The Growth Mind-Set: How Intelligence Can Change and Grow

5 min to read
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Is intelligence fixed or malleable?

Science teachers know that metals are malleable. That is, that they can change in shape. Artists who work with clay know how malleable it is—shapeable, stretchable, and changeable. Likewise, cognitive scientists know that intelligence, or the ability to learn, is also malleable.

Now, decades of educational neuroscience research proves that when students become aware that their intelligence is malleable, their motivation to learn soars. But when they believe their intelligence or abilities are “fixed” by nature, their motivation may plummet at the first sign of a learning challenge.

What Is a Growth Mindset?

Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, researcher, and author, refers to these two very different outlooks on learning as the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. According to Dweck, these mindsets have a profound impact on students’ success—in the classroom and beyond.

If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that we are each born with fixed intelligence and abilities and that our personal efforts have relatively little impact on those abilities. However, if you possess a growth mindset, you believe that our intelligence and abilities can grow and improve over time through personal effort and perseverance.

In short, students benefit from knowing they can learn. Students with a growth mindset have higher self-esteem and more motivation to seek out challenges and learn from mistakes. They view a rigorous curriculum as an exciting and energizing challenge that can lead to success. They understand that just as people get stronger and more agile by training and working out physically, working out the brain can increase strength, agility, and, most importantly, learning potential.

Young student working on a STEm project at home.

Shifting to a Growth Mindset

Shifting to a Growth Mindsetour brains, thanks to malleable intelligence. Learning Coaches and teachers can play a major role in helping students shift from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets by modeling a growth mindset and teaching students study skills and strategies. This provides tools for solving problems and methods by which to face challenging content.

Adults can also enhance the learning process with positive, specific feedback. Rather than saying “you’re so smart,” praise the student’s process and strategies. Commenting on their intelligence as a form of praise can actually reinforce the idea that intelligence is fixed.

Rather than providing a generic “good job!” as students finish, Learning Coaches and teachers can integrate prompts and leading questions throughout lessons. According to Yes, Inc., here are some questions to ask that can encourage a growth mindset:

  • What will you do to solve this problem?
  • How did you keep things going when things got tough?
  • What happened today that made you keep going?
  • What else do you want to learn?
  • Are you proud of the end result? 
  • Why or why not?
  • What did you do today that made you try hard?
  • What did you learn from this?
  • How have you prepared yourself to learn today?
  • What learning strategies did you use today?
  • What mistake did you make today that taught you something?
Young student working on a project with his learning partner.

Growth Mindset Activities In addition to these guiding questions, growth mindset activities for kids can help reinforce the idea of malleable intelligence:

  1. Famous Fails — Some of the greatest minds in history have experienced significant setbacks, including Abraham Lincoln, Walt Disney, and Stephen King. Go on a library or web search with your kid(s) for some of history’s most famous failures. How did these people fail, and how did they come back even stronger to accomplish their goals and dreams? 
  2. Accomplishment Jar — Each day, take a small slip of paper and have your kid(s) write their answer(s) to the following questions: “What’s one thing that I accomplished today? How do I feel about it, and why?” Place the paper inside the jar and at the end of each month, take out each slip and review their accomplishments. Once the jar is full, start with a new jar and keep the cycle going. Over time, they will be able to see visually how much they’ve accomplished just by looking at the jars.
  3. 3-2-1 Exercise — At the end of the week, ask your kid(s) the following questions: What are 3 things I’ve learned? What are 2 things I want to learn? What is 1 question I still have?

Intentional questions and activities encourage self-reflection, empowering students to analyze the way they learn. This kind of analysis helps learners recognize struggle as a positive part of ongoing growth rather than failure. Practice may not lead to perfection, but practice in the form of repetition can hone skills and enhance the potential for growth. Knowing that struggle is to be expected leads to increased effort and less discouragement as students work toward their goals.

The above techniques reinforce the learning process and reveal how you can grow your intelligence by developing a growth mindset. Learn more about how you can help your student grow and thrive through additional educational activities with Connections Academy.

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