Is Talent a Wall or Launching Pad?

In the quest for delineating the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, educators have created a plethora of lists for contrasting habits, beliefs and statements.


With my students, I summarize all of these lists and graphics with two simple pictures that pose a simple question: “Do you see talent as a wall or as a launching pad?”

Talent Wall

Carole Dweck‘s mindset research shows that self-perception of talent as a limit or as a starting point has a tremendous influence on student learning. The mindset is really about how people perceive their natural abilities and view the potential of their efforts, not just their level of effort.

In fact, this double-pronged image of wall vs launching pad helped me make sense of two things that Dr. Dweck has said regrading effort and growth mindset. The first is that “the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort.” (Education Weekly, September 2015).  I didn’t fully grasp the issue that troubled her until I heard her say that it isn’t just the struggling math students who have a fixed mindset, but that even some of the more “successful students” have one as well. An example of an advanced student who possesses a fixed mindset is the one who believes that they cannot learn math (remember mindset is about self-perception), so they must compensate by studying and memorizing in order to pass the tests and get good grades.

This thought leads me to another of my favorite image comparing fixed and growth mindset… the scans of the brain of someone with a fixed mindset versus one with a growth mindset.

Brain Mindsets

brain-coldWhen faced with a challenge, the fixed mindset brain “goes cold.” It literally shuts down.

brain-on-fireHowever, when faced with the same challenge, the growth mindset brain “fires up.” It knows that more is being asked of it, so it kicks into high gear to meet the challenge, rather than duck it.

Some frozen brains walk away from learning by checking out or acting out. Other frozen brains circumvent the learning by grinding through the course with a hyper-powered work ethic. If good grades is the ultimate goal, then one of these fixed mindset responses is valued more than the other. If learning is the true prize of an education, though, then neither response is sufficient; instead, Dweck claims that students need to implement a “repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.” After all, it is how one reveals to setbacks that reveals their true mindset.

To see some of my novice attempts at teaching growth mindset in math class, see the following posts: Nicki the Neuron, Neuron Stickers, Brain Surgeons & Wrinkle Sprinkles, and Neuron Problems and Classroom Norms, or click Growth Mindset in the tag cloud.

Ready, Set, Launch!



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