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‘I can’t do it’, rethinking ability with a Growth Mindset

By December 16, 2022No Comments

Read time:  ~5 min

Author: Dr. Haïfat Maoulida; PhD in Psychology, specializes in Social & Educational Psychology and Psychometrics, Researcher at Beyond Education.

Editor: Rouxbin Smit, Editorial & Community Manager at Beyond Education

Image generated using Dall·E

In PISA 2018 (OECD, 2019b, 2020b, 2020a), more than half of the students (from OECD countries such as Greece, Mexico, and Poland) claim that intelligence was something about them that they couldn’t change very much. This is an example of a Fixed Mindset.

But why does this matter?

When we look at the same PISA survey, we notice that Estonia is one of the best performers in reading, math, and science and is also one of the leaders in well-being and Growth Mindset (OECD, 2019a).

So how are these two areas linked? 

Academic performance (and later on, work performance) is linked to the well-being of individuals and the adoption of a Growth Mindset (Sisk et al., 2018). In fact, Estonia is not an isolated case. Out of the 74 countries in this survey (representing over 500,000 students), 72 countries showed that a Growth Mindset is positively and significantly associated with school performance; the only 2 exceptions were China and Lebanon (Schleicher, 2019).

Why is a Growth Mindset so important?

Research in the education and psychology fields has demonstrated that Growth Mindset has a key role in student’s motivation, performance, and achievement, for example (C. Dweck, 2015):

  • Fear of failure and self-investment is negatively correlated to a Growth Mindset,
  • Students’ motivation to master tasks, general self-efficacy, setting learning goals, and perceiving school importance are positively correlated to Growth Mindset,
  • Students perform better when they think that their intelligence is not-fixed, than when they believe it is fixed,
  •    If a student focuses on the process that leads to learning (e.g. trying new strategies or putting effort into work), it allows them to adopt a Growth Mindset and then extend the Growth Mindset’s benefits, and
  • In general, Growth Mindset contributes to students’ well-being and positive self-esteem.

What is a Growth Mindset?

The concept is developed and presented in the 1999 book by the American psychologist and professor at Stanford University, Carol Dweck. It is an approach to life in which an individual believes that their personal characteristics, abilities, and intelligence are malleable and can be developed (Dweck, 1999). It is not simply a goal to reach. Growth mindset is about seeing everything, either success or failure, as an opportunity to learn and to grow. When faced with challenges, it is on one hand seeking others’ feedback, comments, or support (moral or materials), and on the other hand trying new things: strategies, approaches, and methods. Each of these opportunities increases a person’s set of possibilities, supporting their capacity to face new challenges. Growth Mindset is about learning, improving, and adapting, … never being stuck!

What does a Growth Mindset look like?

People with a Growth Mindset seek opportunities to learn, gain new skills, and enhance their existing skills. A person who adopts this mindset/belief will say to themselves, “I have what I have and I can work from there to improve.” Whereas, a person who adopts a Fixed Mindset will say, “I have to work with what I have.” This concept comes from the old and traditional conceptualizations of intelligence, in which we try to measure it with the idea that intelligence is “a level assigned at birth” that cannot evolve. In contrast, by using the “equal intelligence capacity” at birth concept it is noted that performance differences are attributed to an individual’s belief that intelligence levels are fixed at birth. This phenomenon is detrimental to the ability of individuals to improve.

A Growth Mindset certainly has its benefits, but are there any downsides to sticking with a Fixed Mindset?

A Fixed-Mindset is quite common and often reveals itself in reaction to challenges. Here are some examples of how it may be expressed (Dweck, 2015):

  •    Feeling anxiety,
  •    Feeling incompetent,
  •    Feeling defeated,
  •    Feeling crushed and unable to hear feedback,
  •    Telling yourself that you are not capable,
  •    Trying to find an excuse to postpone and/ or drop the task,
  •    Becoming very defensive and angry, etc.

These reactions and emotions are our minds’ resistances that express themselves to prevent us from moving forward. They can, however, be reinterpreted as opportunities, as a step to your ultimate goal if you see that change is possible.

So, we should switch from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset, right?

A Growth Mindset clearly has significant benefits but implementing it is not so simple. Let’s dig more into Growth Mindset’s benefits and importance.

As it seems to have so many advantages, how can I increase my Growth Mindset (and decrease my Fixed Mindset), particularly at school?

Following the advice of Susan C. Dweck (and collaborators), Growth mindset intervention needs to target students’ perceptions about their capacity to learn. A school’s intervention might need to be divided into multiple sessions (e.g., Dweck, 2015; McClendon et al., 2017; Yeager & Dweck, 2020). The first part has to focus on learning that the brain develops and grows, using the latest research as the basis for lessons and presentations. The second part will focus on adaptation, grit, and resilience, i.e. helping us to see challenges and difficulties as opportunities. The final part is to develop their capacities to use appropriate learning strategies. This might require: expanding and developing learning strategies, seeking feedback and support, and developing a constantly expanding toolset. The ultimate purpose of these sessions is to help students understand that the brain grows through effort and by persevering in difficult scenarios.

Can we measure it?

Some authors advise not to, as it can lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of a Growth Mindset, in which case a Fixed Mindset is reinforced (Dweck, 2015). It is, therefore, important to view it as a process so that we can progress and establish a t-time (timepoint) Growth Mindset level (Bialik et al., 2016). This measurement will then help to visualize the changes of an individual adopting a Growth Mindset from a novice/beginner level to an expert level. This is one of the competencies measured by the Compound Competencies Inventory for the 21st Century or The Competency Calculator developed by the Research team of Beyond Education (Celume & Maoulida, 2022b).

Measuring is not a goal in itself but a means to support competency development, at least for Beyond Education. This is why we propose not only to measure Growth Mindset but to work on it (Celume & Maoulida, 2022a). For this, we refer to the definition proposed by the Center for Curriculum Redesign (CCR), which has the advantage of defining competencies and by dividing them into sub-competencies and levels of proficiency (from beginner to expert). This has allowed the BE research team to focus on validating the world’s first assessment of these competencies and complementing the assessment with research-based programs (Celume & Maoulida, 2022b). Based on the CCR framework (Bialik & Fadel, 2015; Fadel et al., 2015), the BE Research team was also able, in accordance with the recommendations above, to propose specific sessions to work on Growth Mindset, all online. These sessions can be done independently but are usually integrated into programs that work on several other competencies important to human development

In conclusion

Growth mindset is not a point to arrive at but is instead a process, a journey. It is not about just putting your maximum effort into everything but combining effort with the ability to learn at any time, experimenting with new strategies, perceiving failure as an opportunity, and welcoming feedback with warmth. However, be careful as we need to still be aware of our Fixed Mindset to be in a true Growth Mindset journey. This is particularly relevant when it comes to defensive reactions or Fixed Mindset triggers (outlined above) when it is vital to remember to reinterpret the reactions, this triggers as a sign that we must move on and that change is needed.

Finally, to adopt and have thoughts and practices that are in a Growth Mindset spirit, this mindset must therefore be accompanied by resilience, curiosity, and critical thinking, in short by all 21st Century Competencies, allowing us to be: at our full potential, at our best.



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