Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

by Todd Stanley

In the past few years, the idea of growth mindset has gained a lot of traction in education. The general idea behind growth mindset, a concept put forth by psychologist Carol Dweck, is that everyone has the ability to grow their mind. This is counter to the fixed mindset theory that espouses that everyone is born at a certain IQ and just stays there the rest of their lives.

The problem with both of these theories is that they are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. That means you either believe students do have the ability to grow their mindset or you do not. I would argue that like most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in between. On one end growth mindset, on the other fixed mindset: the truth lies in between with growth bands.

Growth mindset can run contrary to gifted education. Gifted does not necessarily believe in a fixed mindset, but in many states there is a “once gifted, always gifted,” attitude, meaning if a child were identified cognitively in 2nd grade, that is going to follow her all the way until the day she graduates. That means if the next time she is tested she falls from a 130 to a 100, she still is considered gifted.

To be honest, in my experience in gifted education, a majority of the time I see at most a little movement of cognitive scores from one year to the next, but they are not drastic improvements or falling scores. A child might go from a 128 to a 115, or another might improve from a 124 to a 129, but for the most part, there is a lot of consistency with these scores. There can be explanations as to why a child did not score as well, ranging from they did not get a good night’s sleep or a healthy breakfast, to they just did not take it seriously. I see a lot of false negatives, meaning that children who are gifted do not score high enough, but very rarely do I see false positives, or children who score gifted but are not. It would be very difficult for a child to score well without actually having the ability to do so.

Gifted education operates under the principle that we identify these high ability children and then provide them with programming that will be challenging. Some people claim this model to be elitist. Why should these children receive something different than your typical child? I would argue that just like special education students, gifted students have a unique need that often times a typical classroom is not meeting.

There are a lot of people such as myself who fight to get these special services for our gifted children. My fear is if people buy into the growth mindset model with open arms, they will argue there is no need for specialized gifted education because all students can be gifted. Given the standard definition of gifted as being the top ten percent of students, it is impossible for all kids to be gifted. If one believes all kids can be identified as gifted, this can be dangerous because then gifted students are not going to get the proper programming to be challenged.

Education has tried for years to try and meet the needs of gifted students in a heterogeneous setting, but the results are mixed at best with many gifted students not being pushed to their potential. It works if in a heterogeneous setting, the teacher is amazing at differentiated instruction and comes up with five different lesson plans. This is a lot to ask of a teacher.

That brings us to growth bands. The theory of mindset is that any child can grow his brain if he only has the right attitude about learning. The sky’s the limit. As nice as this theory is, there are certain limitations a child has in the growth of his brain. A child who has an 80 IQ in 2nd grade is most likely never going to get to a 130 no matter how positive he is or how hard he works. Instead of growth mindsets, what I would say is more realistic are growth bands.

Some children have more abilities than others but lack a growth mindset, so they achieve at the same level as another child without as many abilities but who has the growth mindset.  Other children who have the growth mindset only have so much ability so even when operating at their highest potential, it is still lower than those children who started with higher ability. The growth bands look something like this:

Notice child #2 and #3 have different starting points. Child #2 scored behind child #3 at first, but was able to catch up with hard work, grit, and a growth mindset. Child #3 did not grow as much because although she might have started with a higher ability, her achievement did not match this potential ability and thus she only grew a limited amount.   

Think of these growth bands as rubber bands. They have stretch to them, but there are limitations to this stretch. If you try and stretch it too far, just like the rubber band it will break, snapping back at you. The stretch is where the hard work and exposure to experiences comes into play. It is the combination of the hard work and ability that can stretch a child to his highest potential. Those that lack the effort might find their growth bands not stretching so far and thus do not reach their potential.

With this growth band mindset, we must try our best to match ability with effort. The best way to do that with gifted students is to challenge them to stretch as much as possible. The best way to do this with special education students is to do the same. Both might arrive at different places, but it has been a success. After all, it is our job as educators to try and stretch our students to the fullest of their extent. Understanding just how far their growth band can go is important to understand if we are going to do this.

  1. Lexia – 6 Tips to Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset
  2. Education Week – Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’
  3. EdSurge – 4 Ways to Encourage a Growth Mindset in the Classroom

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