Does the Growth Mindset Need Help from Lev Vygotsky?

Let’s go back in time, to the 1930’s, to find Russian-born Social Psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his theory of the Zone of Proximal Development. Still studied by undergraduate and graduate level students of education, the Zone of Proximal Development refers to the space that exists between a student’s current level of knowledge and, given the support of peers and teachers, the level of new knowledge they are able to acquire on a given subject.

We might picture this peer and instructional support as a bridge or, more appropriately in educational terms, as a scaffold which supports student ability to move from their current level of knowledge to a new knowledge stratum. Published posthumously and not widely read in the United States until the late 1970’s, Vygotsky’s vision of educational scaffolding is present also in other important pedagogical theory such as Bloom’s Taxonomy and the basic principles of Universal Design for Learning.

Fast forward to the late 1990’s, to the Growth Mindset research which has been such a popular topic of discussion in higher education for the past several years. Pioneered in the late 1990’s by psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller, Growth Mindset research sought to explore the influence that different types of praise had upon the ability of children to perform different types of tasks. The body of Growth Mindset research has grown over time and the discussion is no longer just about children – it is about adult learners as well.

Dweck and Mueller’s initial study found that children who were praised for the hard work they put into a task were much more likely to choose to challenge themselves and much more likely to improve their performance over time. However, children who were praised simply for being smart were less likely to choose a more difficult task, less likely to improve their performance and, rather interestingly, much more likely to lie about their scores and grades.

The main idea here is that the children who were praised for being smart were being taught to view their intelligence as a fixed quality: something they were born with and could not change. This is now referred to as a Fixed Mindset. The children who were praised for their hard work, however, were being taught that they could improve their performance by trying harder. This is now referred to as a Growth Mindset. Click here to watch a TED Talk about the initial Growth Mindset research.

A fascinating new article from the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) at Rice University opines that the idea of the Growth Mindset is not complete without the company of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Click here to read the full text of the CTE article.


Last Updated February 24, 2018