How can we help our children develop a passion for learning? It’s a pertinent question in Singapore’s results-oriented academic environment, where joy is seldom a part of the equation. The answer, some believe, lies in a concept known as “growth mindset.”
The term “growth mindset” was coined by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, who has researched the topic for over two decades and offers this definition in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success”:
[A] growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
Dweck stresses that a “growth mindset” does not imply that anyone can be the next Einstein; instead it’s the theory that one’s potential is always evolving, as it is shaped by one’s conscious efforts to improve oneself.
In contrast, says Dweck, a fixed mindset is the belief that one’s qualities and abilities are innate and cannot be changed—over the long run, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that limits potential and achievement.
In many of her talks and articles, Dweck shares advice for parents who want to help their children develop a growth mindset, and these include:
#1 Go From “Not” To “Not Yet”
If your child is prone to negative self-talk, such as “I’m not good at this” or “I can’t do that,” it’s your cue to interject with the word “yet.” According to Dweck, “yet” is a powerful word that puts your child back on the “learning trajectory,” and gives him or her “a path into the future.”
Recommendation: Teach your child to view struggles as a normal part of life. “If you’re not struggling with something, you’re not growing, you’re not living,” says Dweck. Watch her TEDx video, The Power Of Yet.
#2 Always Praise The Process
In a study published in 1998 by Dweck and her research partner, nine and 10 year olds were given nonverbal IQ test questions to solve. Some children were praised for intelligence (“You must be smart at this”) while others were praised for effort (“You must have worked really hard”). What Dweck and her partner discovered was that kids praised for intelligence later avoided a challenging assignment—they wanted the easier questions that had served as their “claim to fame.” Those praised for effort, however, saw the more difficult problems as opportunities for learning.
Recommendation: Praise the child’s process (hard work, strategies, focus, persistence, improvement), and share stories about achievements that result from hard work.
#3 Teach A Brain Fact
Another research study that Dweck helped set up involved junior high students whose math grades were declining; about half of the students received only study skills training, while the other half attended study skills and growth mindset classes. In the growth mindset classes, students were taught that “the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use and that learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections.” It was observed during the semester that the growth mindset kids pulled up their grades, while the grades of the study skills kids kept falling.
Recommendation: Reinforce the message that the more you challenge your mind to learn, the more your brain cells will “grow.”
#4 Be A Role Model
As a parent, you are your child’s primary influencer, so observe your own attitude towards learning and achievement, which will manifest itself in what you say and the way you live. To gauge our mindset, Dweck suggests reflecting on the messages we give ourselves.
A fixed mindset individual is likely to think:
“Oh, you’d better not make a mistake.”
“You’d better look smart.”
“People are judging you.”
Conversely, a growth mindset individual might think:
“Here’s an opportunity.”
“Here’s a mistake I can learn from.”
“I feel smart when I do something difficult.”
Recommendation: In Dweck’s words: “Convey a value system that ‘easy’ is boring and wasted time, [while] hard things are fun and worthwhile.”
#5 Focus On The Journey, Not The Definition
Dweck cautions against misuse of the growth mindset model; she says a common misconception is that one can encourage a growth mindset merely by applauding effort. Effort alone does not guarantee successful learning—one must be willing to reflect on learning outcomes and rely on a “repertoire of approaches” to find a strategy that works. She also warns against denouncing “fixed mindset” tendencies, which she fears will lead to a “false growth mindset” phenomenon, where individuals claim to endorse growth while exhibiting fixed mindset behaviours. Telltale signs of a “false growth mindset” include the refusal to seek feedback, avoiding challenges and difficult tasks, and hoarding knowledge and information to stay ahead of the competition.
Recommendation: Realise that mindsets are a continuum; we are a combination of fixed and growth mindsets, and will always be. Encourage children to view growth as a journey, where one acknowledges weaknesses while being receptive to new ways of thinking and learning.