Can we change the mental attitudes that hinder our ability to learn?
How the "Fixed Mindset" limits us…

Which parent, Professor, Manager or Coach has not asked this question? Who has not, at one moment or another in their personal or professional life, wanted to see someone around them evolve and learn? And why do certain people seem to easily accommodate change and are able to rapidly implement new ways of doing things while others seem stuck. What is it about our state of mind that either encourages or hinders our capacity to learn?

This article speaks of the importance of our state of mind – our « Mindset » and the way we react to failure in the process of learning.

In fact, failure is often a necessary stage for the acquisition of new skills.

If we take the example of how babies learn to walk, one can’t help but be amazed by the extraordinary resilience and determination of infants when faced with failure. A baby falls innumerable times before mastering how to walk.

In contrast, when we study older populations, we notice that their reactions towards failure differ incredibly. Why do certain people bounce-back straight away after a setback whilst others wallow in feelings of ineffectiveness and powerlessness? Why do some people return straight away to their work whilst others abandon it at the first hurdle?

These questions are fundamental if we are to explore and understand what is necessary to put in place for the management of change systems and strategic trainings to be successful.

For more than 40 years, Carol Dweck, Professor of Social Psychology at Stanford University, has studied the attitudes of students confronted with failure. She has noticed that certain students rapidly succeed at bouncing back after a failure whilst others seem knocked over and even blocked after a minor setback.

With her team, she has focussed her research on the different representations that we have of ourselves and how these representations affect our behaviour and our capacity to adapt and learn.

After having studied the behaviour of thousands of students, Dr Dweck, in her book Mindset defined the terms "Growth Mindset" and "Fixed Mindset" to describe two fundamental beliefs that humans have developed for envisaging their intelligence and their capacity to learn.

 Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset

 "Fixed Mindset" represents a state of mind of people who consider that intelligence and skills are practically set since birth. In contrast, "Growth Mindset" represents a state of mind of those who consider that intelligence evolves, that we do not stop learning and that we can improve.

Science indicates that those people who have a "Growth Mindset" are right. The most recent research shows the incredible plasticity of the brain (even at an advanced age). To know a bit more, you can read this interview (in French) by Catherine Vidal, Neurobiologiste, Director of Research at the Institute Pasteur or watch this short video with beautiful animations in English

According to studies, about 40% of students have a "Growth Mindset", in which they do not consider that their intelligence is fixed. Consequently, they are not afraid of challenges, they appreciate feedback and when confronted with a setback, they continue and try to do better.

Another 40% of students have a "Fixed Mindset", in which they consider that their intelligence is a fixed entity (they believe that they are born intelligent or of average intelligence and no matter what they do, their capacities practically never evolve). Consequently, they do not enjoy challenges, they have a fear of failure, they are fearful of negative criticism and they prefer simple tasks (and lots of congratulations because they can do them well!).

The remaining 20% of students do not fall into a definite "Mindset". It is important to note here that no one presents a 100% "Growth Mindset " or 100% "Fixed Mindset". What is described represents rather a tendency and the percentages depend upon the types of learning chosen.

The researchers precise that the "Growth Mindset" and "Fixed Mindset" are not limited to the period of childhood and adolescence in humans. Adults retain almost systematically a disposition of "Fixed Mindset" for certain subjects since childhood but as we will see it is possible for this to evolve.

The diagram below represents characteristics of the two states of mind:


How to encourage a "Growth Mindset"?

Companies and Team Members are confronted with challenges that must be dealt with increasingly quickly: digitalisation, transformation of jobs, the evolution of skills, etc.

It has become vitally important and strategic for teams to learn, evolve and adapt rapidly.

It is obviously preferable that the state of mind of learners (we include naturally the Managers) are closest to that of a "Growth Mindset". How can we help them?

1- By helping each Team Member discover the concepts of "Growth Mindset" and "Fixed Mindset".

Most Team Members have never heard of the concepts of "Fixed Mindset" and "Growth Mindset"

The simple fact of presenting these concepts and demonstrating the plasticity of our brains can help greatly.

Here is a little graph showing the impact that the presentation of the concept of "Growth Mindset" had on school results.


We can see a constant improvement in grades for mathematics for those students who had participated in the "Growth Mindset" intervention (represented in green on the graph). This compares with the control group of students who had not attended this intervention (represented in orange on the graph) whose grades decline as the skills taught become increasingly complex.

Naturally the practice of teachers (Trainers, Coaches, Managers, etc in business) are equally influential in encouraging a "Growth Mindset" as illustrated in the following graph:


In this graph we can see the number of problems that were successfully solved by students after a failure when the teacher praised their efforts, so encouraging a "Growth Mindset" (represented by the green line). This compares to the performance of students whose teacher praised their intelligence, so encouraging a "Fixed Mindset" (and represented by the orange line).

Please be careful, the concept of "Growth Mindset", is sometimes summarized as «Praise efforts, not the results ». This is obviously a limited interpretation because results do count. It would seem more sensible to praise efforts and then help the student to try other strategies to obtain results.

2. Teach Team Members to recognise their « Fixed Mindset » voice.

Being conscious of his state of mind is a major step. Once the ideas of "Growth Mindset" and "Fixed Mindset" are understood and accepted by the Team Members and their support environment, it is important to help them be conscious and recognise in what state of mind they have a tendency to find themselves in certain circumstances.

3 questions should clarify this:

  1.  What is my state of mind when I am faced with new challenges?
  2. What are my reactions when I suffer a setback?
  3. What are my emotions when I am criticised?

Fear is associated with failure, the fierce desire to preserve one' s dignity or the habit of blaming someone else are signs of "Fixed Mindset".

3. Convince Team Members that they have a choice.

The way Team Members see challenges, setbacks and criticisms is personal. If they have a predisposition towards a rather "Fixed Mindset", it is good to remind them that they are free to think differently. For example, you can ask them to imagine how people with a "Growth Mindset" might respond.

4. Put in place a favourable environment

Environment plays a vital role. If the application of a new skill is not fostered and supported, the impact of the Team Members will be weak or negligible. For example, acknowledging the right to make mistakes, giving space for Team Members to appropriate new ways of doing things, even if it makes them less productive in the short term.

So, can we change the mental attitudes that hinder our acquisition of new skills and the path to change?

The response is a clear YES as demonstrated by both the social sciences and neurosciences.

Do interventions that present the concepts of a "Growth Mindset" and "Fixed Mindset" have a measurable impact? The response is clearly YES. That is why American businesses, schools, universities and even the army follow interventions for sensitising teachers to these concepts.

Can teachers, trainers, coaches or managers favour a "Growth Mindset"? The response is clearly YES, but their interventions must respond to certain conditions. (We will certainly have the opportunity to develop this point elsewhere.) 

Pierre de Gentile 

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