I sometimes wonder if I had known about developing a growth mindset when I was a kid whether my learning experiences or even my life might have been different. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for my memories and experiences but I cannot help but wonder if knowing might have set me on a different path? When I did a deep dive into the growth mindset concept a couple of years ago, it had a profound impact on me, even as an adult.
What Does Growth Mindset Mean?
Carol Dweck, author and lead researcher on the growth mindset, defines it thus, ‘In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.’ Abilities can be developed; this is key. The ceiling on our learning potential is maybe not as low as we might initially perceive of ourselves or what we are led to believe.
The opposite of a growth mindset, the fixed mindset, Dweck defines thus; ‘When people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.’ I imagine many adult readers would resonate with this statement. It seems that the fixed mindset belief has been perpetuated by learning systems around the world for much too long.
On first reading about developing a growth mindset, it created a tailspin of memories and questions. What learning risks and opportunities did I try and avoid? How might my learning behaviour have been influenced by knowing about it? Could I have been a better learner? Would I have had more motivation to learn? Would I have had more agency? Would I have taken more risks? Do I have a growth or fixed mindset?
The Journey to Developing a Growth Mindset
We often hear the phrase it’s not about the destination but the journey, and the growth mindset is exactly that. Firstly, the individual must consciously decide to embark on that journey of self-development. It is a courageous decision, fraught with perils and pain points like any journey of self-discovery. And herein lies the great contradiction of that journey; there is no such thing as a true growth mindset, therefore the destination is an illusion. One who believes that they have a growth mindset actually has what has been coined a false growth mindset. We are all a mixture of growth and fixed mindsets and the key to a successful journey is identifying the various fixed mindset patterns or trigger responses that exist within us and reframing them to encourage continued growth. This journey will last a lifetime.
The critical first step that any learning community should take is to begin by not introducing the growth mindset concept, but to simply introduce mindset instead. Mindset is our organising function which makes meaning of our goals, beliefs, feelings and behaviours. It affects beliefs and attitudes, shapes motivation, learning and goal pursuit; it is neither growth or fixed, it just is. Once mindset is introduced, the learning community must facilitate a deep dive into the self. Maybe it is best to imagine that at the beginning of this journey you have a mindset with negative behavioural patterns you wish to change. What are your triggers? What do you react to negatively that obstructs personal growth? Looking within oneself can promote the habits of rigorous self-reflection. Learners who are taught to self-reflect effectively can monitor and adapt their habits and behaviours by taking action, thus developing a growth mindset.
Learning is like a poker game in that we don’t know what hand we will be dealt, so a learning community must assume the critical responsibility of continued monitoring and reflection to ensure learner mindsets are suitably prepared. Does the learning community support growth mindset thinking? Does the practitioner articulate the concept which supports learners to grow their own thinking? Are learners supported sufficiently to continually develop? While self-reflection can provide answers for learners and help them get unstuck when certain trigger points arise, they may need additional support, guidance or coaching and mentorship from their peers or learning practitioners, so the learning community must provide that rich support network.
Without wanting to sound controversial, quite often one of the barriers to developing a growth mindset can in fact begin at home with parents. This however, is often not the fault of parents. This occurrence is the result of a culture of conditioning brought about by childhood experiences where a generation of learners were fed a narrative that intelligence was fixed; this mindset can be unintentionally bestowed onto our children. When you believe this, it can profoundly diminish motivation and determination to want to improve, or in fact even wish to learn.
So, for a growth mindset culture to emerge in a learning community, parents must become involved in this process by firstly unlearning and relearning their own self-perception narratives. This must begin with a deep-dive into the growth mindset concept; the parents are learners as well. They must learn how to monitor, self-reflect as well as grow the skills and capacity to use feedback language that encourages their child to build a mindset that garners growth and personal success. Developing a growth mindset will not just benefit their children but can profoundly spark change within the parent who might begin viewing their own capacity for self-growth in a new way too, encouraging them to begin a new personal learning pathway.
Neuroscience and Growth Mindset
Today, neuroscience continues to reveal new concepts that will profoundly influence learning. Emerging knowledge streams about how our brain works is a critical new avenue of human evolution and neuroscience clearly supports the growth mindset narrative. For learning, it all begins with thinking about thinking, or metacognition, and if we humans can tap into that process and use it, we can set the pathway to modify cognitive behaviour and reframe our decisions and actions.
Recent neuroscience research indicates that when the human brain amygdala triggers during learning, it has two responses; a comfort or a challenge response. The amygdala does not just trigger when in danger, though we often associate it with the fight, flight or freeze response. In learning, when the amygdala is triggered by a challenge, we can consciously decide how we respond. A new challenge can activate a quit or courage reflex and it is in this activation zone where critical adaptation and learning development can occur. Learning to step out of your comfort zone is so important and must be supported by the habits of mind and skills that help you when doing so; effective decision-making, asking questions, checking for solutions, being curious, asking for help, collaborating, self-reflection can all build a courage reflex. It is the responsibility of every learning community to equip its learners with these cognitive faculties to foster growth. Conscious, effective decision-making in this trigger-zone can remove any false assumptions that our minds cling to and encourage a mindset away from fixed and towards growth.
When you are conditioned to believe that your learning skills, academic acumen, or whatever you want to call it, is innate, the learning journey can essentially go one of two ways; ‘I don’t believe in myself’ or, ‘I do believe in myself.’ We cannot let this uncertainty continue to manifest; learning is too important. Simply telling someone that you can develop your learning is the first step to levelling the playing field, but this is just the beginning.
Learning communities and parents must unite to remodel the growth mindset journey, using neuroscience and metacognition as a foundation to encourage learner success. It is time to remove the ceiling of self-perception that is associated with learning and reach for the stars. Every learner must be given the opportunity to embark on their own growth mindset journey with the knowledge that personality, intelligence and ability are dynamic qualities that can be developed by using critical skills and support that a learning community can provide them with. Consistently developing a growth mindset takes great courage, but it is in that very courage that the lifelong learner will discover a lifetime of wonder, awe and personal development.
If you would like to find out more, please watch Susan Mackie’s recent talk from [RE]LEARN 2020: Growth Mindset 2.0, where she discusses in tangible detail the link between growth mindset and neuroscience.