Creating a Growth Mindset in Your Students

Click to PrintClick to Print

Belief that you can become smarter and more talented opens the doorways to success. That’s what twenty years of research has shown Carol Dweck of Stanford University. She has identified two opposing beliefs about intelligence and talent, beliefs that strongly impact our ability to learn.

Mindset Chart

Though the fixed mindset has traditionally held sway, many recent studies show that the growth mindset better represents our abilities. Our brains are much more elastic than previously thought, constantly growing new connections. IQ and talent are not fixed, but are mutable based on experience and attitude.

In her book Mindset, Dweck outlines the dramatic effect that these opposing beliefs have on learners:

Fixed Mindset Growth Mindset
Wants to prove intelligence or talent. Wants to improve intelligence or talent.
Avoids challenges for fear of failure. Engages challenges to improve.
Gives up in the face of tough obstacles. Persists in overcoming obstacles.
Avoids hard labor. Sees labor as the path to success.
Treats criticism as an attack. Treats criticism as an opportunity.
Feels threatened by others’ success. Feels inspired by others’ success.

As you can see from this chart, the fixed mindset leads to many of the learning and discipline problems in school, while the growth mindset leads to optimal learning. Recent articles in Scientific American, Wired Science, and the New York Times cite numerous studies that support Dweck’s conclusions.

In one such study, urban Milwaukee students who were at risk for mental retardation were entered into an intensive education program prior to first grade. After the program, a control group scored an average of 83 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, but the students who had worked in the program had an average IQ of 110. That’s an average gain of 27 points, moving from borderline retardation to “bright” intelligence.

Alfred Binet created the IQ test for a very similar application—to raise the intelligence of Parisian schoolchildren. In Modern Ideas About Children, he wrote the following:

“Never!” What a strong word! A few modern philosophers seem to lend their moral support to these deplorable verdicts when they assert that an individual's intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism. We shall attempt to prove that it is without foundation.
. . . With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.

How Can I Create the Growth Mindset?

Clearly, if we can shift students from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, we can eliminate many learning challenges and classroom-management issues. But how can we make this mental shift?

5 Steps to Growth

Here's an easy 5-step process to fostering a growth mindset in your classroom:

  1. Believe it. You can’t instill a growth mindset in students until you have it yourself. Start by recognizing your current mindset. It determines the way that you interpret experience.
    • The fixed mindset is focused on judgment. Positive experiences mean that you are smart or talented or both. Negative experiences mean that you are dumb or talentless or both.
    • The growth mindset is focused on improvement. Positive experiences mean that you are on the right track. Negative experiences mean you have a chance to make changes and grow.
    These mindsets manifest most clearly in the self-talk in your head. Whenever you hear a judging bit of self-talk such as “I’m just no good at this,” stop it and replace it with improvement talk: “I want to become better at this.”
  2. Teach it. Now that you are shaping your own mindset toward growth, you can teach your students to do so as well. Tell students they can improve their IQs and talents—which are not fixed. Present the evidence you find in this article and in other resources. Teach students that education is not something someone else gives to them. Education is something they must grab for themselves.
  3. Model it. Show students how to recognize judging thoughts, how to stop them, and how to replace them with growth thoughts. Make the rule that judging thoughts spoken aloud in your class will be stopped, and the student will need to rephrase the idea as a growth thought. By doing so with external dialogue, you help students recognize judging thoughts in internal dialogue. You also help students monitor each other and shift their thoughts toward growth.
  4. Don't Say Do Say
    I'm so stupid. What am I missing?
    I'm awesome at this. I seem to be on the right track.
    I just can’t do math. I’m going to train my brain in math.
    This is too hard. This is going to take some time.
    She’s so smart, she makes me sick. I’m going to figure out how she’s doing it.
    It’s fine the way it is, and yours isn’t any better. That’s an interesting idea for improvement.

    “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

    —Thomas Edison

  5. Nourish it. Mindsets exist within a larger classroom culture. In your classroom, shift the focus from proving to improving, from product to process. An inquiry-based approach to learning facilitates the growth mindset by embracing challenges, obstacles, and criticisms as chief drivers of learning. Failure can be a great teacher if it is approached not as judgment but as opportunity. That mental shift frees you up as well. If you take some missteps as you are trying to shift the classroom culture, don’t be embarrassed. Be empowered to improve.
  6. Assess it. A classroom that focuses on summative assessment fosters an environment for a fixed mindset—assessment is all about judgment. A classroom that focuses on formative assessment fosters an environment for the growth mindset—assessment is about learning. That’s not to say that summative assessments should be eliminated. Rather, when you focus on the formative side, the summative side becomes a rubber stamp that certifies the learning that students have been doing all along.

Making Yourself Brilliant

In “Learning to Read,” Malcolm X tells how, as a young man in prison, he started to acquire “some kind of homemade education.” He got a dictionary and copied every word on the first page, down to the punctuation. It took a day. On the next morning, though, he was proud of all the words he’d learned. So he copied the next page. And the next. And eventually, the whole dictionary. That dogged act helped Malcolm X to train his brain and to become one of the most literate and articulate people of the 20th century.

How many Malcolm Xs are you teaching? Help them see their potential. Make it clear to your students that they are responsible for their own intelligence and talent. They are even responsible for the mindset that helps them develop both. Help them to stop the thoughts that are stopping them, and to open their minds to a wide-open future.

We want to hear from you. What have you noticed about the growth mindset and the fixed mindset? How are you fostering thinking for success? Please write your comments below.

Your rating: None Average: 4.3 (21 votes)
Click to PrintClick to Print





I find that your five steps are really helpful and would like to cite them in a paper I am writing. Can you please send me the author's name from the blog?  I would like to learn more about these five steps for teachers.

Thank you,Diane Wolf 

Author Name for "Get Smart, Become Talented"

Thanks for writing, Diane. The blog post "Get Smart, Become Talented" was written by Rob King, one of the authors of the Inquire series of books. Rob came up with the five steps, but of course the concept of growth mindset itself was developed by Carol Dweck. Best of luck on the paper you are writing!

growth mindset and fixed mindset

Well I personally think that it is up to the person, whether he or she wants to do better or not. I used to be a substitute teacher and most of the students I sub for, I knew half their parents. I understood to a degree why the students were the way they were. Myheart went out to the children, because I could only begin to image what they were going through. I understood why some of them behaved the way they did, but with the mindset I have I would want to be better or do better than my parents. Sometimes I just don't understand what type of mindset people have, I'm a believer in always striving to become and do better for myself. I guess some people can't see themselves no farther than they are in life, and don't want to do better.

Step1. Learn to hear your

Step1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset “voice.”

As you approach a challenge, that voice might say to you “Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have the talent.” “What if you fail—you’ll be a failure” “People will laugh at you for thinking you had talent.” “If you don’t try, you can protect yourself and keep your dignity.”

As you hit a setback, the voice might say, “This would have been a snap if you really had talent.” “You see, I told you it was a risk. Now you’ve gone and shown the world how limited you are.” “ It’s not too late to back out, make excuses, and try to regain your dignity.”

As you face criticism, you might hear yourself say, “It’s not my fault. It was something or someone else’s fault.” You might feel yourself getting angry at the person who is giving you feedback. “Who do they think they are? I’ll put them in their place.” The other person might be giving you specific, constructive feedback, but you might be hearing them say “I’m really disappointed in you. I thought you were capable but now I see you’re not.”

Step 2. Recognize that you have a choice.

How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. You can interpret them in a fixed mindset as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them in a growth mindset as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you.

So as you face challenges, setbacks, and criticism, listen to the fixed mindset voice and...

Step 3. Talk back to it with a growth mindset voice.

As you approach a challenge:

THE FIXED-MINDSET says “Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have the talent.”

THE GROWTH-MINDSET answers, “I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to with time and effort.”

FIXED MINDSET: “What if you fail—you’ll be a failure”

GROWTH MINDSET: “Most successful people had failures along the way.”

FIXED MINDSET: “If you don’t try, you can protect yourself and keep your dignity.”

GROWTH MINDSET: “If I don’t try, I automatically fail. Where’s the dignity in that?”

As you hit a setback:

FIXED MINDSET: “This would have been a snap if you really had talent.”

GROWTH MINDSET: “That is so wrong. Basketball wasn’t easy for Michael Jordan and science wasn’t easy for Thomas Edison. They had a passion and put in tons of effort.

As you face criticism:

FIXED MINDSET: “It’s not my fault. It was something or someone else’s fault.”

GROWTH MINDSET: “If I don’t take responsibility, I can’t fix it. Let me listen—however painful it is– and learn whatever I can.”


Step 4. Take the growth mindset action.

Over time, which voice you heed becomes pretty much your choice. Whether you

  • take on the challenge wholeheartedly,
  • learn from your setbacks and try again
  • hear the criticism and act on it is now in your hands.

Practice hearing both voices, and practice acting on the growth mindset. See how you can make it work for you.



It's just hard..

I think your attitude towards life has an effect on what type of mindset one has. People are always comparing themselves to other people. So it's just about the people you surround yourself with. If people around you have fixed mindsets than I believe you will naturally start to develop a fixed mindset.It's hard to keep telling yourself growth-mindset thoughts when everyone around you debunks them constantly.Like I'm not sure what it is, serotonin or dopamine, but some chemical in your body that makes you feel good arrives when you recieve praise. And as much as you want to try to fix your mindset when someone tells you after doing something good "Oh your so smart!" and you want to say "No I'm not, I just worked hard.". Even if you say that, you get a chemical boost. So some wires in the body just take it, even if you don't want them too. Especially when it is repetitively said by so many people.So I think people even with growth-midsets after a while begin to develop fixed mind-sets from continual praise.So for me I think it's also a personality thing. I think people have to be a little self-centered and not think what others think to develop or acquire such a mindset. And I think that really makes it hard for me because I am a pretty selfless person: always caring too much about what other people think (of me and my progress). <- I think that should be a stressed point. Because you can think of others and have a growth mindset. I just take their thought personally on my own progess. So do you think there is or could be a direct correlation between being selfless and having a growth-mindset? Because selfless people, I think, naturally believe opinions to be truer than selfcentered people think they are. And if this is the case then selfless people would take criticisms somwhat more believable. And as much as I don't want or like to be persuaded by what other people think, all people have truths in everything they say. So when it becomes a majority of people with fixed minsets saying the same one thing, it makes a person (no matter what their mindset is) into having a fixed mindset.

Mindset and ADHD

I am rather smart, and I work at it. However my memory is failing in sopme areas and I am so so hyper and can barely sit still or I must read and re-read everything unless it is so interesting that I am on the edge of my seat.Any suggestions? I also cut people off, trying to interact in the conversation and overtalk them ALL THE TIME! This I know is rude and gets embarrassing as I don't realize it until someone tells me, and tells me andf tells me!

Learning Disabilities

I'm fascinated by this research.  I have a terribly fixed mindset that I hope to improve, but I think my mindset comes in part from a learning disability.  how do learning disabilities Factor into the efficacy of this theory?

Excellent Question

Thanks for your insight, Lynn. I, myself, have a son on the autism spectrum. He is brilliant when dealing with concepts such as history, philosophy, and politics, but he struggles with social matters. Much of our work as parents has been to encourage a growth mindset especially in regard to social matters. Just because he struggles doesn't mean he can't improve. Seventeen years of this approach has helped him become very capable in most social situations. So I would suggest that the growth mindset might be especially important in areas in which we struggle.

For example, I wish I had had the growth mindset in regards to math, which never came easily for me. I could do it if I worked at it, but I decided, "I'm no good at math." That decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I had maintained a growth mindset all those years ago, I might be very good at math at this point.

Growth mindset

I am former professonal football player and currently a special education teacher who is in the developmental stage of  starting a group mentoring  program working with at-risk student athletes. After looking at your first step in the five steps to growth i  believe i'm on the right track but realize there is room for growth. I want to use the growth mindset as a model for our group mentoring program. Is there a curriculum for this with lesson plans?  If not what would you suggest. Thank you for sharing.


Yours in the struggle,


Athletes For A Cause





Great article, guys! We MUST

Great article, guys! We MUST create a growth mindset in our students!

Growth and Fixed Mindset

I am a third grade teacher in Virginia. This is my second year using Growth/Fixed Mindset with my students. I start the process at the beginning of the school year. The process takes times, but after the winter holiday the students have transformed and embrace the concept. It is amazing to others what takes place in my classroom. I have taken the concept further by incorporating student feedback from each other.  Every Friday time at the end of the day is spent giving students the opportunity to acknowledge effort in other students and students giving constructive feed back to other in the form of encouragement. My biggest challenge is to figure out a way to document the impact on my students. In addition, the academic scores of my students consistently show growth due to effort. 

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <p>
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.