Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Want Growth? Only Praise for Hard Work

Professor Carol Dweck is interested in what influences us. As a teacher, she has got interested in what happens in the brains of children, when they are rewarded for work they have done. She set up an experiment where she divided a group of 10 year old maths students into three groups, and set them all the same maths test.

The interesting thing was that each group was given a positive response, regardless of how well they did on the test. Group A was told that "That's a really good score! You are really smart at this!". Group B was told that "That's a really good score! You must have worked really hard!". Group C, the control group, was told that "That's a really good score".

The students were then given some new problems to do straight after the test, in vary degrees of difficulty. They could chose whatever problems they would like to do.

There were some differences in the level of problems that the students chose to do next. Group B, the students who were told they had worked very hard, chose harder problems than those they had taken in the test. Group A, the students who were told they were smart, chose much easier problems than those they had done in the test.

So they took a look at what was going on by repeating the test with participants in an fMRI machine. Our brains at rest, regardless of whether we show Group A or Group B behaviours, look the same. But when we are told we worked hard, and chose harder problems to work on, we can see our frontal cortex firing hard and the heat from our brains working hard on the next problem.

If we are a Group A student, and are told we are smart, our brains do not fire: if we are praised for ability, we have something we want to protect: we have 'talent' that we want to protect, a position that we have to defend. We don't want to risk our cleverness, and have it eroded away by taking on something that is too hard for us. Dweck says this is a "fixed mindset brain, looking oh-so-cool, fleeing, running from errors as quickly as possible" (2013).

The brain image of someone who has worked hard is something they can continue to affect themselves: the comment has given them control. They know that trying harder will gain them mastery of things that are difficult, and will build their resilience. This has created a growth mindset. "Researchers monitored in the brain as students worked on the tests and made errors. See the red hot brains on the left? Those are growth mindset students, detecting the errors, processing them and correcting them" (Dweck, 2013).

How well people bounce back from mistakes depends on their beliefs about learning and intelligence. For individuals with a growth mind-set, who believe intelligence develops through effort, mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn and improve. For individuals with a fixed mind-set, who believe intelligence is a stable characteristic, mistakes indicate a lack of ability.

The brain is like a muscle. The harder we work it, the stronger it gets. "Every time you push out of your comfort zone to learn something new and hard, these neurons formed new connections and over time they would get smarter" (Dweck, 2013).

Neural pathways build and strengthen with repetition, and these in turn build behavioural traits.

We need to praise ability, not effort, and understand the power of yet. As in "You haven't mastered this YET".

What a great gift: we can improve with hard work. It means never telling someone that they can't do something: only that they have yet to find the key to unlock that particular skill set.

A fixed mindset leaves us stuck. We are unable to grow until we are able to honestly reflect and allow other possibilities in: until we have dismantled our encircling lager. The fixed mindset is a place of fear and avoidance.

A growth mindset lets us embrace challenges, helps us to keep our resilience when everything around us turns to custard, helps us see the incremental gains we are making towards mastery in our chosen profession, helps us learn from adversity, from criticism, from difficulty and from new situations; and helps us adopt other's learning and build it into our own practice. It helps us take on new ideas, and to think of new practices.

It is a virtuous cycle that builds.


To test your own mindset, go to  

  • Dweck, Carol (2013). Professor Carol Dweck 'Teaching a growth mindset' at Young Minds 2013. Retrieved 14 February 2014 from
  • Dweck, Carol (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. USA: Baltimore Books
  • Luft, Caroline Di Bernardi; Nolte, Guido & Bhattacharya, Joydeep (2013). High-Learners Present Larger Mid-Frontal Theta Power and Connectivity in Response to Incorrect Performance Feedback. The Journal of Neuroscience, Volume 33, issue 5 (pp. 2029-2038)
  • Moser, Jason S.; Schroder, Hans S.; Heeter, Carrie; Moran; Tim P. & Lee, Yu-Hao (2011). Mind Your Errors: Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterior Adjustments. Psychological Science, December 2011, Volume 22, issue 12 (pp. 1484-1489)

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