Do you believe your academic abilities are fixed and cannot be changed? Or do you believe that with effort and appropriate support you can improve them? What you think about these questions shows your “mindset,” and for many people, the answer changes depending on the ability in question. Understanding these mindsets is especially important for the education of academically talented students.
Previous research about mindsets has shown that:
- People who believe ability is fixed tend to emphasize attaining positive judgments and avoiding negative judgments (e.g., validating that I am smart). In other words, if George believes ability is fixed, he will strive for good grades to look smart to others and will attribute his success to being smart; however, he will likely avoid challenges and respond poorly to criticism.
- People who believe that ability can change tend to emphasize increasing competence (e.g., striving to increase understanding of statistics). For instance, if Oscar believes ability can change, he will work toward learning and understanding material and he will welcome challenges and criticism as opportunities to improve.
- People in each group may develop different patterns of behaviors. For example, people who view ability as malleable are more likely to choose a difficult puzzle that they may struggle with instead of an easier puzzle that would not require much effort to solve.
- Praise for effort (as opposed to accomplishment) can help students associate effort with positive outcomes and keep them from automatically caring only about whether they succeeded.
- People’s mindsets can vary across different domains. For example, someone can believe her intelligence is malleable but that her social skills are fixed and cannot change. This distinction is important because it makes generalizing mindsets to different domains difficult.
But what does research tell us about giftedness? Is it something that is “fixed” or can it be developed? Is it the same thing as intelligence, or is it something different?
Almost every school uses a different method to identify and serve gifted students. Some use a “one and done” identification process where students are either in the gifted program or not; other schools offer several entry points into gifted programming. There is also widespread disagreement within the research community about what the term giftedness means. Previously, some have claimed that the term giftedness implies something that is fixed, but as discussed above, different people have different mindsets about different domains.
To address many of these questions, Duke TIP researchers asked a group of TIP students their mindsets about both giftedness and intelligence. There were four main findings from the study:
- There was large variation in student mindsets about both giftedness and intelligence.
- Student mindsets about giftedness and intelligence were positively correlated with each other. That is, students who believed that intelligence was more fixed also tended to believe that giftedness was fixed too.
- However, students did not necessarily hold the same mindset about giftedness as they did of intelligence.
- Specifically, many students viewed intelligence as malleable and giftedness as fixed, but few students viewed giftedness as malleable and intelligence as fixed.
Based on these findings, we can see that TIP students do not equate giftedness with intelligence, though students do often view intelligence and giftedness similarly (and sometimes identically). Additionally, not all TIP students view giftedness as fixed—in fact, many believe it is malleable.
When combined with previous findings about mindsets, our research shows that it is important to remember that individuals have their own mindsets and that they may think about abilities in different ways than you do.
Remember, students are impressionable. Their mindsets are shaped by the way the adults in their lives act, praise, and view the world. As a result, paying careful attention to the way we discuss performance and its cause (i.e., whether it is due to effort or natural ability) has the potential to impact students’ mindsets. And, as discussed above, their mindsets influence their behaviors, like whether they find challenge appealing or daunting. If adults want students to view abilities as malleable and to approach challenge positively, modeling such beliefs and behaviors could help.
Makel, M. C., Snyder, K., Thomas, C., Malone, P., & Putallaz, M. (2015). Gifted students’ implicit beliefs about intelligence and giftedness, Gifted Child Quarterly, 59, 203-121.