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My 5-year old son has just started reading. Every night, we lie on his bed and he reads a short book to me. In the end, he'll hit a word that he has trouble with: last night the word was "gratefully." He eventually got it after a fairly painful minute. He then said, "Dad, aren't you glad how I struggled with that word? I think I could feel my brain growing." I smiled: my son was now showing the tell-tale signs of a "growth mindset."
But this wasn't by accident. Recently, I put into practice research I had been reading about for the past few years: I decided to encourage my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he didn't give up on things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows.
Between the deep body of research on the field of learning mindsets and this personal experience with my son, I am more convinced than ever that mindsets toward learning could matter more than anything else we teach. Researchers have known for some time that the brain is like a muscle; that the more you use it, the more it grows. They've found that connections form and strengthen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeating success with easy ones. What this means is that our intelligence is not fixed, and the best way that we can grow our intelligence is to enjoy tasks where we might struggle and fail.
However, not everyone realizes this. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has been studying people's mindsets towards learning for many years. She has found that most people demonstrate one of two mindsets: fixed or growth. People with fixed mindsets mistakenly believe that people are either smart or not, that intelligence is fixed at birth. People with growth mindsets correctly believe that ability and intelligence can be grown through effort, struggle and failure. Dweck found that those with a fixed mindset tended to focus their effort on tasks where they had a high chance of success and avoided tasks where they may have had to struggle, holding back their learning. People with a growth mindset, however, took on challenges, and understood that not giving up and effort could change their learning outcomes. As you can imagine, the latter group more actively pushed themselves and their knowledge increased.
The good news is that mindsets can be taught; they can be changed. What's really interesting is that Dweck and others have developed growth mindset activities," which have shown that even small changes in communication can help change a person's mindset. For instance, making positive comments on their effort ("I really like how you struggled with that problem") versus commenting on an in-built ability ("You're so clever!") is one way to strengthen a growth mindset. Making encouraging comments on effort acknowledges the effort; whereas commenting on abilities strengthens the idea that one only succeeds (or doesn't) based on that ability.