A Note From Chris | Growth Mindset

A Note From Chris | Growth Mindset

Dear Friends,

“Have a growth mindset!” This cheerful encouragement has become a commonplace in many schools and often in our culture more broadly. And certainly, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging a child to focus on improvement and growth–that’s what school is all about. 

But what, actually, is a “growth mindset”? As with many buzzwords, we’ve lost track of the original meaning of this really important social scientific concept and the decades of research that support it.

Since most parents, guardians, and students will have had conferences these past couple of days–and perhaps even have heard this phrase!--I thought it might be useful to provide some clarity about what a growth mindset is, why it matters, and how it connects to how we teach and work with students at Whitfield.

Education research distinguishes between so-called “cognitive” and “non-cognitive” factors in student performance. (Even the researchers agree that these names aren’t great–after all, anything having to do with what and how you think is “cognitive,” but we’re stuck with these labels.). On the one hand, there are those skills and understandings that are measurable on academic and cognitive tests. On the other hand, there are a host of behaviors, skills, attitudes, and strategies that are not typically measured on these tests but that are crucial to academic performance: academic behaviors like doing homework or taking notes; persevering in the face of challenges or setbacks; developing social skills like engaging in discussion or teamwork; having good, proven learning strategies; and possessing what education researchers call positive “academic mindsets.” 

These mindsets are the set of beliefs and attitudes children have about learning–and about themselves as students. Do I belong in this classroom? Do I have the ability to do this task? Does this work have meaning or value for me? How students answer these questions has a profound impact on the likelihood of their doing homework, engaging meaningfully in classroom activities, and persisting in the face of challenges, difficulties, and setbacks. Positive mindsets aren’t nice to have–they are essential for and highly predictive of long term academic success.

One of the most important and deeply researched mindsets is what Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology and Education at Stanford University, calls “growth mindset.” Put simply, it is the belief that one’s ability and competence grow with effort. On the face of it, this seems a bit innocuous–who doesn’t believe that? But, if we’re honest, we use language all the time that reinforces the opposite mindset–what Professor Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”: “She is a natural mathematician.” “He’s got innate artistic talent.” “I’m just not good at English.” etc. Many of us walk around believing these things about ourselves and perhaps saying them–often in apparently positive ways–about our children. 

It turns out that having a fixed mindset–having the belief that one’s capacities are fixed or innate–undermines students’ academic thriving. It is probably apparent how the negative version of this belief isn’t helpful: If I’m “just not good” at English, then there’s really no point in my trying–it’s not going to make a difference. And so I don’t try, and I don’t make good progress.

But the reverse is also true: If, let’s say, a child is just “naturally” good at science, then there’s also no point in their trying–they don’t need to try. However, at some point, this same child who has done well in science, perhaps because they really enjoy it, will get to the point where they will have to try, where they will encounter setbacks and challenges. If this student has a fixed mindset about their abilities in science, then these challenges may suggest to them that, as it turns out, they’re not naturally gifted. The fact that they have to try becomes evidence that they’re not “just good at science,” and, since they believe that their abilities are fixed, they don’t put in the effort needed to overcome the challenges. Students who believe in their own “natural” gifts–students with a fixed mindset–often end up abandoning subjects or activities they once loved.

So how do we foster a growth mindset in our kids? The research is pretty clear that telling them to have this mindset doesn’t do much good–you’re unlikely to change what someone believes by telling them not to believe it. 

Instead, the most effective way to help children and students to believe in their capacity for growth is by helping them to connect their effort with improvement and success. If a child comes home with a great grade on a paper or they get a grade that shows improvement, instead of congratulating them on demonstrating their natural talent (which is what my parents’ generation tended to do), remind them how hard they worked: “All that studying really paid off.” “That’s great–you worked really hard on that paper.” etc. Similarly, when a child is struggling or gets a bad grade, help them to identify what they could do differently or better next time–maybe they put off studying to the last minute, maybe they didn’t take the time to edit carefully, maybe they studied by re-reading instead of self-quizzing and testing, and so on. Again, help them to make the connection between their effort–and the effectiveness of that effort–and the result. The way that parents and teachers talk to children about their schoolwork–both their successes and their struggles–has a significant impact on the type of mindset those children develop. This is yet another area where the partnership between school and home is so important.

At Whitfield, we believe in the limitless capacity of our students. We follow the science, and so we know that all children, with effective effort and feedback, have the ability to grow and improve–in all disciplines and areas of human endeavor. 

That is a growth mindset.


Chris Cunningham, Ph.D.
Head of School