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Thinking about intelligence and mindsets

Have you ever wondered why certain people seem to cope more easily than others with the demands of academic study? Do you think some individuals are naturally more intellectual than others?

Many educators and psychologists are fascinated by the concept of intelligence and its effect on our ability to learn new skills and knowledge. Some theories suggest that intelligence can be measured - by IQ tests, for example. Debate also focuses on the validity of using intelligence tests to predict the likelihood of academic success. Many universities worldwide require students to sit psychometric tests as part of their standard application procedures.

Traditional thinking about intelligence has been challenged in recent years by new ideas with far-reaching implications. Theories about multiple intelligence and emotional intelligence, for example, are influencing trends in management and training as well as education.

The idea of mindsets was developed by Professor Carol Dweck of Standford University in the 1980s. She explored how perceptions of intelligence influence behaviour in educational settings. Her study of secondary school pupils revealed two distinct sets of perceptions, which she termed 'mindsets'.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Carol Dweck - Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Carol Dweck (Psychology Professor, Stanford)

I'm Carol Dweck I'm a professor of psychology at Stanford. Teaching is an incredible profession but something you may not know is that almost everything you say sends a message to your students.

Your students are hearing you say either I'm going to test you and evaluate you, I'm evaluating how smart you are or they're hearing you say I'm here to collaborate with you and help you develop your intelligence. In other words you are teaching them a mindset.

What we find in our research is that some students come to believe their intelligence is just fixed and gets judged by people. These students don't want to take on challenges. What if I don't look smart? They don't persist well in the face of difficulty because effort and setbacks make them feel dumb. But other students have a growth mindset. They understand that their abilities can be developed through their hard work their good strategies good instruction. They don't think everyone's the same but they understand that they can get smarter over time.

The messages we send to students can affect this mindset. For example, our research has shown that when you praise students intelligence you're actually putting them into a fixed mindset and making them vulnerable rather than increasing their confidence or giving them the boost they need. Praising their intelligence makes them feel 'whoa I better not do anything that makes me look dumb' so they stay away from challenges and they give up more easily when things get difficult. So what can teachers do instead?

We have found that praising the process kids engage in is so much more effective. Praising their hard work, their strategies, their focus, their progress keeps them focused on learning and helps them be more hardy in the face of obstacles so the praise we give is tremendously important.

We've also found that putting in certain phrases like 'not yet' or 'yet' can really boost students motivation. So if a student says 'I'm not a math person' (yet) 'I can't do this' (yet) and it means that with your guidance they will continue on their learning trajectory and get there eventually. It puts their fixed mindset statement into a growth mindset context of learning over time.

We have also found in our research that we can teach students a growth mindset directly and that this is very effective. We teach students that every time they take on hard tasks and stick to them the neurons in their brain form new or stronger connections and over time they can actually grow their intellectual abilities. Kids are thrilled by this message we back it up with neuroscience, we show them how to apply it to their schoolwork.

What we have found is that by teaching a growth mindset we are transforming the meaning of effort and difficulty for students. In a fixed mindset students tell us effort and difficulty make them feel dumb. But in a growth mindset that's when their neurons our firing and growing and that's when their brain is getting smarter. I think you can feel that dramatic difference.

Many classrooms now many schools are being based on growth mindset principles and many of these classrooms and schools are seeing enormous gains for students. Some of these schools which have been chronically underperforming are now performing at the top level so it's really exciting to see this happen. A key ingredient though is not just the students mindset it's and not just the teachers mindset about the students believing in their capacity for growth it's the teachers mindset about him or herself.

Teaching is an incredibly difficult profession if people go into it thinking a good teacher is born, you have to come with these skills and abilities and things go wrong they may doubt themselves and give up. But if teachers understand that it's a lifelong process of learning that you become a better and better teacher over time by struggling with difficulty by collaborating with other teachers then they're in there for the long haul.

The young teachers who film themselves and watch the painful presses every night and then revise on the basis of what they've seen. The ones who set small goals for their students but reward the progress over time. The ones who are constantly learning are the ones who are so much more satisfied with their careers as teachers and are seeing so much more wonderful results in that and their students.

Those teachers rather than saying this student is the bane of my existence or oh the class would be so great without these few students they see those difficult students as the ones that will teach them as teachers new strategies will help them understand learning better.

In fact I think the hallmark of a great teacher a growth mindset teacher is the belief that every student has something to teach me. So the students need a growth mindset, we need a growth mindset about our students and maybe most of all we need a growth mindset about ourselves.

Pupils with a fixed mindset regarded intelligence as innate and unchangeable, fixed from birth. They tended to

  • choose modules and assignments that seemed like safe options
  • worry about the possibility of failure
  • be concerned that other people would see them as less intelligent
  • find it difficult to ask for help or feedback.

Pupils with a growth mindset believed that intelligence could be cultivated and developed through effort and persistence. These pupils tended to

  • actively seek out new challenges
  • welcome opportunities for intellectual development
  • respond positively to feedback
  • feel comfortable in asking for help.

Dweck discovered that pupils with a growth mindset performed better in their studies and made more academic progress than their peers with a fixed mindset. In other words, people who believe in personal growth achieve better results than those who feel that their intelligence is unalterable.

Identifying your mindset: Fixed or growth?

You might find it interesting to reflect on your current mindset to help you to think about assumptions you make about yourself as a student.

This table shows some typical responses related to mindset. Start by thinking about your response to each question in the first column - you might like to jot down some notes. Now compare your answers with the comments associated with each mindset in the other two columns.

Question Fixed Mindest Growth Mindset
What do you think about intelligence? You're either born with it, or not. It's not something you can change. It's not determined by biology alone. It can be developed.
How do you approach new study tasks? I'd rather stick to the kinds of things that I know I can do. I'm excited by new ideas and activities.
How do you feel about assessments? I'm afraid that other people will think less of me if I get poor results. I feel pressured to work hard because I know it will make a difference to my results.
Are you willing to take risks? I'd rather not run the risk of making mistakes. If I make a mistake, at least I can learn from it.
You get a low mark for an assignment. How do you respond? This proves that I'm not really capable of doing this, or that I picked This shows that I need to work harder.
You get a high mark for an assignment. How do you respond? I'm afraid that I won't be able to maintain this standard in future. This shows what I can achieve when I set my mind on something.
How do you feel about seeking support from your tutor or other students? If I ask for help, other people will see me as not very competent. No problem. Other people are a great resource to learn from.

If your responses are similar to those associated with a fixed mindset, consider these questions.

  • How does your mindset influence you as a student?
  • What could be different?
  • What could help you to change your mindset?
  • If you seem to have a growth mindset, consider these questions.
  • How does your mindset affect the way you learn?
  • How can you make the most of this mindset?
  • What could help to reinforce and maintain this mindset?

Taking time to think about these questions could help you to develop your skills as a reflective learner.