One of the most detrimental thoughts a person can have is that the way they are now is the way they’ll always be. Thinking of your brain as a static, fully-evolved, weirdly shaped, and probably kinda mushy pink thing is crippling your growth. Instead, think of it as an ever-evolving, malleable, weirdly shaped, and probably kinda mushy pink thing.
This is called growth mindset, and it is particularly important for students and educators. Pioneer of the growth mindset paradigm is Dr. Carol Dweck, the former Columbia and now Stanford University professor, and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Dr. Dweck developed the concept of growth mindset in the late 1980s. Today, nearly 30 years later, one of the most interesting developments in growth mindset is its relation to video games. Turns out, this extremely powerful learning condition has been developing in the minds of gamers for decades with few people even noticing. But more of this in a minute. Let’s start by circling back on what a growth mindset is (and isn’t) first.
What is a Growth Mindset?
Growth mindset starts with an understanding that intelligence can be developed. By approaching brain power in this non-static manner, both students and teachers can produce better results. For example, a student who believes their intelligence can grow and isn’t set in stone will try harder, embrace challenges, and persist through roadblocks.
Educators must encourage this mindset. Instead of using static language like “you’re so smart,” saying something that emphasizes the growth process like “your persistence and effort are paying off” does a much better job at fostering a growth mindset.
However, who better to describe the growth process than Dr. Dweck herself? In a 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, she wrote: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.”
How Does a Growth Mindset Affect Learning?
Mindset Works, a leader in growth mindset training for educators and students, writes: “Dr. Dweck found that people’s theories about their own intelligence had a significant impact on their motivation, effort, and approach to challenges. Those who believe their abilities are malleable are more likely to embrace challenges and persist despite failure … for example, 7th graders who were taught that intelligence is malleable and shown how the brain grows with effort showed a clear increase in math grades.”
This leads to the second part of the equation: educators. Students have to be taught that their brains are indeed malleable and that their intelligence can improve.
“The feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset,” explains Mindset Works.
As an aside, studies have also shown that teaching students about the mind’s malleability can also have far-reaching effects outside the classroom. In addition to their academic ability, students may also develop a fixed mindset about their personal characteristics. A study published in 2013 by Dweck and colleagues found that students who participated in a six-session intervention about the malleability of their personality traits behaved less aggressively and more pro-socially. This research demonstrates that a growth mindset can affect a range of behaviors -- from learning, to bullying and beyond. Isn’t that the grand goal of education? Not just to drill facts about algebra and world history, but to raise well-rounded, empathetic, socially-adept human beings.
But as Dr. Dweck emphasizes in her HBR article, “everyone is actually a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, and that mixture continually evolves with experience. A pure growth mindset doesn’t exist, which we have to acknowledge in order to attain the benefits we seek.”
One increasingly popular way to continually work towards a growth mindset is video games.
How Can Video Games Help Develop a Growth Mindset?
Educators and schools that embody a growth mindset encourage appropriate risk-taking, knowing full well that some risks won’t work out. Video games offer a risk-free risk-taking zone. It’s not life and death. It’s not even passing and failing. It’s just a game. But if that game can foster a sense of exploration, creativity, and trying things out, then students have already subconsciously accepted that they can try over and over again until they improve.
“Games allow for graceful failure,” explains Games4Ed. “Game designers imbed failure into the game mechanics without a lot of high-stakes negative consequence to encourage balanced risk taking and exploration.”
One of the key aspects educators have taken from video games over the years is their powerful progress-tracking motivators. As we’ve discussed, educators have the important responsibility of fostering growth mindsets through the use of encouraging language that emphasizes the non-static nature of the mind. Video games are doing this constantly by saying the last thing you tried didn’t work, but this did -- good job!
Educators have a name for this -- it’s called “optimal challenge,” or “when the difficulty of a task is slightly higher than my current ability,” explains life-long educator and self-identified gamer Kym Buchanan.
“Many gamers believe in our capacity to grow by reaching, so we engage with optimal challenge with greater courage and optimism… gamers believe we can get better, so we do,” Kym writes.
Kym sums up growth mindset as “an attitude shift using the word ‘yet.’ ‘Yet’ is a tremendously powerful word. It changes ‘I can’t do this’ into ‘I can’t do this yet’... Perhaps the perfect symbol for the power of ‘yet’ is the classic Game Over screen with this choice: Continue or Quit.”
“That Game Over screen is one of many design choices that promote a growth mindset. Games can also urge us to believe that people are of growth, such as how characters level up through experience. When we need to grind [repeat a task to gain] experience points, we seek out enemies at the edge of our current abilities. We seek optimal challenge.”
One last hidden power of video games in unlocking growth mindset is the ability to provide an early taste of advanced power/knowledge before returning the player to novice abilities.
“Any academic subject can become more interesting if you can experience its advanced power, like solving exciting, real-world problems, and the earlier the better. For example, getting a taste of launching rocket ships or stopping an epidemic might inspire students to grind (i.e. study) the relevant fundamental math and science,” writes Kym.
How Does Zorbit’s Math Adventure Promote a Growth Mindset?
As students play Zorbit’s Math Adventure, they will frequently encounter Sergeant Scrambler, the teacher at the Space Academy where Zorbit and Zoey are enrolled. Sergeant Scrambler is responsible for awarding experience points, new costumes, and merit badges to the player. All of Scrambler’s reward sequences are growth-mindset focused, with Scrambler congratulating the player for their persistence and progress, and encouraging them: “Keep up your hard work, and you too can be a Junior Space Explorer one day!”
Throughout their adventure, students encounter test-levels which, unlike the lesson-levels in the game, students can fail! But fear not, because Zorbit’s Math Adventure still takes the low-risk approach to these higher-stakes levels. Scrambler introduces the player to the tests with “All right Cadets -- here is where you can let all that practice pay off! Now is your time to shine!” The game provides an environment where students don’t need to fear failure, and instead make it a learning experience.
During regular lesson-levels, if students make multiple mistakes, the game’s adaptive learning system starts to intervene. This system helps reward persistence by giving visual hints to the player that points them in the right direction without solving the problem for them, providing students with the satisfaction that comes from understanding the solution themselves.
We’d love to know - What questions do you ask your students to encourage a growth mindset? Have you tried incorporating games into your lesson plans? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter.