Importance of Growth Mindsets in STEM Education

The importance of a Growth Mindset in STEM Education

Which students do you push towards STEM? Is it those children who appear to have innate abilities or aptitudes for STEM? Is it those children who succeed with little effort? Or is it those who can grow into the material with effort? This blog post summarizes a recent article on the need for a growth mindset in STEM education.

Fixed and Growth Mindsets Defined

Carol Dweck is a Stanford psychology professor who wrote about growth and fixed mindsets.

Fixed Mindsets

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

If you have a fixed mindset, the most important goal is to prove your intelligence at all costs. Consider a situation where you are struggling and run up against a dead end. Or consider if you are putting a lot of effort into something. This apparent failure threatens your view of your intelligence. You fear that other people might find you out.

These beliefs are most strongly linked to math in our society. At some point it became fashionable to be stupid in math and science. We avoid the truth that if a child is doing poorly in math this may be from a lack of effort. Rather a lot of people will say that the child just doesn’t have a brain that is good for math.

Growth Mindsets

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

For people who have a growth mindset, effort is an exciting opportunity to learn and grow. It means you’re building that talent.


Dweck has shown how different types of praise can produce different mindsets in children.  A strong fixed mindset in a learner, teacher or parent is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy. Consider if you have the belief that you cannot succeed. Consider too that a prominent authority figures tells you that you cannot succeed. This would be very effective at ensuring most people will not be successful at a challenging task. Even relatively small interventions can shift students of all ages from a fixed to a more growth mindset. And their performance improves accordingly.


Implications of Fixed Mindsets on STEM Education

Fixed mindsets are much more prevalent in STEM fields than in liberal arts. One of the key implications for a historical fixed mindset in STEM Education may be the under representation of women and minorities in STEM higher education and STEM occupations. This is I believe the key reason we need to stop and consider how to further a growth mindset in STEM Education.

The people who show promise earlier on in STEM without having to work as hard are going to be encouraged more from the beginning, and that encouragement is going to keep them going. And then we learn from that experience to encourage those same types of people in the next generation.

For example, the idea that math is language you need to learn to speak goes along with the growth mindset in STEM education.  If you’re learning a new language, it’s going to look and sound completely unintelligible to you when you begin. But then as you work and practice, it’s going to get easier to understand.

Several published studies have looked at fields that value brilliance or innate talent over dedication. In these fields, fewer women and underrepresented minorities are present.

A lone scientist reaches a scientific breakthrough. This perception of STEM work is pervasive if not romanticized in our society.  This leads people who don’t fit that stereotype to feel like they don’t belong in STEM.

Need for Growth Mindset in STEM Education

Despite the pervasiveness of the idea that STEM skills are innate, discoveries in science are often a product of hard work and collaboration. Recent examples include the discoveries of gravitational waves and the Higgs boson. These experiments included thousands of scientists each. Thus, we believe the importance of a growth mindset in STEM education has been underappreciated.

Decades of research has shown us that a growth mindset in STEM education and more broadly leads us to be more effective learners, teachers, and managers, as well as creates a culture of inclusion and diversity in our STEM education centers