Is there such a thing as a fixed mind or is it just down to ‘culture’?

In Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, she describes the difference between a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset. These differ from ‘open’ and ‘closed’ mindsets in important ways. we are not only speaking about ‘openness’ to change compared to wanting to stick to habits, rituals and the familiar. we are speaking about, attitudes to growing.

These mindsets apply to everyone from children, to celebrities, to athletes, to CEOs and she gives examples from each of these groups. In listening to her description, I recognized some of the characteristics in students, parents, teachers and administrators that I’ve worked with in Schools and Universities in developing countries.

A person with a Fixed Mindset believes that an individual is born with a certain amount of intelligence or talent and there is nothing that can be done to change that. I will never forget going into a colleagues office to complain about the local internet company and our own IT staff and their incompetency to ensure quality of service with our internet. I expected her to back me up and the pair of us (who were supposedly the academic heads of this university) to go and visit the ISP’s top executive to complain. Instead she rebuked my request by indicating that she had worked with another ‘man from the UK’ who would not, could not, understand that ‘this is …..[country name]’ – and that it is actually he and me who are wrong for expecting a similar level of service here. My protestations regarding how the internet is supposed to ‘flatten’ the world went unheeded, no doubt a further unintentional slight on the bare fact that I, in my privileged viewpoint, expected quality of service and democracy everywhere I tread on this earth! When she went around telling the students that they should be lucky that by just having [non-working] computers on- campus that they were lucky, as no doubt she had used a typewriter for writing her thesis.

Another was a 12 year veteran of English teaching in Thailand, who was sharing with his new colleagues in the staffroom a grammatical error in their regulation textbook in English. One senior local colleague took offence and told him that he, a native speaker, was very wrong in his appraisal of the error, as he and all others had taught using this book for twelve years and nobody, staff, students, parents, director had ever complained. He found himself being offered less and less classes after that.

People with fixed minds don’t react well to failure and don’t see the point of practice, studying, or attempts at self-improvement. They wish to stick to the given, the received, the accepted, and the conventional, if if gut feeling or rationale tells them otherwise. Think of military or martial arts training, it acts to help you out in situations where you instinctively know you should run for your life, or never set foot in such danger in the first place.

The owner of a Growth Mindset believes that talent and intelligence are factors that can also be improved with enough practice, studying, and hard work. They see a failure as an opportunity to learn and improve, not as an insult to their intelligence or natural ability.

When I think of these two mindsets and some of the teachers and administrators that I’ve worked with in the past, here are some of the characteristics I’ve seen that would lead me to deduce which mindset they’ve adopted.

Response to Change:
We’ve all met people who we call “resistant to change.” These are likely Fixed Mindset people. They see change as threatening because they’ve settled into the present system and any changes might upset that balance and make them look bad. To a Fixed Mindset, looking bad means that there is something innately wrong with them. Because they believe that characteristics are inborn and cannot be improved, this new system may reveal some of their natural weaknesses. It’s not change that they’re resistant to; they resist new situations that might make them look bad.

Teachers with a Growth Mindset see change as an opportunity to help more students succeed. Not only do they see change as an opportunity to improve themselves because they have a Growth Mindset for adults, but they also see the possibility that change might also improve students because they have a Growth Mindset for children too. Sometimes change really, really isn’t good for teachers or students, so these teachers don’t always automatically welcome change. But if it seems to be good for kids, Fixed Mindset teachers will gladly welcome such change.

Entire departments can have a growth mindset as well. I set up a group visit to a school once that was doing great things with interventions. They created post-tests for each essential standard, designed after-school interventions to go with each one, and assigned students who were not proficient on the essential standards to attend the intervention to earn the right to re-take the test. That’s a great Growth Mindset right there, but that’s not the real story.

The department chair from another school attended this visit and was very impressed. She took the idea back to her school and invited the department to make the program their own. They decided that after school wasn’t the best model because students played sports, cared for siblings, and had jobs after school. They decided to try Saturday school. To make a long story short, it didn’t work as well as they’d hoped, so they tried providing the interventions during the school day. This was a great step in the right direction because now the interventions could be mandated. After each benchmark exam, they built three “Interrichment” days into the pacing guide. Students who were proficient on the exams would go to enrichment opportunities and students who were not proficient would go to interventions and re-take the test on the third day. This worked much better and they studied how the program affected students. They still weren’t happy with the results. So, they modified it involving honors and AP students in the interventions as tutors. The results got even better. Every semester, they changed the program a little bit, getting better and better each time. Not only was this a demonstration that they believed that they could improve by changing and working hard, but it also demonstrated the belief that with great lessons and enough of the correct interventions, students can improve too!

Response to Failure:
Teachers with a Fixed Mindset believe that some students will get the information and other students won’t. They are strong advocates of tight pre-requisites for classes with few or no exceptions. They believe that honors students will be successful despite what the teacher does and less-than-honors students will not be successful no matter what the teacher does. They attribute the difference between honors and non-honors students to many different things like family life, poor preparation, ELD status, poverty, etc. But even worse, they don’t believe that anything can be done to make up for these deficiencies.

Teachers with a Growth Mindset believe that all students have potential and can be successful if the teacher and student work together hard enough. They believe that any deficiencies that students have can be fixed regardless of whose fault they are. These teachers are constantly improving their practice, their lesson plans, and their interventions. When a student isn’t successful, they ask themselves, “What can I do differently next time?” They don’t get wrapped up in things they cannot control and instead, devote their energy to closing achievement gaps. I work with AVID programs at schools and my opinion is that much (most?) of the success of AVID is in putting a teacher with a Growth Mindset at the front of the classroom who believes that all kids can and should be successful.

Response to Professional Development:
Teachers with a Fixed Mindset don’t think that Professional Development accomplishes much because things like teacher quality and student ability are inborn and nothing changes them. They can be seen rolling their eyes and grading papers during professional development and would never volunteer to be on a committee. You’ll never see a request from a Fixed Mindset teacher to attend a conference or purchase a professional journal or book because that would be admitting that they have room for improvement. I’ve seen Fixed Mindset administrators say things like, “All the professional development in the world couldn’t make so-and-so a great teacher.” That Fixed Mindset comment is contagious and dangerous.

Teachers with a Growth Mindset read insatiably the latest research and content updates. They cannot wait for the newest professional journal to come out to see what new strategies they might try. Then, best of all, they take that research and try to improve their practice. They lead professional developments, take college classes, and try new things regularly. In my experience, the most successful administrators are also those who take research and put it into practice. They’re often found teaching education classes at the university or even students working on administrative credentials.

Response to Evaluations:
Teachers with a Fixed Mindset see evaluation as a thing that must be done but has no value to them. Since the characteristics measured in these evaluations (quality of teaching, success of students) are beyond their control (in their minds), the feedback from these evaluations isn’t of value to them. Fixed Mindset teachers are completely against the idea of student achievement being part of evaluations because they feel that student achievement is inborn and the teacher doesn’t affect it. These are the teachers who say things like, “What would happen if doctors were evaluated on the outcomes of their patients? They can’t make a patient take their medicine just like a teacher cannot make a kid do their homework.” It turns out that this is exactly how doctors are evaluated and not only that, but their pay is directly affected by the outcomes of their patients. My family practitioner explained that if a 50-year old doesn’t get a prostate exam, a diabetic doesn’t get regular blood tests and retinal exams, or a pregnant woman doesn’t get regular wellness exams, her pay is directly affected and so is her public quality ranking.

Growth Mindset teachers don’t always look forward to evaluations (who does?) but they do see them as opportunities for feedback and . . . well . . . growth. These are the teachers who say, “Sure, drop by my classroom anytime. You don’t need to tell me you’re coming.” They are the ones who email you 10 minutes after you leave asking, “So, what did you think? Where could I improve?” It is incredibly important for you to give these teachers the feedback that they hunger for. As a teacher, I had one evaluator who always told me, “You’re a better teacher than I was. I don’t know what to tell you.” That wasn’t valuable information to me and I longed for feedback that would help me grow.

Keep in mind that it does no good to just identify which mindset a teacher has adopted and I do not believe (because I have a Growth Mindset) that mindsets cannot change. The power here is in learning how to hire and support those with a Growth Mindset and try to move the Fixed Mindset teachers closer to a Growth Mindset. That will be the topic of the next series of posts, how to change a Fixed Mindset.

Now if you are interested in working in Cambodia consider the following site and think about what we have shared here. It contrasts the Cambodian mind with the western mind. You can find it here

I would appreciate if you could share your thoughts below.

2 responses

  1. In particular, the section outlining the story of the administrator who visited another school, and implemented an evolved curriculum of their own based on their visit, is part of the core-fundamentals of Behaviorism (as I learned it). To me, behaviorism states that an old-dog CAN learn new tricks. So that is to say, a young learner can learn ALL tricks, regardless of culture, class, or creed. As long as conscious effort, follow-up and feedback, and consistent testing/monitoring is in place, there is little that cannot be achieved.
    Take for instance, the organizational technique of determining the Potential for Improvement (PIP). Using this measure, calculations are made from the performers who are achieving outstanding results, with comparison to the performers who are not achieving the desired results. Without a PIP analysis, or the growth mindset, the idea is more often than not that the low performer cannot improve, and low results must be accepted or the performer replaced. With the PIP calculation, it shows that those who achieve lower leveled results have more room for improvement than those who are performing at higher levels. With this analysis, trouble areas and areas of acceptable performance can be pinpointed and measured in order to diagnose the hindrances and implement performance management contingencies.

    Very interesting article!

  2. Pingback: The Fixed Mindset – Catch 22? | In the pICTure

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