Tapping Into a Growth Mindset Can Reveal Unlimited Potential

Growth – We believe that everyone is capable of growing and learning. At Windward, a growth mindset is shared by all and takes many forms, from academic growth for students to professional growth for faculty and staff. 

The term “growth mindset” has become a buzz phrase in recent years. On the one hand, it’s great to see this simple, powerful idea reaching more people; on the other hand, by virtue of its popularity, it runs the risk of prompting semantic satiation, when a term loses all meaning from repetition. What, exactly, is a growth mindset, and why is Windward so committed to this concept that we have made it one of our core values? 

In the simplest terms, a growth mindset relates to a person’s ideas about innate ability versus effort. Those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talent are inherent; those with a growth mindset see these things as adaptive ways of being, malleable as a result of focus, mentorship, and hard work.  

Dr. Carol Dweck coined the phrase in her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, based on her decades-long work studying behaviors of thousands of children. In a 2012 interview, she said, “I wanted to know why some kids were devastated by setbacks and others seemed to thrive when they hit difficulty." What she found, across numerous studies, is that mindset is a consistent predictor of long-term success.  

One study, which Dweck and her colleagues repeated six times to confirm that its dramatic results were accurate, involved individually giving fifth graders ten problems from a non-verbal I.Q. test. After they completed the problems, students were offered specific kinds of praise. Some students were told, “That’s a really good score. You must be smart.”; others were told, “Boy, that’s a really good score. You must have worked hard.”; the last, control group were simply told, “That’s a really good score.” Then students were offered an additional task in one of two categories: one that was in their comfort zone and would be easy to complete or a more challenging task that they may fail to complete but from which they would learn something important. “The majority of kids who were praised for their intelligence wanted the easy task in their comfort zone, whereas the overwhelming majority of kids praised for the process wanted the hard task they could learn from,” Dweck noted.  

Finally, the researchers gave difficult problems to all the students and found that those who were praised for their intelligence after the first set of problems lost their confidence. Tellingly, when returning to the easier problems for a second time, these students’ performance suffered, and some even lied about their score. Conversely, those students who had been praised for the process remained engaged in working through the challenging problems. When they returned to the easier problems, their scores were higher than they had been in the first round. They also didn’t lie about their performance, as there weren't negative connotations around struggling through something difficult.   

As an educator, I’ve always been data driven. And what the data has shown time and again is that the brain has the capacity for incredible growth at all stages in life. In fact, it is through the process of failing and reassessing and finding a different approach that new neural pathways are created. For our students, the best gift we can give them is the knowledge that their brain is like a muscle that grows stronger with use, and the effort they expend to learn something new is the way they get smarter over time. When that concept clicks for students, they see moments of confusion, periods of struggle, and setbacks as opportunities to grow their brains. And that is when they can truly tap into their unlimited potential.