Stanford University, as an assignment for one of my classes. With deadlines to meet and such, it may not be 100% polished. So feel free to point out any imperfections you may perceive–-I’d value being made aware of your thoughts.


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