Creating a Learning Culture

Praise is a powerful motivator, but according to Carol Dweck, author of Mindset and professor of psychology at Stanton University, if we give the wrong type of praise, we can discourage our students from learning and set many on the path to becoming non-learners.

I read her book last school holidays (after discovering it through my Twitter PLN of course) and have spent the last few days preparing a presentation about her research for my colleagues when we return to school for Term 3, on Monday. The results of her research are startling, with enormous implications for teaching and learning.

Dweck’s study has revealed why some people go on to achieve and succeed, but others opt out, drop out or simply coast along, never really fulfilling their potential. She asks the question,

How can we ensure our students remain learners?

It comes down to what she calls ‘mindsets’.

There are two: Fixed and Growth.

People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is finite. We are born with a finite quantity of intelligence (or ability in any field – sport, music etc) and that’s it. That’s your quota for life. You either have it or you don’t.

People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence, and all abilities, can be developed over time.

Those with a fixed mindset usually become non-learners whereas those with a growth mindset become lifelong learners.

Which mindset is correct – is intelligence fixed, or can it be developed?

According to Dweck, most scientists now believe  that while we are all born with certain genetic endowments, intelligence can be developed.

Even the man who invented the IQ test, Alfred Binet,  believed that intelligence can be grown.

‘With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent that we were before’ – Binet

Scientists also talk today of  neuroplasticity, which  refers to the brain’s ability to reorganise itself based on experiences.

Would you like that concept explained? Here’s a video.

The important thing though, is not so much the nature versus nurture debate, but the attitude we take towards our learning.

It’s what we believe that matters.

Problems with the Fixed Mindset

Effort is seen as a bad thing. 

I often see this in students, particularly some of the apparently more capable students. Students who have been praised all their life for being clever, or doing things easily (“Wow, you solved that quickly, you must be really clever!”) start to associate effort with ability. They start to think that If it comes quickly and easily then they must be good at the subject, but if they have to work at it,  they mustn’t be all that smart. They may have been clever enough for less challenging work, but not  enough for any work that requires an effort.

And if they’re not all that smart, then what is the point of trying? They’ll never be any good at it anyway.

In a growth mindset, however, effort is seen as the key to learning. Students with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed, so they don’t view effort as a sign they are not clever, instead they view it as the path to learning.

Mistakes are evidence of failure

A person with a fixed mindset views a mistake as evidence that they are not smart or clever. They will avoid situations where they are likely to fail, stay in their comfort zone, and attempt to make excuses or hide their mistakes.

Students with a growth mindset view mistakes as an opportunity to learn new things. They will analyse their mistakes to work out what went wrong, and use this knowledge to go on to greater learning.

How can we encourage the growth mindset?

Dweck discovered that the way we praise students can have a powerful impact on their learning, and can encourage either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

Students praised for being clever and talented start to develop fixed mindsets. Students praised for effort develop growth mindsets.

She explains the powerful effect of praise on student learning in this video:

So there you have it. Praise is very powerful.

What not to praise:

  • Intelligence: “Wow, you must be really smart!”
  • Speed/Ease: “You did that so quickly/easily. Clever girl.”

What to praise:

  • Effort: “You must have tried really hard.”
  • Challenges: “Well done, you’ve chosen a really tricky problem. You’ll learn a lot from that.”
  • Strategies: “You used a good strategy to solve that problem.”
  • Choices: “The adjective you used here is very effective.”

Learning about the Mindsets has had a powerful impact on my teaching. I still catch myself from time to time praising intelligence and cleverness, but more and more I’m praising the effort that my students put in. By the simple act of changing my language, I’m  promoting values such as persistence, effort and embracing challenges. I want to develop a learning culture in my school and classroom where all students are engaged, experience that joy of learning and go on to become lifelong learners.

For more information about Mindset, I highly recommend you read Carol Dweck’s book.

You can also visit my delicious stack where I’ve collated several websites and resources about Mindset that I find useful.

Finally, here’s a great info graphic by artist Nigel Holmes which I found on this website. It summarises the key differences between the mindsets.




6 thoughts on “Creating a Learning Culture

  1. Hi Daniel,
    Thanks for commenting. I love the quote!

    I think fixed mindsets are very common in Western cultures. I often hear people say I’m no good at art, or maths or other areas, and use that as a reason for not trying. I did it myself for most of my life with sport. I’d feel so humiliated if I missed a catch or do something clumsy. If I’d taken a growth mindset view, I would have tried hard to learn the skills needed, instead of making excuses to miss sports classes, and avoiding situations where I would have to play. Of course, I never improved but instead of understanding that that was due to my lack of effort, I just figured I was bad at sport and would never be any good at it.

    It seems a ridiculous attitude when I write it down and look at it objectively!

    Thankfully, Dweck says its possible to change our mindsets and also to cultivate a growth mindset among our students simply by changing our language and the way that we praise.

  2. Thank you for this excellent post and focusing on the necessity of mistakes and our beliefs (or causal attributions) about effort and intelligence. While I train teachers I try to make it very clear how praise and effective feedback are two different things – and so I try to avoid calling feedback praise. Of course, my own connotation for the word “praise” is somewhat negative, because I see it as a tool to boost self-esteem, and that is not what I want to do in teaching-learning situation. My focus is on providing realistic, specific and timely feedback to help students best build their worldview and construct their own understanding about the life, universe and everything.

    • Hi Nina, thank you for so much for commenting. I see what you mean about the language we use. Feedback is a much better term to use as it implies language that helps a student to focus on how they can continue developing, rather than a simple “Good job” which might make a student feel good temporarily, but doesn’t help to keep moving forward. Thank you for making that distinction, its very helpful.

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