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The Fixed Mindset Myth

Posted By Julie Stevens, Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, July 22, 2014

5 Steps to Increase Children’s Academic Learning and Moral Competence

It’s free choice time in 6-year-old Jenny’s elementary school classroom. She has spent the last several minutes working intently on a complicated puzzle, the sort of spatial/logic challenge – beads on a string to be passed through a narrow wooden slot – that would confound most adults. Despite Jenny’s admirable perseverance, she sets it aside. Maybe she’ll come back later. She decides to draw a picture of her new puppy.

Her teacher, Mr. Johnson, has been working with another student, so he is unaware of Jenny’s recent failure to solve the puzzle. He picks up the puzzle and asks Jenny if she thinks she will be able to solve it. Jenny smiles, puts down her crayons, takes the puzzle from him, and asserts, “I think so, I just need to try some more.”

Age-Appropriate Academic Mastery

An observer might wonder about Jenny’s confidence in her ability, especially given her lack of success. But remarkably, researchers have shown that Jenny’s optimism is typical of children her age. Jenny’s belief that she is a competent puzzle solver – and the universality of the assumption of academic mastery by children as they enter elementary school – suggests that Jenny and her peers begin formal schooling with a “growth mindset,” to use the term popularized by Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck. That is, Jenny believes in her potential to grow as a puzzle solver; she believes that with effort and practice, her abilities will develop.

Fixed vs Growth Mindset

Under some circumstances, the Jennies of the world may begin to view their intelligence and ability as set at birth, or “fixed.” With a “fixed mindset,” Jenny would assume, after her initial puzzle failure, that she is simply not a good puzzle solver, and no amount of effort will change that. Clearly her parents want to foster a growth mindset, for the sake of Jenny’s academic success, life-long learning, as well as for her general well-being.

As her academic and social worlds expand, Jenny’s self-confidence and engagement in tasks will be influenced by:

  • Her developing cognitive ability to reflect on her own successes and failures.
  • The degree to which her parents, teachers and coaches focus on her personal growth and past successes, as opposed to evaluating her abilities against those of her peers.
  • The extent to which she feels pressure to outperform others vs. feeling motivated to master a given task.
  • The likelihood that she is asked to complete work that is challenging, but realistic given her evolving skills, and that she will be coached to break difficult tasks into manageable chunks.

Increasing Moral & Academic Competence

As CSEE’s publication Breaking into the Heart of Character has argued (and previous articles in PMG have noted), not only academic achievement but also “the effectiveness of our character education endeavors will depend largely on the extent to which we can fulfill the needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence in students, and the art with which we do this work” (p. 23). Read on for tips for parents who want to support their child’s need for competence in ways that will promote both genuine learning and moral development.

  1. Celebrate mistakes; normalize failure: Use your own experience to point out to your child that only through trial and error have you been able to learn essential skills.


    “Let me tell you about the first birthday cake I baked for your dad, where the cake didn’t rise and the frosting was hard as a rock. But now I know how to beat egg whites and use a candy thermometer…”

    Debrief aloud to show how you learn from “failure".

    "Next time we have to come to the mall on Saturday afternoon I’ll remember to go the ‘back’ way so we don’t spend so much time stuck in traffic.”

  2. Success breeds success: Reminding your child of how fulfilling it is to pursue an activity at which he excels or about which she is passionate reinforces the thrill of hard-won mastery.


    “Remember how much you loved it when you finally ‘got’ that chord progression in your piece for the recital? That was the best performance ever for you…I’m proud of your hard work!"

  3. Stress learning for learning’s sake; counter fear of being seen as inferior: Kids who try to avoid appearing inferior or less skilled than their peers will be less willing to try challenging activities; they thus limit their potential for academic achievement.


    “By entering the science fair you’ll have a chance to perform some really cool experiments, and that will be fun whether your project wins or not.”

  4. Connect mastery of tasks to long-range personal goals, not to external performance expectations: Your child will be more likely to engage and persevere when she sees the cost of her effort relating to a benefit that she personally endorses, and not merely to expectations of others that she perform in a certain way.


    “I think taking AP Calculus is about gaining the skills to go on to college-level math and eventually earn that engineering degree so that you can do the kind of work you believe you’ll enjoy. Your friends might be taking the class primarily to get into one of the Ivy’s, but it’s more important that you’re working to achieve your personal goals.”

  5. Examine and re-phrase your praise language: By simply rephrasing your praise you can foster a growth mindset, instead of a fixed mindset, and promote greater later success.


    Common Praise #1:
    “Of course you did the puzzle, because you’re so smart.”

    Instead Try:
    “You were going to put that puzzle down and then I saw you try a different strategy. I was so proud of you!”


    Common Praise #2:
    “You are the best artist in the class.”

    Instead Try:
    "What’s great about your art is that when you see something that just doesn’t look right, you take another look at it from another perspective."


    Common Praise #3:
    “No one out there has soccer skills anywhere near yours.”

    Instead Try:
    "I loved the way you kept up your efforts, even when you started to get tired."

Children, adolescents and adults all work more diligently and with greater engagement when they feel they are capable of the task, and the task is worth doing. We all need to feel competent and purposeful. Despite a world that stresses competition and makes demands based on the evaluations and expectations of others, parents can be powerful influencers when it comes to helping their kids toward competence and mastery.

Tags:  [Grade: Lower]  [User Group: Administration]  [User Group: Parents]  [User Group: Teachers]  academic competence  academics  character  child  learning  mastery  moral competence  Parenting  praise 

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