Smarties & Red Pens: How a ‘Growth Mindset’ Can Contribute to Success

By: Becky Post

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher, Mr. Z, had a cruel habit of arranging my classmates’ desks according to our academic ranking. The students with the top grades sat in the first row next to the window—what Mr. Z called the “bright side” of the room. The students with the lowest grades sat in the last row of the classroom, farthest from the window. Mr. Z called this the “dark side” of the room. There were approximately 30 kids in my class, and our desks were rearranged after each grading term to reflect the academic ranking—1 through 30—of each child.

Mr. Z seemed to favor the “smarties” in the classroom, and he often rewarded them with Smarties candies. I’m guessing that Mr. Z believed that students’ intelligence was an established, set-in-stone capacity. His teaching philosophy bore out this belief. Students would move their desks one or two spaces at the end of each term, but we rarely migrated out of our regular rows. No one from the dark side of the room ever ended up on the sunny side chomping on Smarties and anticipating the next math quiz.

Educational researchers like Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., now theorize that intelligence is not a fixed property, established at birth. Instead, Dr. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, considers people’s mental abilities to be malleable and capable of growth. She encourages people to take on a growth mindset that is based on the belief that one’s basic abilities can be cultivated and improved through effort.

Dr. Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, writes, “Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

In her book, Dr. Dweck explains that she actually started her educational career believing that intellectual skills were carved in stone, but then she got interested in the kids who naturally knew how to turn failures into opportunities to learn and succeed. Hard work is emphasized by Dr. Dweck. She sees how students thrive, even though they don’t have top scores. These are the students who like what they’re doing and know how to work hard. Of course, these students benefit from teachers and adults who know how to encourage hard work and persistence.

Learn more about Dr. Dweck’s ideas about mindset and take a short quiz >>

All of us have a sense of what we’re good at and what we’re not so great at. I was always intimidated by math—mostly because I had to work harder at it than I did at writing or reading. One day my third grade teacher called me up to his desk to look at my botched math assignment. I was horrified. Then, Mr. L. handed me his correcting pen and said something like, “Go ahead, use my pen. Let’s redo these problems.” I hated getting things wrong when I was a kid, but Mr. L trusted me with his coveted red pen to work it out. I’m still grateful.

Join us for Mindset and Intelligence: Improving Student Success through Persistence, a free webinar presented by Kent Pekel, Ed.D., President and CEO of Search Institute, on Tuesday, November 19, 2013, 12PM - 1PM, CST.

Register for the free webinar now >>

Rebecca Post is the director of content development at Search Institute. She has worked as a book editor for most of her career. She and her husband are successfully surviving the empty nest, now that their only child is in college.


Mr. Z gets my vote as being the worse teacher of the year! There are many different ways children learn. To call the academically challenged children the “dark side” of the room is deplorable!

For a summary of, “Multiple Intelligences,” see:


Maybe its time make a mock-up of room and place Mr. Z where he rates in the teacher spectrum.

Hopefully teachers, kids and parents will see the value in nurturing the Growth Mindset. Thank you

Interesting “blog”, Becky. Lots of strange and unfair things were allowed happen in the “dark ages” in Columbus as well as other schools. I’m going to put your blog in my favorites so I can check on you from time to time.

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