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Brain, Education, and Inquiry - Fall, 2010: Session 14A

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain, Education, and Inquiry

Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2010

Session 14A

Facilitated by Abby EM

Carol Dweck's Mindsets and Consequences for Educators


Set 1:

Set 2:



Dweck and Leggett  (What follows comes from Haverford Professor Jennifer Lilgendahl’s lecture slides from 9/30/10)

Entity theory (i.e., Fixed Mindset)
-Belief that characteristics (e.g., intelligence, personality) are fixed traits that cannot be changed
-Leads to focusing on gaining positive judgments and avoiding negative ones
-More inclined to give up, avoid, etc. when the going gets tough

Incremental theory (i.e., Growth Mindset)
-Belief that characteristics are malleable and can be improved or developed through effort
-Leads to focusing on learning, growing, and changing
-More inclined to work harder when the going gets tough


College student #1: Entity Theorist
“I feel upset at my failure, angry that I couldn’t have done better, and even a little depressed. Basically, I think my GPA sucks, ergo, I suck.  I value grades over education, which is wrong.”

College student #2: Incremental Theorist
“I feel I can do much better in school. It is still hard to accept the fact that I have a C on my transcript, but I look at my grades and I am inspired to do well . . . And despite my grades, I feel like I have learned a lot.”

Some questions to consider for our discussion of Education and the Brain…

- What ways do you think an educator could prime a growth mindset?
- Do you agree with Carol Dweck’s research that posits the benefits of Incremental theory? How could it instead be a disadvantage in the classroom and other life endeavors?
- How can educators take into account both types of students (and those at any point along the continuum) in their classrooms?
- In light of this theory, to what extent are other people in a child’s life similar to teachers? (parents, coaches.)


  • Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House, Inc.: New York, 2006.
  • Lilgendahl, Jennifer. Lecture and Powerpoint from Sept. 30th in PSYCH215- Personality     Psychology at Haverford College. 
  • McAdams, Dan P. The Person: An Introduction to the Science of Personality Psychology.     5th Edition. Hobokenn NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2009.


Your continuing thoughts about this and its relation to the classroom in the forum below ....





Ameneh's picture

I really enjoy writing. And

I really enjoy writing. And I've been told that I'm not too bad at it. But for a while now, I've stopped letting people read what I write. I write because I like it. I don't want it to be something I do because I'm good at it or because people think I'm good at it. So sometimes telling people they're good at something/praising them can go the opposite way. It can makes things less about them and more about others - it becomes something they do just because people say they should. 


FinnWing's picture


  This is a very interesting and thoughtful discussion.  I am particularly interested in how, in the entity perspective, being labeled as someone who is good at something causes one to gravitate to that thing.  If one is told that she is good at writing, but actually she really wants to be mathematician, I wonder how being told that she is good affects her choices?  This seems to be quite dangerous in a similar way to Skindeep's argument about the boy gravitating towards engineering rather than photography (although the pressures are slightly different).

   It seems that the most dangerous consequence of praise, whether entity or incremental, is that we are usually praised for what we are good at, and not always what we love.  I've seen many cases where someone loves something, e.g. basketball or acting, and they are not good in the beginning, but they are great at running for example, so rather than face the uphill battle of doing what they love but are not good at, they gravitate towards the praise and run downhill.  In the long-term this seems to have two bad consequences: 1) that person does not really to push themselves for love of the action, but rather for praise; and 2) that person does not love what he is doing and so he is probably not as happy as he could be doing what he loves (and most likely if he loves basketball or acting that much, he will become good at it).  

  Anyway, those are my 2¢'s...

skindeep's picture

where are we going?

this discussion was very interesting, mainly because of the questions it raised - we spend all this time thinking about how to mold a child's mind, what to say and what not to say, how much positive reinforcement to give etc - but how much of it do we really control?

is a child inherently good at some things? or is it just because of the environment he is placed in? if people push him towards something, will he grow to love it/be good at it?

these leave me wondering. for example, i know a boy who is a brilliant artist, and his parents pushed him towards engineering - it wasn't a you-have-no-choice kind of pushing, but more of a you-have-the-grades-and-the-intelligence-for this kind of 'manuvering'. and while he did brilliantly at his subject, and had the best professors, he never fell in love with it. photography was always his passion and always something he excelled at without always having to try. no one praised his art, they looked at it as a hobby and left it at that, but he was still good.

does this take away from his natural talent? is there anything like natural talent? maybe he could have grown to be a world renowned  photographer, maybe he would have lost interest in it in a while, but what are we really trying to establish when we try and draw distinctions between what youre good at and what you potentially could be good at?

i agree with linkai when he says that kids do not fall under one or the other category of learners - i have definitely, over the years, watched myself change from a growth learner, to an entity learner and back again.

so what should we do? should we praise them, or not? or how?

i think, for the most part, parents and teachers both, should give their kids exposure to different fields of study, different perspectives, different ways of being. they should give them that and then give  them a secure, comfortable base, and then allow them to branch out and live their lives - and im confident that the kids themselves will figure out what they want to do, what they love, and who they want to be.

Angela DiGioia's picture

Interesting Idea, but....

I think that Dweck's sample group is highly biased by how they're being asked the experimental questions upon which Dweck's theory is based.  Of course a child is going to say that they would like to try an easier puzzle if the one in front of them is difficult.  This doesn't mean that a child is not is not going to be a successful, creative thinker later in life.  I agree with the comments above that a continuous, reinforcing voice in a child's life may lead them to think that they are smart (or not smart), but I think that Dweck's research excludes the most valuable interactions that children have that also shape who they become as adults, such as how they interact and communicate with adults, peers, and siblings in a variety of situations, not just in one where they are asked to solve a puzzle.  Most interesting, and telling of Dweck's theory in my opinion, would be a child's interactions with their peers and siblings.  If a controlled longitudinal study could be set up where a cohort of children are studied from pre-K thru high school, each of which were fed different feedback from parents, teachers, peers, and siblings, I wonder what would happen then.  I would think that Dweck's theory wouldn't hold that there is not a clearly distinguishable line between "fixed" or "growth" learners.  Learning is an evolution; just because a child is labeled as a "fixed" learner when they're six years old doesn't mean that they wouldn't have the opportunity to become a "growth" learner by the time they're in college (or vice versa).  Maybe I am too much of an optimist, but I believe that there are too many factors to control for here in a study to make the conclusions that Dweck does and to assert that parents (and other adults) should not praise children because it may damage their ability to problem solve later in life.

epeck's picture

I wonder how the researchers

I wonder how the researchers who proposed these theories would respond to an idea like Linkai's, that people telling a kid they are smart gives them a positive prophecy to live up to.  Although sometimes the stress of having to be "the smart kid" might be overwhelming to the point of failure, I do think there's a balance that will help kids try to live up to being the "smart kid."  I also see how this could cause kids who are not often praised for being smart to self-label as the "dumb kid," and how crippling that label can be. 

I think that although these theories may have some flaws in them, the key message is similar to that of stereotype threat - that labeling people can hinder or help them (depending on the label, flexibility of the label, and how much people self-identify as the label).  If people know that a label can change and they are being praised for their work, they will work hard.  If people are praised for the quality and accuracy of their end results, they will work until their end results match their expectations.  It seems to me that the studies were a bit flawed because the children were praised for different things, and so of course they learned to behave in a way that was praised.  I think children need to hear that they are good at something - whether it comes from intense work and dedication or natural talent.  Maybe we could praise the work and the final result?  I'm not sure what a good half-way point between only praising effort and only praising results would be.

simonec's picture

i agree with linkai

in terms of some praise being good praise.

i taught with an art program where we were not allowed to give any praise, in the fear that it would change what the students wanted to produce, based off of what we responded well to.  I think that this is a good example of praise-theories that have real meaning: dont tell the kid his painting is good, ask if he likes it!

However, in many situations I do think that praise is good.  I have yet to meet a child I thought to be unintelligent - so telling kids they are smart, as long as we are not pitting them against each other, seems like it could be productive. 

LinKai_Jiang's picture

Entity and Incremental

I disagree with the basic assumption of the entity theory that our intelligence is fixed (or largely unalterable). It is contrary to how our brain develops. The extreme flexibility of babies' brain is an evidence that our intelligence is very much malleable. However, I am not totally against praising kids in the Entity way: oh, you are such a smart kid! I think it can serve to boost students' self-esteem by giving them a positive prophecy to fulfill. In my Chinese elementary school, teachers and parents praised kids by referring to their nature all the time. It worked for me: I was motivated to be the smart kid because I was designated as the smart kid. I acknowledge that this kind of praise could be damaging in cases where the kid just cannot live up the expectation that he and others set for himself. But their option does not have to be feeling inadequate. An Incremental type of praise could complement very well here. Saying something like, "you are a smart kid, but you didn't put enough effort into the work" or "this is a challenging question, you are a smart kid you'll eventually get it" can both affirm the students' "natural intelligence" but encourage them to make more effort. This affirmation is based on the assumption that intelligence is very much subject to modification and especially improvement.    



ellenv's picture

change in motivation

 One thing that made me what to come to a liberal arts college was the fact that there was an emphasis on creating a well rounded student. Part of the problem I ran into in high school was the fact that I didnt know what I liked to do or which subjects I found interesting. Often, the subjects I liked the best were the subjects with the best teachers. It wasnt really the actual content of the class that I was drawn to, it was the way it was being taught or the atmosphere that was being created in the classroom. I would hate to think that I am, as a person, always stuck in what ever level of intelligence that I currently have. This would mean I would have stuck with those subjects that, like in high school, were not actually interesting to me in the long run. If we went by the idea that we are generally stuck in our level of intelligence, I dont think people would actually pursue fields of study that were interesting to them, the would choose a field of study that fit in nicely with what they already know. In order to learn, there is a necessary amount of struggle and conflict that is going to arise and when this does happen, it is quite possible that one day I would want to challenge myself to confront this challenge. At the same time though, it is also very possible that the next day I would not feel this same sense of motivation to challenge. Different motivations can exist within a person, so can intelligence really be considered in terms of motivation?

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