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Carol Dweck Wins $4 Million Prize for Research on 'Growth Mindsets'

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has been awarded the Yidan Prize for Education Research, a new $4 million international award for her long-term research on the effects of mindset on student learning and performance.

It's the first prize awarded in a competition launched last year by Chinese technology billionaire Charles Chen Yidan that is intended to "empower the change-makers in education, build a global community of education leaders and, ultimately, create long-lasting, enlightening impacts on mankind as a whole." The award, which includes a $1.9 million cash award and an equal-size project fund, is the largest financial prize in education research.

"Through cycles of experiments, Dweck and her colleagues have developed techniques that alter mindsets, and they have demonstrated that even a brief growth mindset intervention in schools can markedly increase student performance," the judges wrote in giving Dweck the award.

Dweck and colleagues have spent decades studying how having a "growth mindset"—the belief that skills in areas from mathematics to art are not fixed and innate, but can be improved through effort—can boost students' motivation and ultimately their performance in those areas.  

Evolving Concept of Mindset

Dweck's own sense of the concept has evolved over time, she said. For example, Dweck noted that over the years, research has shown that a student's mindset in one subject or skill area does not necessarily transfer to others; a student who develops the belief that math skills can be learned and improved may still think that reading skill or creativity is innate.  

"First, we thought people had one mindset or another," Dweck said in an interview. "We still often assess mindsets that way, but we've discovered over time there are so many triggers in the environment that put any of us into more of a fixed mindset. Change is about recognizing when that happens and knowing how to trigger an environment that encourages a growth mindset."

Moreover, her own and other research has shown that while parent and teacher mindsets can influence those of their children or students, adults with a strong growth mindset do not automatically pass it on to the children—even if they intend to. 

"[Growth mindset] is passed on through specific practices: praising the process instead of the person; focusing on what can be learned from failures and setbacks, and how to move forward," Dweck said.

"Many people with a growth mindset want to inspire confidence, so they will tell students how smart they are, or ignore their failures" which paradoxically could make students more likely to believe skills are fixed and innate. "We're studying parents and teachers who do create a growth mindset, and they are ... intensely focused on the process of learning."

Dweck said she plans to use the money to fine-tune curriculum materials for teachers who want to help their students develop growth mindsets in different grades and subject areas. 

"We really want to build a curriculum that guides teachers step by step in implementing growth mindset in the classroom," Dweck said, adding that developing this orientation toward learning in students has proven "so much more difficult than we'd imagined. ... Although this research is not new, we are still kind of in our infancy in knowing how to create environments that embody growth mindset, and that's the question we want to address."

She and collaborating researchers such as David Yeager, an associate psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, are analyzing data from more than 18,000 high school students nationwide who participated in an online program intended to improve growth mindset, to determine whether some aspects of the intervention were more effective with students from different regions, disciplines, or backgrounds.

"The contextual messages, the teacher's actions and practices and messages are essential. Explicit teaching of the mindsets is not enough," she said. "If the teacher then contradicts the mindset messages with his practice, that's just a recipe for the students not buying in."

For more on Dweck's study of mindsets, check out her lecture at the Leaders To Learn From symposium this spring:

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