Growth vs. Fixed Mindset: How to Create an Engaging Learning Environment

True self-confidence is “the courage to be open — to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.” Real self-confidence is not reflected in a title, an expensive suit, a fancy car, or a series of acquisitions. It is reflected in your mindset: your readiness to grow. Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success

How do you create a successful learning environment?

It seems like a simple question, but the answer is far from that. The key to building a nurturing educational home stems from a shared experience. At one time or another, all learners have reached their moment of dread — the learning brick wall. It’s that place in our educational career where what we were eager to learn met headfirst with an inability to grow. For some learners, this wall posed a challenge. For others, this wall stopped us dead in our tracks and sent us off in a completely different direction, afraid to approach that wall once more.

Meeting the wall is inevitable in learning — in fact, it is just that: learning. But how we, as learners, choose to react to the presence of the wall boils down to something different than our ability to learn. If my brick wall is calculus, my challenge isn’t my inability to learn — everything is learnable — but my challenge is my learning mindset.

To create the most nurturing learning environment possible, it’s up to educators to change how students break through their wall. It’s up to them to change their learner’s mindsets.

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

In late 2007, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D. shook the psychology world with her publication of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In the book, Dweck details her simple, yet groundbreaking, discovery of the power of a mindset. From education and sports to work and the arts, nearly every area of our lives, at its core, is dramatically influenced by how we perceive our abilities and skills.

Dweck found that these perceptions boiled down to one thing: how we view and inhabit our personality. As she details, there are two mindsets a human can have — a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset.

As Maria Popova summarizes in Brainpickings article, Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives, a Fixed Mindset:

…assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.

With a Fixed Mindset, a person’s view of intelligence, skills or aptitude are predetermined — you are born with your particular capacity, and once you hit your brain’s threshold for learning, you cannot move any further. This is particularly detrimental because, with the self-impression that you’re incapable of improving through application or perseverance, you force yourself to stop short of seeking challenges and new knowledge. For a Fixed Mindset, there is no point — they already know they’re not going to have any tangible improvements.

While a Growth Mindset “thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities” (Popova). 

A learner with a Growth Mindset relies entirely on these challenges. Through failures, experiences and the potential for new knowledge, they actively seek out new opportunities in an unrelenting effort to grow in any way possible. As Popova goes on to summarize,

As Popova goes on to summarize,

…at the heart of what makes the “growth mindset” so winsome, Dweck found, is that it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.






When students hit their learning brick wall, how they choose to handle the situation gives a great indication of their learning mindset. Those who see the difficulty or failure to learn as a negative experience — and one to be avoided — harness a Fixed Mindset. While this mindset isn’t inherently detrimental, it does create challenges in the formation and execution of an educational career. For students who meet their challenge head-on, who see the difficulty as an opportunity to learn, they possess a Growth Mindset. Of the two mindsets, a Growth Mindset is the most conducive to an expansive lifetime of learning — but it’s also the hardest to instill.

Creating a Growth-based Environment

One of Dweck’s most important mindset-based discoveries was that our acceptance of a Fixed or Growth mentality manifests at a very early age. From very early on, as individuals, we are making lifelong decisions about our future behavior, relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts and, most shockingly, our capacity for happiness (Popova).


As Dweck says:

… the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

In education, especially at an early age, it’s essential that instructors and educators are doing their best to foster a Growth Mindset in their learning environment, something that starts with an understanding of failure. In a Growth-based space, it’s an educator’s job to encourage the opportunity to view failure as a stepping stone towards success, cultivating resilient students with a deeper love of learning.

In a Fixed-based space, students tend to attribute failure to some inherent negative qualities about themselves. They’re also more likely to give up in the face of setbacks and have a negative view of their potential. Further, to prove their aptitude, they often avoid taking on challenging tasks, which results in a stunting of their long-term growth as learners.

So, as an educator, how do you create a Growth-based learning environment? By changing what it means to fail.

Failure is Awesome

At PCS Edventures, we’ve worked hard to build a curriculum that models a Growth Mindset — it’s a cornerstone of our pedagogy — and we’ve done it by changing what the word “failure” means — it’s no longer a negative concept, but an opportunity for growth.

Now, this is a strange concept for most people, as they were taught the opposite in school, but failure is actually a good thing. Let’s take engineering, for example. In a Growth Mindset, as students build, their construction might fall over or they might struggle with the design challenge. While these moments are frustrating, they are good for learning! The failure needs to be encouraged, so long as that when it happens, the student is not disheartened, embarrassed or upset, but instead more determined to get it right the next time. They haven’t failed! Simply learned the best way not to do it. Their challenge after the failure is to problem solve and figure out how to be successful at whatever it is they are doing.

For this to be a useful learning technique, as an instructor, it comes down to you. Some students will have the ability to persevere through the failure without help, but others will need a lot of encouragement to keep going.

When this happens, start by breaking down the failure with the student.

  • What went wrong?
  • What needs to be fixed?
  • How can the project be improved?
  • What other aspects of the space can they incorporate into their design?

Instead of having them focus on the negatives, pose the failure as an opportunity to get it right.

Conquering Your World

So, what does this all mean? Well, first of all, it needs to be stated that a Fixed Mindset is not wrong, or bad, by any means. It’s just a different way of perceiving learning and personality. But, from an educational standpoint, it’s not the best way for our learners to make their way through school. Whether it be at home, in the classroom or through an after-school program, it’s our job as administrators, educators or instructors to encourage our youngest minds to adopt a Growth Mindset.

We cannot force them. We cannot hold their hand towards growth. But we can model it for them. All it takes is a little bit of effort.

As Dweck says:

When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

The differences in mindset can boil down to how a learner perceives effort. With a Fixed Mindset, taking effort to achieve or learn means an inability to learn the subject to begin with — because it’s taking effort, you’re not smart enough. With a Growth Mindset, the effort means you’re putting in the work required to grow. You’re meeting the challenge head-on. You’re breaking through the wall instead of turning around.

In STEM education, it’s essential that learners recognize that their effort is a critical part of learning. The concepts are different, they’re advanced or they’re a step into a direction a student has never traveled before, and it’s up to the instructor to bolster learning by showcasing this effort, this discovery, this failure, as a good thing.

Fostering a Growth-based environment is key in helping students be successful — but it isn’t the only key. There are lots of different engagement strategies, and finding the right ones for your classroom or your students can seem daunting. That’s why PCS Edventures put together the

Engagement Strategies for STEM Education Webinar

Watch Jim Schmidt, Suzy Haislip and a panel of STEAM Educators as they exchange strategies for building an engaging educational environment and share how to create unique opportunities for students from all demographics.

Click here to view the recorded webinar


Dweck, C. (2010). MINDSET. Retrieved May 11, 2019, from

Popova, M. (2015, September 18). Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from

Thayne Casper

Chief Author and Editor of Creative Content

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