How Schools Promote Fixed Mindsets and Prevent Growth

Justin Spears – November 17, 2019

Admittedly, I am awful at math. All through school, down to the last official class I took in college, I struggled with the subject. Since leaving the academic setting I have not gone out of my way to improve those skills. I would argue that the reason for this is my lack of ability to understand mathematical concepts. This, in turn, leads to a lack of effort and caring in how I perform math-related tasks. In short: I just don’t get it, so why bother?

The Fixed Mindset

What I have just expressed is often referred to as a fixed mindset. People who employ this line of thinking typically believe their abilities to succeed are based on talent and not effort. This leads to the line of thinking explained above: I am not talented/gifted at math. Therefore, no amount of effort will change that.

How does one develop this mindset? Are we wired to believe this as people? Surely not! Otherwise, how on earth would we ever learn to do anything? We would drop our heads and stop every time we failed. We know this is not true since we persevere through learning to walk, talk, read, ride a bike, and so on. So again, how do we develop this way of thinking? The answer lies in an age-old institution that burns this into our minds. But first, we must examine the evolution of growth and fixed mindsets.

Dr. Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University. In her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of SuccessDr. Dweck introduces the concepts of fixed and growth mindsets. As explained above, the fixed mindset is developed as children receive the message that they cannot change the outcomes they experience in learning. This is very much a fatalistic worldview that sees one’s learning ability as predetermined. No amount of effort or caring will fix this. Have you ever found yourself thinking this way?

The Growth Mindset

The growth mindset, on the other hand, focuses on processes of learning. Embracing this model encourages educators and learners to examine how outcomes were achieved and to be open-minded to changing strategies and techniques that were used. In a 2016 interview with The Atlantic, Dr. Dweck stated that applying this train of thought produces thinkers who “believe everyone can develop their abilities through hard work, strategies, and lots of help and mentoring from others.” As you can see, the takeaway is in encouraging students to overcome weaknesses by examining effort level and technique.

In the same interview, Dr. Dweck discusses what she calls a “false growth mindset” that has emerged among educators. Essentially, she claims that educators have misread the intent of applying the growth mindset with students. Instead of analyzing the process, educators have fallen into simply praising the student, no matter the outcome. This is what she calls “false praise,” and it sends the wrong signals to the child, thereby teaching them that failure is an acceptable outcome. So how has this way of thinking settled into our schools?

Public schools have and always will promote a fixed mindset. This is true because the foundation of schooling is based on force. Acknowledging this is vital to understanding why so many educators have misread Dr. Dweck’s attempt at challenging them—and to a lesser extent the system—on how we reflect on the learning process. The proverbial “one-size-fits-all” approach that schooling promotes does not allow for an inspection of the learning process. Any serious attempt to do this is simple lip service. Attempts to study learning languages, multiple intelligences, and other learning frameworks have resulted in a futile attempt to change what cannot be altered.

Public Schools Are Inherently “Fixed”

What cannot be altered is the fixed way in which schools approach educating children. In the modern school, children are corralled into classrooms and forced to learn concepts they may — or probably more likely, may not — care about. Even if a teacher attempts to cater to different learning styles, the bureaucracy of schooling stifles them. Standardized tests, standardized curriculums, and even standardized rules have pigeonholed students and teachers into conforming to the system. Clearly, you can see how this promotes the fixed mindset.

Dr. Dweck’s own experience could have been used as an opportunity to reflexively examine the negative effects of forced schooling. As a student at a public school in New York, she was subjected to a model that rewarded students based on IQ scores, where students were rewarded for having high abilities. Dr. Dweck took to remedy this in her work years later. While her theory is absolutely solid and has terrific merit, the vehicle of school fails to deliver on what embracing the growth mindset can do. In essence, instead of using this as a chance to call out forced schooling, she falls into the trap of believing it can be reformed. 

I am often amazed at the comments people make to me regarding teaching today. They usually range from sympathy to encouragement. No matter what I hear from people, there is one comment that almost always surfaces without fail: School isn’t like it was back when I was there.

This may be true. Rules, regulations, people, books—they may have all changed. But one thing has remained constant from the start: Public schools promote fixed mindset thinking. No amount of reform will change that. Breaking down forced schooling and allowing choice and freedom—now that is a growth mindset.

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