Helpless vs. mastery-oriented

Published by Lori Pickert on February 5, 2009 at 04:34 PM

Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon of the University of Pennsylvania had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can affect change — a state they called learned helplessness.


Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.


As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids, by Carol Dweck, author of Mindset



Comment by Mary on February 5, 2009 at 05:18 PM

The difference between the helplessness vs. mastery mindset is very apparent in our business right now as we are going through some difficult times with some possible drastic changes being made in the future. The gap between the two different philosophies widens when faced with serious challenges. While trying not to worry him excessively about possible outcomes, we're trying to help our son see that challenges are opportunities and to be proactive to prepare for our futures, whatever they might hold. When being confronted with a real-life scenario, the importance of mastery over helplessness is a lesson we hope we are teaching by example.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 5, 2009 at 05:39 PM

i really thought this related to things we talked about earlier this year re: extrinsic praise vs. self-motivation and learning to persevere when things don’t go right —

perfectionism and praise:

who owns the work:

mistakes are good:

and some good talk about self-motivation in this open thread:

this also reminds me of yesterday’s post about the purpose of school — e.g., how goals and purposes can get tangled up with each other. we *think* when we say to our kids “you are very smart”, we are doing them a favor — we think they’ll understand that we mean they have the *potential* to do anything they want to do. instead, they think “if i’m really smart, it means i don’t have to try hard; when i *do* have to try hard, it shows that i’m not smart, so i should avoid that situation at all costs so no one will know *i’m not really smart*.”


carol dweck’s research is about helping kids see their intelligence as a muscle that can be strengthened, a skill that can be improved .. but i would emphasize *we have to give kids learning opportunities that make that a possibility*.

project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, cooperative learning .. we have to give kids a kind of education that allows them to see themselves as strong and capable of constructing knowledge *with work*.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 5, 2009 at 05:41 PM

mary, i so agree with you — everything that is happening with our economy right now reinforces my beliefs about the kind of education i think our children need and deserve.

are you the kind of person who rises to a challenge? or crumples?

do setbacks make you give up? or do they energize you?

we can help children figure this stuff out early in life, so they are prepared for whatever the future holds — not just an idealized, rosy future.

and bravo to you for modeling this attitude for your children!

Comment by Jill on February 5, 2009 at 07:19 PM

I'm starting to feel stupid when I come to your smarty-pants blog now! Maybe my brain is freezing up here in the perpetual cold.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 5, 2009 at 07:27 PM

jill, lolol. hey, that’s why i focus on one small extract, so i can actually wrap my brain around a single idea and think about it. any more, and i start feeling like it’s time for a nap. ;^)

Comment by Dawn on February 5, 2009 at 07:51 PM

As you said in your comment I think this leads back to praise and the type of praise we give kids...
You're so smart vs. that was a really creative way to solve that...or you were very observant and figured it out on your own!

I have had to shift my mind set over the years and I think it has really made a difference for Fionna. Even when she thinks things are hard and starts to whine when I can't help her right away she keeps on trying and usually gets it... rather than just giving up and waiting like she used to.
Then I get the "I did it!!" I love that!
The other day she told me "I am really observant" I love that too!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 5, 2009 at 08:09 PM

i love that, too! :^)

our children parrot our language and our attitudes — which can work for us or against us! so we really need to think about these things. because it’s hard to pop out with just the right thing in the moment, if we haven’t been thinking hard on it.

Comment by melanie on February 5, 2009 at 10:03 PM

smarty pants blog... LOL I love that!
Thank you for posting this... I haven't really thought much about the differences in how people see themselves as learners. This will really help me in learning to motivate my own children. I'm intrigued! I guess I have always seen myself as the 'not afraid to try new things, and learn new things' kind of person... probably why I'm homeschooling LOL.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 5, 2009 at 10:17 PM

probably so, melanie! :^)

Comment by SJ on February 5, 2009 at 10:35 PM

I think another lovely thing about focussing on work/perseverance/persistence/process is that the journey becomes as important as the destination - 'living here and now', not 'getting somewhere else'.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 5, 2009 at 10:47 PM

so true, sarah .. and .. it makes me think of “give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime”. when kids hear “you’re smart!”, they feel good for the moment. when they hear “you are capable of learning anything you want to learn”, they are given a key that opens the world.

Comment by jen on February 6, 2009 at 02:35 AM

Hahahaheeheehee - "smarty pants blog" - too funny!

Oh, how many thoughts went through my head as I read this! This was me growing up; I was told I was smart, and I thought I didn't have to work at anything. I was given a lot of opportunities, and I was lazy. I shudder to think what I could have done with what I was given had I had a different mind-set, yet I also think, to some degree, I was powerless to think otherwise. My public school education taught me that. When I was in college, learning about special ed. students, I realized what I was doing with my life; I was ashamed, and I still work hard to not shy away from things that are hard.

And this, this is why I want my children to have a different education!

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Lori!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 6, 2009 at 03:24 AM

thank you, jen! and thank you for sharing your story.

i feel like perfectionism, praise, and lack of motivation are all jumbled up together. it seems like the panacea for being bright and bored in school is to be praised .. like, well, it’s *super* that this is easy for you, because that means you’re so *smart*! when we should really be meeting *all* kids at their challenge level — wherever that is, low to high — so every kid can understand that they can enjoy working hard and really accomplishing something.

instead, bright kids skate along, bored, *not* building their thinking skills, *not* being challenged, until they hit something that isn’t easy .. and that feels bad. so they avoid it. they search out that bored, easy feeling again — because that means they’re smart again.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on February 6, 2009 at 05:04 AM

So, again, you hit the nail on the head with why I took my girl out of school. At 6 she was already learning to give up if something got hard, and I'm already seeing that change. She's powering through and doing it herself and is coming into her own. Hooray for having the space to master challenges rather than just getting by!

Comment by Ali on February 6, 2009 at 07:45 AM

it's quite scary for me as I tend to say 'you're so clever' quite a lot. this will really help me to think about what i say when they do something. My husband has a fixed view of intelligence - he thinks he has none, especially maths he says things like 'i'm just no good at maths' - he can't see that you can improve over time, but he's got to take a maths course now so maybe i can say the right kind of things (he wants me to help him) to give hime more confidence.

my daughter just came to me with a doll she wanted to undress and i tried to show her how to try different ways and to think about it calmly. Then I said 'we did it! Because we tried many different ways.' hopefully i can remember to do this so that she'll model her speech and thinking on mine.

your blog is a great way to start the day as it gives me something to focus on for the day.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 6, 2009 at 01:14 PM

ali, beautiful! what a great example of how you can just take a few moments to support a child and help them persevere — and see themselves as able to overcome obstacles.

and thank you! :^)

Comment by Candy Cook on February 6, 2009 at 02:22 PM

""After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that.""

I just began teaching myself how to juggle because I learned it makes your brain grow. LOL :D

Comment by Aimee on February 6, 2009 at 10:55 PM

Wow, this coversation is one of the reasons I love this blog.
I second Jen on my public education making me a not so up for challenges, When I hit college, I realized how much I was missing out on. I don't think this was who I was when I was born, but being in a place where there is only one right answer and where I twiddled my thumbs a lot because it wasn't ok to work ahead, etc. I think all children are born able to learn especially through challenges, trying and failing and trying again, otherwise they wouldn't learn to talk, walk, etc.
We homeschool becasue I don't want my kids to lose that and I am trying hard to not let my own education get in their way.

Thinking about what schools do and how kids can learn: Annabelle went to an art class today (something a friend was doing and she was interested in). I wasn't sure I wanted to mess up the way we do art at home: time, materials, lots of freedom, observation, discussion. The class lasted an hour. This teacher had beautiful materials and helped them in very encouraging ways. There was a lot of room for each girl to do what was interesting to her. At the end of the hour my daughter was still painting her first painting and she could have worked for a long time more. She is 4. The teacher was open to next time letting the class last 1.5 hours, so they could have more time. I remember being in school and was expected to finish my drawing (or whatever) in 15 minutes, so we could move on to other things.

Curiuos, in quote, does she say how children end up as one kind of learner or the other?

Comment by Mary Smith on February 11, 2009 at 05:11 AM

What an interesting article. Thank you for that. It answered a lot of questions that are stirring around in my mind.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 11, 2009 at 06:04 PM

aimee, that sounds like an ideal art class!

yes, she pretty much says that if we tell children they are smart and/or gifted, we give them an idea that intelligence is fixed, and they will evermore avoid any situation that seems to indicate they are *not* smart and/or gifted (when things are difficult, when they make mistakes, etc.). but if we tell them that intelligence is not fixed and they can develop it like a muscle, and we value effort and working at something hard, they will enjoy challenging themselves and showing what they can do.

mary, i’m glad you enjoyed it. lots of good ideas there. :^)

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