What is a Mindset?
Whether you think of yourself as someone who can always improve, or someone born with certain abilities, this can effect your attainment and resilience.
Your mindset is your belief about the nature of your ability. People are commonly referred to as holding either a ‘fixed mindset’ or a ‘growth mindset’. Those with a growth mindset appear to be more persistent in the face of challenge and failure, and they therefore do better in their learning than those with a fixed mindset.
People who hold a fixed mindset believe intelligence is a fixed trait that cannot be improved through effort. Researchers suspect that people with a fixed mindset focus on performance goals (in other words, on their results) in order to appear – and feel – intelligent.
On the other hand, people who hold a growth mindset believe intelligence is malleable and can be cultivated by applying effort. Researchers suspect that people with a growth mindset focus on learning goals (in other words, they seek challenging tasks in order to develop their skills and knowledge and reflecting on what they learned from the task) rather than on whether they looked clever.
People with a growth mindset see effort as being necessary to achieve things in life. People with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, believe high effort indicates low ability; since they are fearful of being perceived in those terms they avoid persistent effort, which in turn sabotages their long-term goals. In other words, people with a fixed mindset attribute failure not to lack of effort but to lack of ability, and thus failure damages their self-esteem. This is a negative state, which people evade either actively (by avoiding a task) or passively (by avoiding effort in the task). In this way people protect themselves from future failure, and from negative judgements (by themselves or others) of their ability.
Do mindsets impact upon learners’ behaviour?
Learners with a fixed mindset can develop an anti-learning attitude, which can manifest itself directly (as disruptive behaviour) or indirectly (through withdrawal of effort and avoiding the appearance of working or, more specifically, procrastination). Why would they do this? Researchers describe it as a strategy aimed at self-protection. For example, suppose a learner faces an upcoming test and they fear failure on the task. What will they do? Well, they might protect themselves from failure by not practising for the test or misbehaving during the test. In that way they can attribute any subsequent failure to the lack of effort or misbehaviour, rather than to the perception that they are not good at they subject of the test.
Learners with a growth mindset would have no reason to adopt such self-protection strategies because challenge or failure would hold no fear for them and have no potential to damage self-esteem. With a growth mindset, failure is attributed simply to the need for persistence: more effort or a different approach. In short, failure is seen as a learning opportunity. (Psychologists call this a mastery orientation.) On the other hand, people holding a fixed mindset respond to failure by allowing the failure to define them, attributing the failure to a lack of ability which in turn results in the desire to give up, withdraw or avoid. (Psychologists call this a helpless orientation.)
There is consistent evidence that possession of a growth mindset relates to more engaged, resilient and persistent learners. Everyone fails at some point, but how do we respond to failure? Those who adopt a helpless orientation are more likely to defend their self-esteem, even though it does not improve their learning. Those who adopt a mastery orientation are more likely to take remedial action in order to learn, rather than protect their self-esteem.
Students who adopt a mastery orientation tend to demonstrate more pride and satisfaction in their success and have less anxiety in the event of failure. On the other hand, students who believe intelligence is fixed trait – those who adopt a fixed mindset, in other words – react badly to failure, and can engage in self-blame. For many students, this results in a decline in academic achievement.
Do mindsets impact upon academic attainment?
There is good evidence from numerous studies not only of a relationship between attainment and mindsets, but that different mindsets cause differences in academic attainment.
Can we develop a growth mindset?
From what we have learned above, mindsets would appear to be a powerful phenomenon that we could make use of in education. Fortunately, many studies have shown that it is relatively easy to change our mindset. But to change our mindset it helps to know what mindset we currently possess.