Learning to believe in growth: Cognitive training enhances growth mindset in children

Growth mindset, a belief that one’s abilities can improve through effort, has been linked to academic and professional success. In Chen et al. (2022), we show that cognitive interventions can promote growth mindset and learning in children through brain plasticity
Published in Neuroscience
Learning to believe in growth: Cognitive training enhances growth mindset in children

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People have different beliefs about their cognitive abilities. Some may think that their cognitive skills are innate and unchangeable (for example, “I am not good at math, and I cannot change this”) while others may believe that practice and learning can improve their cognitive skills. The former demonstrates fixed mindset, and the latter shows growth mindset.

Learning is a life-long activity and can be a particularly rewarding experience for those who endorse growth mindset. Research has shown that growth mindset is an important predictor of success, associated with better academic and professional outcomes. Many interventions on growth mindset have involved a brief lesson on neural plasticity – that the brain is malleable with learning. Yet, evidence for the effectiveness of such interventions has not been consistent across studies. Importantly, little is known whether growth mindset can be cultivated through learning and whether enhanced growth mindset is in fact related to brain plasticity in children.

We investigated whether growth mindset can be enhanced by cognitive training in 7–10-year-old children. We found that children showed significant enhancements in growth mindset after training, with gains in growth mindset in the training group being twice larger than children in the control group (Figure 1A). Such improvements were more evident in children who had lower levels of growth mindset before training. These findings suggest that improvements in growth mindset can be induced by cognitive training even without explicit instructions on the concept of growth mindset. The impact of learning on changes in growth mindset can be greater for those who endorse fixed mindset.

We next examined how the brain responds to changes in growth mindset in children. We found that brain responses in the dorsal part of the anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), striatum, and hippocampus (Figure 1B) as well as interactions between these brain regions were associated with training-induced increases in growth mindset in children. These findings suggest that learning-related changes in growth mindset are supported by a set of brain regions crucial for cognitive control, motivation, and memory, and inform evidence-based growth mindset interventions based on notions of brain plasticity.

Figure 1. (A) Greater endorsement of growth mindset was observed in the training, compared to control, group at post-visit after the 4-week period. (B) Training-related increases in brain activation in dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) on the left and right side, right striatum, and right hippocampus during more difficult math problem solving were significantly correlated with growth mindset gains in the training group. Chen et al., npj Science of Learning 2022

How did our training program enhance growth mindset in children even without exclusive instructions on the concept of growth mindset? One important consideration is that we used individualized training program tailored to students’ learning needs. Children were encouraged to try and try again, with an emphasis on mastering knowledge instead of demonstrating competence. Learning activities were interactive with a tutor to promote a positive learning experience. Such a learning-focused intervention was well-aligned with core concepts of growth mindset. Our findings suggest that educational programs that combine the principles of growth mindset and cognitive training may lead to simultaneous gains in learning and growth mindset, which may provide long-term benefits in life-long journey of learning.

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