Carol Dweck may be a name that you have heard in recent years due to her prominent work on what she termed “growth and fixed mindsets”. But do you understand what she meant by those terms and what her work has to do with early years? In this short series of two articles, we will look at her research, theories and conclusions and see what relevance it has to looking after and educating young children.

Who is Carol Dweck?

Carol Dweck is a psychologist, born on October 17th, 1946, in New York. She graduated from Barnard College in 1967, later completing a Ph.D. at Yale University in 1972. She has worked at the Universities of Columbia, Illinois and Harvard and is now the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Dweck is considered a pioneering figure in the study of human motivation and is best known for her research work on implicit theories of intelligence, and how people’s mindsets can influence their motivation and success. She came to prominence in 2006 after the publication of her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”. According to her theories, individuals can be placed on a scale according to their views about where ability comes from, and she coined the terms ‘fixed mindset’ and ‘growth mindset’.

Fixed mindset

When people have a fixed mindset about something, they tend to believe that their success is based on their innate ability – i.e. abilities they were born with/without and they view these as fixed traits. This type of thinking can be limiting, because people tend to believe that once they have reached their perceived potential, then they cannot get better. Therefore, they have a ‘fixed’ view of what is possible for them. These people may say things like “He can play the piano because he has a talent, but I don’t” or “I can do my times tables easily, but I can’t do Pythagoras.” They often view failing as something terrible which defines the limit of their intelligence or abilities, so they often have a strong fear or failing which stops them from trying.

Growth mindset

People who have a growth mindset, think that they can influence their success. They tend to believe that success comes from putting in effort, trying out and learning new things, and practicing until you master the task. These people believe that progress can be achieved by improving a little bit at a time and tend to view failure as a stepping stone on the way to success, seeing the learning opportunities in these experiences, so are more likely to continue when things don’t go as planned. In different research over many years of study, Dweck has shown that having a growth mindset can improve outcomes in different ages of students and improve their motivation to study or achieve.1 Other researchers have since used growth mindset intervention to show other positive effects including improved grades among lower-achieving students, and increased overall enrolment to advanced mathematics courses in a nationally representative sample of students in secondary education in the United States.2

Praising intelligence rather than effort

Another aspect that Dweck has warned about is the effect of praise and how it affects motivation. She argues that praising intellect over effort can put children into a fixed mindset and result in them not wanting to be challenged for fear of making a mistake and looking stupid. This has had important repercussions in our education system and has added to the debate about the power and effect of praising students, and how this should be done by teacher, parents and caregivers. Dweck says: “Praising children’s intelligence harms motivation and it harms performance.”3 She advises, “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.” We will discuss this aspect of her work more in part 2.

Brain plasticity

In recent years, research into the plasticity of the brain has given more weight to Dweck’s theories as researchers have found that the brain can continue to change and make neural connections even in adulthood. It was previously thought that our brains stopped changing and developing once we became an adult, but this has been refuted in recent years. New research suggests that through experience and with practice, neural networks grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and build insulation (myelin) around connections that speeds up impulse transmissions.4 Dweck argues that growth mindsets can be fostered and developed and that educating people about mindsets can effect positive change. As her research became more well known, other researchers were also noticing how teacher practice had a big impact on the mindset of their students, the importance of teachers giving feedback, and the best and most effective feedback that they could give. Educationalists began to understand that teachers, parents and caregivers could either encourage children to accept challenges and overcome obstacles leading to increased achievements and better outcomes, or their feedback could be less constructive, less specific, often giving children a chance to accept their perceived limitations and to stop trying to strive for improvement.5 In recent years, Dweck has also been researching the effect of community mindset on pupil outcomes and achievement and has some preliminary results suggesting that having a growth mindset that is rooted in the community, can help students overcome some traditional barriers to learning such as poverty and disadvantage. Although this research is ongoing, preliminary results suggest that “students’ mindsets may temper or exacerbate the effects of economic disadvantage on a systemic level”.6 There have been criticisms that some of Dweck’s research is difficult to reproduce, but most researchers in the area have agreed that mindsets can change outcomes and her theories and ideas have been instrumental in changing the way we think about how children perceive themselves, and what we, as practitioners, can do to set them on a learning path to greater success. In the next article, we will look at what these theories mean in practice and how we can develop a growth mindset in the children in our settings.


1. List of Carol Dweck research whilst at Stanford 2. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1466-y 3. “The words that could unlock your child”, BBC News 4. https://www.simplypsychology.org/brain-plasticity.html#modern 5. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/guidance-reports/feedback 6. 2016 research https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1608207113

Further information

https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/dweck-growth-mindsets https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/  

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