Over the years, we learned that self-efficacy improves with praise. However, what we are discovering under the guidance of Carol Dweck and her research team at Stanford University is that it is not praise of talent but praise of effort that contributes to students’ self-efficacy. Dweck says that people have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. With a fixed mindset, we believe that our intelligence is a fixed trait, that a person is successful because of talent and innate ability, not effort. Indeed if a student with a fixed mindset needs to put forth concerted effort, she or he may see it as evidence of her or his lack of talent (Dweck, 2006).
Conversely, a student with a growth mindset understands that natural born talent needs to be developed. Students who have a growth mindset are mastery-oriented students; they look for solutions and put in the effort in order to master a task. Growth mindset students understand that having brains is just the starting point. This growth mindset creates a love of learning and sense of resiliency in students (Dweck, 2006).
We can learn and teach a growth mindset. If we praise a student’s innate ability (fixed mindset reinforcing), over which she has no control, we may actually undermine her confidence. Additionally, it seems children as young as seven know sincerity. Therefore, if we tell a child, “Gosh, Alice that’s a wonderful Lego structure,” when she knows that she randomly and absent-mindedly threw together 53 blocks with no planning or forethought, she is going to know she’s being patronized. However, if Alice spends hours building a balsa-stick-and-tape bridge and comes up with a design that holds her cars as they go over but looks awful, she will feel proud when we compliment her on her diligent effort and the fact that the bridge holds her cars.
According to Carol Dweck, we can teach students to recognize the way they talk to themselves when faced with a challenge: “I can’t do that” (fixed mindset) versus, “I’m not sure I can do that now, but with effort I can master most things” (growth mindset). We can teach that we:
- all have a choice of which message to listen to;
- can refute the fixed mindset messages we send to ourselves; and
- can undertake the growth mindset action: consciously accept the challenge regardless of our mindset messages!
For more on mindsets and how to strengthen the growth-mindset in our students and ourselves, read Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006).