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Positive Education: Whakaaro Mārō; Whakaaro Whakatipu - Mindsets

Dave Ross —

Are we capable of change? Or are our intelligence, skills and personality set in stone?

Both students and adults can limit their growth through their beliefs. 

We’ve all been guilty of telling ourselves “I can’t sing,” “I’ll never be a runner,” “I don’t have a maths brain,” or “I’m not good with money.”

 Although logically we know we can get better at anything through practice, these attitudes can prevent us from giving things a go and deny us the chance to develop certain skills. They become self-fulfilling prophecies. The belief that we cannot improve our skills and intelligence is called a fixed mindset.

A growth mindset is the opposite of this: the belief that, through effort, we can continue to grow and change over time. If we do not view our skills and intelligence as fixed, we make it possible to work on these and start to improve. This is supported by the growing science around Neuroplasticity. This means the ability of the brain to continue to change and develop throughout our lifespan. Our brain can continue to make and change pathways, meaning we never lose the ability to learn new things.

Because those with a fixed mindset believe individual traits cannot change, they are more likely to:

  • Avoid taking on challenges so they cannot fail
  • Ignore feedback from others or take feedback as a personal criticism
  • Try to hide flaws to avoid judgement
  • Believe putting in the effort is worthless
  • Give up easily.

By contrast, those with a growth mindset are likely to:

  • Become lifelong learners
  • Believe effort can lead to mastery
  • Put in more effort to learn
  • View failures as just temporary setbacks
  • View feedback as a source of information and opportunity to learn
  • Embrace challenges.

Carol Dweck is the pioneer in the study of mindsets, which she originally based on her observations of how students reacted to difficult puzzles. She has pointed out that there is one crucial word that can help us shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset: ‘Yet’. Consider the difference between: “I can’t write,” and “I can’t write accurately yet.” The first statement seems fixed. It implies there is nothing I can do to become a better writer. The second statement contains the potential for me to become a better writer, and implies that it will happen, but I’m just not quite there yet.

Teachers and parents will often find themselves coming up against fixed mindsets in teenagers. Young people can quickly convince themselves that any failure is evidence of innate inability. What can we do about this? 

Firstly, young people need to understand that, although failure and mistakes can be disappointing, they are part of the learning process. It is through failure that we extend ourselves and learn something new. Secondly, it’s useful for teenagers to be reminded that all skills can be improved with practice. There is nothing we can’t get better at with effort!