Mindset in Art

We have a mindset problem in art, and part of the problem is that we are only talking about mindset from a general “student learning” perspective. Mindset is a sneaky, underlying state, and if we don’t talk about it relative to individual settings it will continue to hide there, causing damage. Mindset has significant implications in the arts, not only for arts programs, but for our schools and for our students.

Inner Strength by Robert Christie, art teacher
Inner Strength by Robert Christie, art teacher

When I talk about Mindset here, I am referring to Carol Dweck‘s research and her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Her research articulates the distinction between a fixed and growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe they are the way they are. From the general “student learning” perspective I referenced at top, this means that some students believe that their intelligence and ability is fixed. “I am what I am.” And this is often a result of what they have been told like, “you’re smart.”

“If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”

On the other hand, those with a growth mindset see learning as a process, and understand ability to be something that can be achieved with time and practice. Students with a growth mindset believe that even if they don’t understand something now, they will be able to learn with hard work and persistence. A significant conclusion by Dweck is that…

Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance…

Key here is the word “intelligence.” Dweck does not propose that praising a students efforts is harmful, but rather praising their intelligence. Again, this is an example of that general “student learning” perspective.

Mindset has equally significant impact in the arts. While there are many people (including students and educators) who have a growth mindset for learning in general, there is a wide-spread cultural belief related to the arts that represents a fixed mindset. Two words can illustrate this:


Think about how you hear these words used. There is an overwhelming proportion of people that believe you either have (artistic) talent, or you don’t — that you are creative, or you are not. This is the fixed mindset in art, and it is pervasive in our schools, even among art teachers. Think about these realities:

  • Many student’s don’t sign up for art because they can’t draw. The underlying belief is that they can’t learn. That’s a fixed mindset.
  • Student’s with less developed skills may drop art or give up because they aren’t “as good” as some of their classmates. They don’t have the growth mindset needed to persevere and practice.
  • Teachers and administrators compliment students for their talent and creativity in art, promoting a fixed mindset and harming their motivation and performance.
  • Teachers and administrators compliment art teachers for being talented. Often this is related to artistic talent, not talent as a teacher, and promotes a fixed mindset as well.
  • Some art teachers discourage less talented students from signing up for the next level of art because the teacher believes they don’t have the talent to succeed.
  • Other art teachers will go to their administrator or school counselors asking why certain students are in their class, even declaring “they don’t belong in there.”

These fixed mindset examples impact enrollment, perceptions of ability to learn in art, and our student’s confidence. So what can be done? What does a growth mindset look like in art?

Art teachers must promote a growth mindset in their classroom and in their school. This means the teacher must, first, actually have a growth mindset, but also consciously choose words that reflect this. To believe students can learn to be an artist, yet continue to say things like, “you are so talented,” is contradictory. The things we believe, say, and do must focus on becoming rather than being. Feedback must be stated in a way that is growth mindset oriented. Consider this Dweck quote that illustrates this idea:

“So what should we say when children complete a task—say, math problems—quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!”
Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

In addition to re-considering the things we say to our students, we must re-think what we teach and assess to ensure it reflects a growth mindset. I can’t tell you how many art teachers have told me that they grade creativity/originality and yet can’t explain how they teach these. An art curriculum CAN intentionally and explicitly teach skills for generating creative solutions to problems. This includes teaching a variety of strategies for:

  • Generating many possible solutions/ideas
  • Using appropriate criteria for choosing the best idea
  • Developing a range of approaches for representing the idea
  • Selecting the best plan
  • Refining the plan to communicate the idea most effectively

An art curriculum that intentionally teaches these skills can rightly “grade” for originality and creativity — or more accurately, can assess the students ability to use the strategies taught. Applying a growth mindset to the delivery of the instruction around these skills can amplify their value and impact on the students mindset as well. If these strategies are taught and an awareness, in students, developed, the teacher arms the students with tools that can be applied to any problem solving situation.

Quite a while back, I wrote a post on Artroom Collaboration. This post addresses how important it is to many art teachers that the artroom is a safe place to take risks, and a safe place to fail. This type of environment is deeply dependent on mindset. I have addressed the idea of mindset in other posts as well including Art As a Path to Rigor, and less directly in I Can’t Even Draw a Stick Figure. Check these out for some examples of the impact of mindset.

Let me leave you with this quote in which I have replaced “parents” with “teachers” and “children” with “students”:

“If [teachers] want to give their [students] a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their [students] to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their [students] don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”
Carol S. Dweck


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