Carol Dweck is the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006). We talked to her about the impact of praise and criticism on students’ mindsets.
Could you explain the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset?
Carol: When people are in a fixed mindset, they believe that their basic abilities — their intelligence and their talents — are fixed traits. They have a certain amount, and that’s that. This mindset makes people afraid to take risks because they don’t want to look like they’re deficient in their abilities or their talents.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their abilities can be developed through learning, perseverance, and good mentoring. In this mindset, they don’t necessarily believe that everyone can do anything or anyone can be Einstein, but they understand that everyone can develop further. This is the mindset that promotes challenge seeking and resilience, because it’s oriented towards learning, not measuring the self.
We’ve shown in our research that mindsets are things that people can learn. I don’t rule out the possibility that some kids have a temperament that orients them one way or the other, but we’ve shown that the environment is a huge factor.
How are mindsets affected by praise?
Carol: We’ve shown that the type of praise adults use with kids can shape their mindsets. For example, praising intelligence makes students think it’s a fixed trait. It puts them in a fixed mindset, making them vulnerable, whereas praising the process they engage in encourages more of a growth mindset.
How should teachers offer constructive criticism?
Carol: Many teachers and parents are not offering criticism at all. They’re trying to make children feel good at all times. Criticism is absolutely essential. But it doesn’t have to be criticism with a capital C. It’s suggestions about how to improve in the future. It’s telling the students frankly here’s where you are, and here’s what you need to do to get better in the future.
Say a student did poorly on a math test. You sit down with that student and you try to figure out what went wrong, what they didn’t understand, and you figure out how they can do better in the future. If you’re grading an essay, even if you know students are upset by red marks, you’ve got to teach them this is the way to get better, and you need to give feedback precisely about where their process was good and where their process needs improvement.
I have found that a wonderful word to use in this situation is “yet.” You haven’t mastered this yet, you haven’t expressed this yet, you haven’t learned the strategy yet. It’s very different. You’re not telling the student that they’re not good at something or they can’t do it, you’re telling them that they’re on the road but they’re not there yet.
A complete version of this article appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Educational Horizons.