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Growth Mindset: Why Praising Effort Isn’t Enough

“Becoming is better than being.” Carol Dweck

In 2007, psychologist Carol Dweck published ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ after decades of research on the topic. Through her findings, the terms ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindset came into popular use, and the benefits of adopting a growth mindset over a fixed mindset became evident across all areas of life, not just education. However, in 2015, the subject was revisited, and professor Dweck revised her findings to include the message that “a growth mindset isn’t just about effort,” it’s about trying new things, learning, improving, and thriving on the challenges and setbacks that will inevitably be encountered along the way.

The Benefits of a Growth Mindset

In a growth mindset, students and learners remain open to their potential to improve, no matter where they currently stand in terms of intelligence, ability, or performance. In a fixed mindset, the opposite occurs, and students see where they are as where they’ll stay, their intelligence and abilities set in stone.

Through her research, Carol Dweck found that encouraging a growth mindset in students promoted persistence in learning and improved self-esteem, helping individuals to cope better with difficulties and perceived “failures” through learning to see setbacks as simply a means of improving through gaining a better understanding of what to try next time.

Developing a Growth Mindset

In her revised findings, professor Dweck makes the point that many teachers and educators realised the benefits of encouraging a growth mindset in their students, but ultimately failed to promote real change by praising effort and not necessarily learning. She says, We need to remember that effort is a means to an end to the goal of learning and improving. Praise is often given to students who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment: ‘Great effort! You tried your best!’ It’s good that the students tried, but it’s not good that they’re not learning.

 To this end, she suggests adding, ‘Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next,’ to truly promote the development of a growth mindset.

Positive Self-Talk and the Power of Yet

As educators, it’s important not to fall into the trap of saying one thing and doing another. Saying that you have a growth mindset or saying that you promote it in your students is of no value if you then react to difficulties or mistakes as problems.

“The path to a growth mindset is a journey, not a proclamation.” – Carol Dweck

Believing a mistake to be a problem is much more likely to promote a fixed mindset.

Difficulties and problems must be viewed simply as everyday aspects of learning, and any negative statements surrounding intelligence, ability, or performance must be followed up with the word ‘yet’.

For example: “I’m hopeless at maths, I just can’t do it” becomes, “I need to try a different way of learning how to do this as I haven’t grasped it yet.”

Negative self-talk and the nagging voice of doubt can only ever stand in the way of progress in whatever field you’re in. Telling yourself you can’t do it or that you’d better not even try to do it because you’ll only fail will keep you firmly stuck where you are – learning can’t take place, improvements can’t be made, and you’re held back by a fixed mindset.

However, learning to a adopt a growth mindset means accepting that a fixed mindset also exists.

It’s not about eliminating the fixed mindset voice that exists in all of us to some degree, it’s about learning to recognise it and finding a way to answer back in a positive voice when negativity threatens to halt progress.

Praise alone is not the answer when it effectively means accepting a less than optimal performance, and as Carol Dweck says, in terms of learning and improving, “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?”

Don MacNaughton is a High-Performance Coach who runs regular workshops on “Mindset” and individual coaching programs.

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