Minding Our Mindsets

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By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



Alfred Binet, the inventor of the modern intelligence test in 1905, felt that his instrument should be used to identify children who needed help to succeed in school. In his book, Modern Ideas About Children, he summarized this philosophy: “A few modern philosophers…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…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.” The modern psychologist Carol Dweck, in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, characterized Binet’s dichotomy as a “fixed mindset” versus a “growth mindset.” An examination of these two approaches to learning can help parents and teachers as this new school year starts.

Children with a fixed mindset view intelligence as static and unchangeable. They might agree with the following statement: “You can learn new things, but how smart you are stays pretty much the same.” Children with a growth mindset view intelligence as malleable. They might agree with the following statement: “Smartness is something you can increase as much as you want to.” In her early research, Dweck selected two groups of children based on responses to these and similar questions. Then both groups were first given eight easy problems to solve; the success rates were high for both groups. Next Dweck gave both groups four difficult problems that were too hard to solve. Both groups failed with these problems, but their reactions revealed their personal theory of intelligence.

The fixed mindset group “viewed their difficulties as failures, as indicative of low ability, and as insurmountable. They appeared to view further effort as futile and…as further documentation of their inadequate ability.” The growth mindset group, on the other hand, viewed the unsolved problems as challenges to be mastered. They tried different problem solving strategies and constantly monitored their own performance. They remained optimistic that they could solve the problems.

Children with a growth mindset view intelligence as malleable…. ‘Smartness is something you can increase as much as you want to.’


 Over the past two decades, Dweck and her colleagues have researched the implications of these two mindsets in the various domains of parenting, business, school, and relationships. The fixed mindset, which views intelligence as static, has the following characteristics: “It leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to avoid challenges, get defensive or give up easily, see effort as fruitless or worse, ignore useful negative feedback, and feel threatened by the success of others.” The growth mindset believes that intelligence can be developed and displays the following characteristics: “It leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of obstacles, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lesson and inspiration in the success of others.”

Teachers and parents can learn techniques to help children develop a growth mindset. Parents should not praise intelligence or talent but rather reward persistence and effort: “That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.” To Dweck, “the great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.” Great teachers set high standards for all their students and then seek way to implement these standards. With support from a school system, they help students confront challenges and learn from failures.

A growth mindset will help our children identify their strengths and weaknesses, learn to love challenges, and come to enjoy learning for the rest of their lives. The start of a new school year should provide inspiration for parents and teachers to help children develop this mindset.


Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at mike@testprepexperts.com.

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