How a Single Comment Can Craft or Slay a Growth Mindset

Michael Rousell, PhD
Jun 14 · 3 min read

Where Growth Mindsets Come From

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First, let’s examine a typical classroom scenario for a young child. Ms. Givens gives a short lesson that includes successful strategies to tackle similar math questions. Afterwards, she gives the students a few problems to solve and then walks around the room to monitor their work. Events like this take place regularly, leaving their influence behind, often outside any awareness or intent.

Compare two possible comments to an anxious first-grade student who is struggling with a math problem. Comment A: “Goodness, Samuel. You sure struggle with math.” Comment B: “Goodness, Samuel. Your willingness to stick with tough problems makes you a strong student.” The first comment suggests that Samuel is “weak at math.” The second suggests he is a “strong learner.” Statements such as these might easily shape Samuel’s personal belief regarding his math ability.

If Samuel accepts “You sure struggle with math,” he may begin to give up on math when it becomes difficult. After all, he’s just not good at math. Avoid it. We know how that cycle ends up. Now imagine if Samuel accepts the second remark, “Your willingness to stick with tough problems makes you a strong student.” This would play out differently. When problems get harder, he tries harder and sticks with it. We also know how this positive cycle develops. He gets a motivation boost from the neurotransmitter dopamine, because after all, that’s the sign of a good learner and he’s a good learner.

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Our brains are always accessing the environment, sensing opportunity or threat, and then immediately releasing neurotransmitters to optimize our response to a situation. Emotions activate either “avoid” or “engage” behavior. Operating below our conscious radar, they allocate fewer cognitive resources if unimportant, more resources if important.

If Samuel believes he’s not good at math, a cognitive assessment of “don’t waste effort here” allocates fewer resources. An underlying negative emotion neurologically activates avoid plans of action: stay away from math and don’t waste your time. Samuel now has fewer cognitive resources and an emotionally activated avoid mindset.

If Samuel believes he is a strong learner, he will acquire greater cognitive resources and an emotionally activated engage mindset. He will eagerly attempt to solve new problems. It’s easy to see how either of these beliefs triggers a self-perpetuating cycle, and this process all stems from a seemingly simple comment.

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If you, like Samuel, believe you’re a strong learner, you have a Growth Mindset. When you see someone struggling with a new task, tell that person how the struggle signifies a “strong learner” disposition.

Serendipitous events such as these happen to us regularly, outside our control, and typically shape us outside our awareness. Statements about our ability and identity regularly form our beliefs about who we are and how the world operates. This process happens naturally as we interact with the world. We don’t really choose beliefs as much as we merely discover we have them. While we may reflect on them, it’s rare to know exactly when they first formed.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

 by the author.

Michael Rousell, PhD

Written by

Psychologist, associate professor, and author of Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives. Studies instant belief formation.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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