Forget the Growth Mindset (for a Moment): Time to Unravel the Fixed Mindset


Enthusiasm is building about ‘growth mindset’ and how it helps students persevere and stay open to new challenges. In line with this, understanding the ‘fixed mindset’ can also help us find new ways to help students push through their fears of failure and inadequacy.

What’s a fixed mindset?

A person with a fixed mindset believes that ability and intelligence are things we’re born with or not, and there’s not much we can do to change the ‘fixed amount’ we are born with.

Why should you care?

Research shows that fixed mindsets hold people back from persevering and trying new and challenging things that will help their brain grow.

What can you do?

Before we get into what to do about, lets look at how a fixed mindset happens in the first place.

Fixed mindsets are formed because of limited ‘data’.

Our thoughts occur according to what our environment exposes us to.

When we’re born, we are exposed to a very limited number of people who are regularly around us. We are not exposed to the billions upon billions of diverse opinions, behaviors and beliefs that actually exist in the world.

Sincewe have similar environments and similar people around us over and over again, we are therefore likely to have similar thoughts (about ourselves, about others, about life) over and over again.

Each time we have a thought, neurons are sending electrochemical pulses to each other.Those signals need to cross a tiny gap between cells. (pretend that the X’s are the neurons, the signals are the dashes)

X – – – X

After we’ve had a similar thought enough times, the brain treats it as a ‘high priority’. It then sends white fat (myelin) to those connections to help those ‘high priority’ signals travel even faster. Those pathways are now on ‘auto-pilot’.


If we think a thought enough times, the brain will put it on auto-pilot – even if it’s a thought that makes us feel bad.

For many of us – this means that based on the opinions of a very limited number of people – who all have opinions of us and what we’re capable of, and what humans are capable of – those limited opinions and beliefs become our auto-pilot way of how we respond to life.

The less exposure we have to ‘conflicting data’ (other people’s opinions, other experiences that tell us something else), the more pathways we will have based on that limited ‘data’.

This is why most of us repeat thoughts (and therefore behaviors) over and over again.

Think about it… What do you see more often? The same kid in the office over and over, or a totally new kid each day?

Until we become more conscious of them, we repeat our patterns from our past.

Mindsets apply to ability and talent, and social and emotional skills.

…including how wereact to making a mistake,how defensive we get when we’re criticized,how we use anger to express our fear, orhow we shut down when we are overwhelmed.

These are all LEARNED responses. They all come from the limited data and opinions we have been exposed to over the course of our lives.

If we’re around 100% uplifting, empowered, enlightened people, we may build those types of pathways. But most of us are not around that most of the time.

So what can you do?

Expose yourself and your students to more “data” to help them (and you) expand into growth mindsets.

The less variety of experiences we have been exposed to, the more assumptions our brain has to make.

To be efficient – our brain puts all the data we receive into one of three categories: helpful, harmful or irrelevant.

If a student hasn’t had much exposure to making mistakes without feeling fearful or bad, his brain will put mistakes into ‘harmful’, or ‘threat’ category..

So now, that student…
a) won’t dare try hard something he doesn’t know he’s good, and
b) will have even less chance of building a track record – neural pathways- that say ‘I can survive discomfort, mistakes/failure and I can aim high even if I don’t succeed right away’.

How do we get ‘more data’ for new pathways?

Here are three ideas :

1) Create a culture of embracing process, strategy, effort, mistakes.
Explain that mistakes represent more brain growth than getting answers right: if you’re getting it right, it just means your brain has already done it, so nothing new is happening up there! (Get lesson ideas atStanford University’s fantastic

2) Talk about your own vulnerability, struggles, how you don’t always get things on the first try.
Show them a grown-up who is self-aware enough to admit they (and most grown-ups) don’t always know what they’re doing. Show them stories of people who have failed repeatedly and kept going.

3) Expose students to examples of people with different experiences & struggles
(stories from other cultures, cities, neighborhoods). The more students see a variety of perspectives and struggles, the fewer assumptions their brains will make – this new brain activity leads to higher levels of insights, innovation and empathy.

Finally, acknowledge that the path to a growth mindset is, to quote Dweck “a journey, not a proclamation”. We all have certain levels of limited thinking in some areas and more growth-oriented in others. Model and outwardly verbalize self-compassion. Notice progress and efforts to be more growth-minded, rather than focusing on the results of ‘having a growth-mindset’.

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