Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

Mindset: A Key to Improvement

When it comes to self-betterment and improving your life, mindset plays a crucial role.

What is mindset, and why should you care? Have you ever felt like you couldn’t do something? Are there changes you want to make in your life, but feel that you just don’t have the know-how? Have you ever felt like your innate abilities were lacking? I know I have. Heck, I still do.

know-how: practical knowledge or skill, expertise

For some, this type of limiting thinking prevents them from reaching their goals. Others figure out a way to achieve the things they dream of doing by building the necessary knowledge and skills. The difference between the two? Mindset.

What I learned about mindset comes from the work of Stanford University psychologist Dr. Carol S. Dweck and her book Mindset: Change the way you think to fulfil your potential. Professor Dweck has done extensive research on achievement and success and in doing so, discovered that much of learning and growth (or lack of) is dependent on our mindset.

Growth and Fixed Mindsets

Dweck explains two mindsets: growth and fixed. They mean pretty much what they sound like. The first is based on a belief that we can all learn and grow. The second is based on a belief that our abilities are fixed and there is not much we can do to change or improve. In Dweck’s words, “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” (Dweck, 2017, p. 6)

carved in stone: permanent and not capable of being changed

Proving yourself is very different from improving and advancing yourself. When we are trying to prove ourselves, we want to look good to others. When we are trying to improve ourselves, we know that we won’t always look good as we take on new challenges. Mistakes and failures are all part of the learning and growing process. Fearing them keeps you stuck.

“Failure is so important. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success.”
– J.K. Rowling

Innate vs. Acquired Skills

Those with a strong fixed mindset believe that we are born with skills and innate (inborn, natural) abilities. They believe that we are either good at something or not good at it. They focus on results. They avoid challenges that would make them look bad. They blame others when things go wrong.

On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that, while we are born with certain skills, our innate abilities are just a starting point. Through the right kind of effort and with the right strategies, we can improve and get better.

Dweck’s research supports the latter mindset.

the latter: the second one of two things or people that were mentioned

the former: the first of two things or people that were mentioned

Dweck says, “This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.” (Dweck, 2017 p. 7)

While we all want good results, people with a growth mindset are more focused on the process and try to figure out what steps need to be taken to get the desired results. They seek support and know that learning takes time.

If you really want to be better at something, ask yourself if you are willing to take responsibility, put in effort, get help, and do what needs to be done without letting fear stop you.

Cheating and Mindset

When I come across students who cheat on tests, I’m reminded of the fixed mindset. Those who cheat on tests are results-oriented. They aren’t focused on learning or improving or engaging with the material that is being taught. They are more concerned with looking good and getting a high test score than they are with learning.

After all, why make any effort to improve if you believe that your skills and abilities are fixed?

Shifting Mindsets

If you have a fixed mindset, it’s not your fault. Do not spend time beating yourself up over it. You won’t find any solutions by doing that. The solution is in learning about and changing your mindset.

to beat oneself up: to blame or criticize oneself in an unfair and unnecessary way

The first step to changing your mindset is accepting that we all have fixed mindsets at times. We learn our mindsets from society and the people around us, and we do so from a very young age. While parents and teachers may mean well, they aren’t always equipped with the skills to instill a growth mindset or the awareness of how mindsets are created.

mean well: have good intentions and try to help but fail to do so

It’s never too late to change. We can shift our perspective from one that sees challenges and setbacks as a lack of ability to seeing them as areas where we have more to learn. By learning all you can about mindset and how to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, you can take responsibility for your learning and the direction you want to steer this precious life of yours.

If you are a parent, teacher, or anyone who has influence over young minds, I encourage you to learn how to instill a growth mindset in others. The work begins with you and your mindset. I’m still learning too.

The video “Shifting Mindsets” is a great place to start: Watch now to learn more.

Growth Mindset Misconception

Having a growth mindset is not about believing you are capable of things that are unrealistic. That would be wishful thinking.

wishful thinking: hoping something will happen when it is unlikely that it will

A growth mindset is also different from positive thinking. People with a fixed mindset often confuse a growth mindset with positive thinking. While there is a connection, they are not one and the same.

one and the same: an expression used to emphasize that things or people are the same

If I had to pinpoint (identify) why people confuse a growth mindset with excessive optimism, I’d say that the confusion stems from the fact that someone with a growth mindset has the positive belief that improvement is possible. Possible, not guaranteed and not limitless.

People with a growth mindset endeavor (attempt with effort) to put forth the right kind of effort in order to learn and improve something.

Before endeavoring to grow, we have to cultivate a mindset that believes growth is possible. This is not a grandiose (excessively ambitious) idea. Having a growth mindset doesn’t mean that if you believe you can be the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, you will achieve that goal. No, it’s far simpler and more realistic that that.

Having a growth mindset means that you believe that you can improve. Wherever you are in your learning or your goals, you believe that you can get better. You might not become the best, but you can become better than you were before with time and effort. If this doesn’t feel true, it is likely that you are operating from a fixed mindset.

The best and most successful minds are the result, not of talent, but of a growth mindset. Sure, talent helps, but without a growth mindset, talent is easily wasted.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
– Albert Einstein

Fixed Mindset Misconception

Just as a growth mindset is not the same as a positive mind, a fixed mindset is not the same as a negative mind. Most people with a fixed mindset feel that they are being realistic. They don’t want to waste their time on something that they are not good at. They would rather do things that come naturally to them. They avoid situations where they aren’t sure how to do something. In doing so, they limit themselves. They also miss out on opportunities to build confidence.

There is something beautiful about overcoming a fixed mindset. It is like a flower opening or sunshine brightening a cloudy day.

One of the aspects of my job that brings me the most joy is when students experience a boost in confidence and a newfound interest in English because they were able to overcome limiting beliefs that had kept them from expressing themselves in English. Seeing them move from a fixed to a growth mindset is immensely rewarding.

The Role of Praise

Do you think that telling children how smart they are is a good thing? Think again. In fact, research shows that praising effort, not intelligence, is important when it comes to instilling a growth mindset. When we praise intelligence or talent, a whole host of reactions can take place that make children fearful of taking on challenges. Failure becomes something that they try to avoid.

a whole host: a very large number

When we praise effort and process, failure is simply a part of the learning process.

“Don’t worry about failure.
Worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try.”
– Sherman Finesilver

Praising effective effort helps cultivate a growth mindset. Why? According to Dweck’s studies with children, when we praise intelligence, children are less inclined to take on more difficult tasks for fear that they will be discovered as not being so smart after all.

“Carol Dweck – A Study on Praise and Mindsets” explains Dweck’s research on praise and the impact it has on children’s mindset and performance. Watch now to learn more.

When you play it safe, you limit your growth.

play it safe: to be careful and not take risks

I’m not talking about putting yourself in real danger of physical harm here. I’m talking about risking a loss of face, risking looking foolish, risking making a mistake, and risking failure.

loss of face: humiliation, loss of respect

Stop letting fear control you. The truth is, other people are too busy worrying about themselves and what people think about them. People don’t think about us as much as we think they do.

Grow Your Mindset

We all have a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. It isn’t something that is one-and-done.

one-and-done: completing something one time and never having to do it again

Mindset can be applied to any area of our lives. It is not only related to education and learning. It might be about making better relationship choices or trying to change a bad habit, like always be late for appointments. You might have a growth mindset in one area but a fixed mindset in another. You can learn about the growth mindset and still find yourself slipping into a fixed mindset in some area of your life. Training your mind takes repetition. In time, by catching yourself as you slip into a fixed mindset, you can spend more time in the growth mindset.

“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”
– Thomas Watson

Start by Changing Your Self-Talk

If you think of yourself as someone who is always late or who isn’t good at English, that is what you will continue to be. However, by shifting your mindset to a growth mindset, even just a little, you can begin to take the steps towards improving. Of course, simply thinking you can improve isn’t enough for change to occur, but it is the first step.

Rather than repeating I’m always late. and I’m so disorganized., you can make small but significant shifts. Instead, try asking What are some strategies I can learn to be on time? and How can I become more organized? If you don’t have the answer, find it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And remember, the Internet is full of resources for just about anything you need help with.

Self-talk is so important when it comes to progress and growth. Telling yourself you can’t do something or you’re not good at something keeps you in a fixed mindset. In your attempts to avoid failure, you avoid steps you could take to learn new skills and succeed.

Overcoming My Fixed Mindset

If you’ve read my post about sleep, you might remember that I had a fixed mindset when it came to my sleep routine.

when it comes to something: regarding, used to identify a specific topic

I did not believe that change was possible. I felt that being a night person was who I was, and that it was not something that could be altered. While it is true that we are genetically predisposed (likely to think or act in a certain way) to sleeping at particular times of the day, it is also true that we can improve our sleep habits and make adjustments to the time we go to bed and wake up. Change is possible.

By putting in the right kind of effort and implementing effective strategies, you can make positive changes. Whether it is becoming a better soccer player, getting better sleep, or learning a language, improvement is always possible.

Compare and Despair

Everyone has limiting thoughts at times. Some people have an ear for music. Others are good at math. Comparing ourselves to people with more talent than us is a recipe for disaster.

recipe for disaster: very likely to result in failure or a negative outcome

Just because you were not born with an innate talent for something doesn’t mean you can’t become very good at it. The opposite is also true. If you do nothing to develop and maintain your talent, you will stagnate (cease to develop). Others will surpass (exceed, become better than) you.

Of course, motivation is important. It’s possible that your issue isn’t one of mindset, but of motivation or misaligned priorities.

Related post -> Motivation: Stop Waiting for It

Embrace a Beginner’s Mind

It can be challenging to adopt a beginner’s mind when you are struggling to learn a new skill. I first learned about beginner’s mind while studying Buddhism many years ago. A beginner’s mind is one that embraces (accepts) those times in life when we don’t have all the answers and may not know how to do something. It is an attitude of openness and eagerness. It is a willingness to be uncomfortable not knowing how to do something.

The growth mindset goes hand in hand with beginner’s mind. The fixed mindset avoids situations where being a beginner is part of the process or growth.

Openness to Learning

I want to point out that developing a growth mindset does not mean you need to start trying to learn things that you are not interested in learning. This misses the point.

to miss the point: to not understand the most important part of something

The point is that in whatever situation you find yourself, there is a way to adopt an attitude of openness to learning. Every situation we are in provides an opportunity to learn something.

I teach a mandatory English course. Many of my students, given the choice, would not choose to take the course. Many of them begin the semester with negative attitudes towards English and low confidence in their English ability. Unfortunately, they have learned this from an education system that is constantly judging their ability to ace high-stakes tests. These tests have very little to do with how English is used and spoken on a daily basis. The test questions are ones that fluent and well-educated English speakers find difficult. It’s a wonder (It’s very surprising) they don’t all have fixed mindsets!

ace: to perform extremely well

They don’t all have fixed mindsets. However, it’s fairly easy to distinguish those who believe they have the possibility to do well from those that are too afraid of failure to try.

To do well, we have to be willing to make mistakes. We have to be willing to fail. We have to try. To be open to learning, we have to find value in the learning process. We can’t wait for confidence to take the first step. That’s not how confidence works. It is by taking the first step that we build confidence to keep one foot in front of the other (progress steadily) and keep going.

Ready to Learn More?

TED Talk by Carol Dweck: The power of believing that you can improve

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Get the book by Carol Dweck.

“Just the words ‘yet’ or ‘not yet,’ we’re finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence. And we can actually change students’ mindsets. In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time, they can get smarter.”
– Carol Dweck

Never stop learning!
~ Trey


Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset – Updated Edition: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential (6th ed.). Robinson.