In her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck describes two mindsets—fixed and growth—and the effects these mindsets have on the way people approach change. People with a fixed mindset tend to focus on indicators or outward appearance of competence, while those with a growth mindset tend to focus on learning through hard work and trial and error. These mindsets are on a continuum, and individuals may exhibit different mindsets in different areas of their lives.
According to Dweck, people can choose their mindset, and she argues compellingly that a growth mindset is more conducive to learning, growth, and realizing one’s potential.
Those with a fixed mindset often rely on their innate abilities and often seem able to perform well without much effort. When they don’t meet expectations, they tend to blame themselves and/or external forces. However, those with a growth mindset often are able to meet new challenges through trial and error. They tend to view setback as a learning opportunity and focus on finding creative and innovative ways to succeed.
One would think (and hope) that higher education professionals would tend toward the growth end of the continuum—taking advantage of every opportunity, both good and bad, to learn more and adapt to changes in one’s discipline. However, this is not always the case, says Jeremy Staples, associate dean at Sheridan College, who has used Dweck's work to foster a growth mindset culture with his faculty team.
“The fixed mindset individuals see themselves as inherently talented. We all hear stories of individuals who have the natural capacity to manage whatever they might be doing, and they seem to do it without any effort. So you can have a fixed mindset individual who can coast through high school, be successful in university and even obtain a PhD. But the orientation is still about the end results—a focus on their grades and their performance. Their focus is not on their learning and figuring out how to overcome the setbacks and challenges that get in the way; they’re more often there just for the grade. They have a performance orientation,” Staples says.
Despite its orientation toward learning and knowledge creation, academic culture can sometimes inadvertently encourage faculty (and students) to adopt a fixed mindset. For example, consider the context in which faculty operate: Performance reviews, however they are constructed which includes the search for tenure, can also lead to a fixed mindset. “Typically, for most organizations, trying something and failing is not considered the best thing that can happen for one’s performance review,” Staples says. “People respond to the stimuli they’re given, so if you want to be get a positive performance review you avoid anything that will have a hint of failure and focus on the end result that the organization has said it values.”
Sheridan College is mostly focused on teaching, so Staples has applied Dweck’s principles mainly toward encouraging faculty to employ innovative teaching strategies. “The response I get from faculty who either had or have made the shift to a growth mindset is that it’s a lot more work to approach the classroom as a facilitator and to create situations where students are leading their own learning but the faculty members’ levels of engagement and enjoyment of their work just soars incredibly,” Staples says. “The transition is not a linear process and is very tangled and messy at times and really requires a supportive faculty lead community of practice to help each other but the increase in innovation, collaboration, and the ability to learn from failures is remarkable.”
By adopting a growth mindset about their teaching, the faculty are also more likely to encourage a growth mindset in their students. The key, Staples says, is helping students understand that “learning is as much about trial and error as it is about being successful.”
Getting students to self-reflect is an essential part of encouraging the growth mindset. “The deepest learning typically takes place when people do self-reflection, or thinking about their thinking. But we don’t spend a lot of time getting students to think about their thinking in a typical educational environment. We teach them content, we assess them, we give them grades, and then we move on to the next thing. … Teaching students about the growth mindset provides a framework to help students understand the value of self-reflection in overcoming the many challenges that they will face in their personal learning journey. The professor plays a critical role by setting high expectations for their students but at the same time creating a growth mindset orientation in the design of their course that allows students to meet those goals where the professor becomes the facilitator and the students take charge of their own learning,” Staples says.
Getting faculty to take chances requires reassurance that failure will not unduly harm their careers. Staples recommends the following ways to help faculty adopt a growth mindset:
Dweck, C. S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House, 2006.