The notion of ability

Psychologist Carol Dweck has conducted extensive research into the influence of two models of thinking: a “fixed mind-set” and a “growth mind-set”. Individuals with a fixed mind-set believe that abilities, talents, and intelligence are innate and unchanging. In comparison, individuals with a growth mind-set believe that intelligence and abilities can develop throughout life. This doesn’t mean that everyone is the same, but rather that with effort and experience, everyone can grow.

Dweck’s research has shown that praising ability can undermine motivation and learning because it reinforces a fixed mind-set of intelligence. Instead, teachers should praise processes such as effort, strategy, perseverance, or improvement.

See Carol Dweck: The Effect of Praise on Mindsets http://youtube/ TTXrV0_3UjY to see how praise can influence the way children respond to challenging problems. 


  • Challenge absolutes such as “can’t” or “never”. When a student says, “I can’t do maths”, they are positioning themselves as someone who can’t see patterns, identify relationships, or solve problems. By speaking in absolutes, they are ruling out any possibility of change.
  • Reject “ability” as a limiting notion. Teach students that their brain is like a muscle that gets stronger through use and, as with muscles, strengthening their brain means exercise and hard work. Challenge is an essential part of mental growth, so if they are finding something difficult, then great! They are stretching their minds.
  • Praise effort not ability.

Back to Resource 1: Fostering positive mathematical identities