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Content to Help You Guide Children Through Their Math Education

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

July 8, 2018


To encourage young mathematicians to be passionate learners, it is important to develop their mindset. Parents and teachers should be aware of its connection to learning and develop their own abilities to not simply teach subject matter but to also nurture the way of thinking of their kids and students.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, proposes that everyone has either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset—a way of thinking about his or her abilities. People with a fixed mindset believe that their talents and abilities are fixed and unchangeable, while those with a growth mindset believe that abilities can be developed. Dweck has done decades of research, and found (as you can see in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success) that those with a fixed mindset are less likely to succeed than those with a growth mindset.

With a fixed mindset, the goal is to look superior, so you go through life avoiding challenges and failures. You want to hide any flaws so you’re not judged as a failure. If you believe that you are either naturally great at something or will not ever be great, then when you run into any kind of difficulty you believe you will never be good at it and give up.

But with a growth mindset, you see growth and opportunity in challenges. Flaws are seen as things to improve upon and failures are just temporary setbacks. A growth mindset creates a passion for the process of learning, rather than just seeking approval.

What Dweck found about these mindsets is particularly unsettling, that they form quite early in life. In one study, Dweck and her colleagues gave four-year-olds a choice–to either redo an easy puzzle or try their hands at a more difficult one. Those with a fixed mindset chose to do the easier one again, wishing to affirm their ability and wary of anypossible failure with the other puzzle. Those with the growth mindset saw no reason to do the easy puzzle again and tried the harder puzzle, believing that there was success in learning something new. Instead of looking smart, it was about becoming smarter.

This is particularly concerning when it comes to math, an ability that so many people already think is fixed. Even as adults, many of us think of ourselves as “just not math people”, and this can easily rub off on kids. Kids then start to believe that they are either math people or not, that it has nothing to do with effort or practice. If they do not think they are good at math, they will give up on trying to acquire those skills. And even if they do think that they are naturally good at math, as soon as they are met with a challenge, they will start to believe that they are not good at it and give up.

The good news? You can change your child’s mindset. A great place to start is in how you praise them. Instead of praising the results or outcomes of their work, praise the work itself. This will show them that it is about the process of learning instead of just an end result. And it only takes small tweaks. Instead of saying “Great job on that project; you got a 96%!”, say “Great job on that project; you put a lot of work and effort into it and it shows!”. As a teacher, this is something I have to keep in mind throughout the day. It’s so easy to just say “good work” and put a sticker on a child’s classwork or homework. But if I want to develop their growth mindsets, it’s all about being specific and praising the process. Whether it’s how they worked together as a group to come to a solution, or how he or she took their time to write out all of the steps of their thinking, or how they ran into some trouble with the problem but showed perseverance and were able to eventually figure it out.

Another way we develop this mindset in the classroom, and that you can do yourself at home, is through modeling. We model thinking aloud through a problem and trying different tactics and strategies. We even model making mistakes in front of the kids and how we react to making a mistake, learn from it, and then move on. A huge piece of the growth mindset is an understanding that mistakes and failures are okay; in fact, they are good, since it means you are learning.

Essentially, developing a growth mindset in your child is all about giving value to the process over the product. With this growth mindset, children will be much more likely to find success in math, as success is all about learning, practicing, and becoming a better mathematician.


What ways have you found successful for helping your kids or students value the process over the product? Share your thoughts below!

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