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THE GROWTH MINDSET IN LEARNING AND CHANGE WORKSHOP HAND-OUT - Applied Improvisation games, research, and resources

               "Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play." 
                                                    Heraclitus, Greek Philosopher

     "The view you adapt for yourself profoundly affects the way you live your life." 
                                                    Carol Dweck, PhD 

This workshop by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
provides 4 contact hours of Continuing Ed
for social workers in New York

Mindset is a frame through which we view our successes, mistakes, fears, and triumphs and plays a key role in an individual's capacity to learn and change. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck writes that mind sets are powerful driver of perceptions about self and others as well as one’s capabilities and place in the world. "They guide the whole interpretation process." Her work identifies 2 distinctly different mindsets that have the greatest implications to successful learning and change over the lifespan, the "Growth mindset" and the "Fixed mindset."

A Growth mindset is a state of mind that thrives on pushing past one's limits to gain more mastery over self and subjects, and views failure "as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities." Research shows that this mindset can be cultivated and developed, and is a key determining factor in "our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness." 

The perspective of a “fixed” mindset is that innate intelligence and talent - which can
also be described as the "luck" factor of abilities we are born with - are more central to successful learning and change than effort and commitment. Dweck's work demonstrates that we can develop what she calls a “growth” mindset – centered in the belief that our most basic abilities can be enhanced through hard work and dedication, “that brains and talent are just the starting point.”  Research shows that even seemingly small social-psychological interventions that target limiting, self-negating thoughts and feelings can lead to deep, sustainable change. 

A growth mindset can be adopted at any point in life. The research shows that anyone who puts in the effort and learns new skills can get better at things they want to improve or learn about, and these abilities can continually evolve. As life gets more complex and change impacts our lives at an ever-accelerating pace, the belief that we can learn new skills, think in new ways and relate to the world differently than we have in the past becomes increasingly important.

Psychotherapy and counseling are ideal formats through which to identify a "fixed" mindset and systematically replace it with a "growth" mindset.

Applied Improvisation and mindset: Shifts in mindset can occur rapidly through a combination of cognitive and emotional heightening with some form of action or experience. The research shows that durable, long-range change in behavior follows a shift in mindset. Improv experiences cultivate mental acuity and flexibility, social-emotional connections to others, the psychological “muscle” of exploring uncertainty with courage, heightened awareness of the possibilities of the moment, receptivity to the unpredictable and listening skills.

Beliefs:  Beliefs form through a combination of experience, environment and the meaning we make out of both. As therapists and counselors we can help shape an individual's perception and thinking about their experiences and the messages received from the environment, and impact his/her belief in the possibilities that exist through their commitment and hard work. Beliefs can be changed, through experiences that give a kind of "jolt" that challenges an existing mindset in a supportive setting and creative communication of new information. Beliefs about one's own ability to expand are malleable. 
    The power of belief is seen in a study published in the journal Psychological Science. Research subjects who stated they believe in the existence of luck were primed to believe they were being given the "lucky putter" in a golf-related task. These individuals performed better on the task than the control groups who did not believe in luck or were not primed to think they had the upper hand going into the task.  The researchers based this study on previous work showing that "people’s belief in their capabilities to succeed in a particular situation may play a central role in turning seemingly irrational superstitious thoughts into directly observable performance benefits." Other studies show that belief in good luck is related to the sense of self-empowerment, optimism, hope and confidence. Quoting the Psychological Science article: "The more people believe in good luck, the more optimistic, hopeful, and confident they tend to be. On the performance side, it is well established that next to existing abilities and skills, one of the most important and consistent predictors of people’s performance is their perceived self-efficacy. The more confidence people have in their abilities to master a given task, the better they perform."

The "growth" mindset builds on this idea that we can choose our attitude toward change and about what it means to fail or succeed. And that if we believe we can learn something new or develop a skill set that is needed to realize a goal, we will be more likely to stick with the process until we have mastered it. 

Applied Improvisation supplies real-time experiences in completely new and somewhat challenging tasks that require a balance between what we know and can do well and the uncertainty of the unfamiliar. Improvisation games heighten attention and demand full cognitive engagement. 

Game: WHIZ:
  • Enter into the "state of play" which is the brain's instinctive learning state;
  • Learn a new, unfamiliar task that produces new neural pathways;
  • Observe through experience how quickly the brain seeks out and forms patterns;
  • Experience the cognitive process that occurs a pattern is disrupted;
  • Experience the subtle discomfort involved with not knowing what will happen next which strengthens resilience and is central to the growth mindset;
  • Experience the opportunity to make a creative choice;
  • Share something unique about self in a creative way;
  • Build up the connections within a group and increase the sense of safety;
Everybody stands in a circle. Leader uses left arm to make a sweeping movement toward the person to his/her right as if moving energy, while saying "whiz." The next person does the same to his/her right and so on around the circle until a pattern is established. Then the leader introduces another choice: Bop, which is the left arm extended toward the center of the circle with a fist in air. "Bop" reverses the direction of "Whiz." The action resumes, with everyone moving energy in a direction until someone "Bops" in which case the person who just passed it passes is back. This continues for a few rounds. 
Then the leader introduces another option: "Boing" which is said with one foot off the ground and arms waving the head. The person whose turn it is to move the energy can decide to go "Boing" and everyone repeats "Boing" after which the person continues to "whiz" the energy to the next person. 
Then the leader introduces another option: Freakout, which is everybody starts screaming and running to a different place in the circle.
After a few rounds, the leader asks a participant to name their favorite movie or book. A phrase and movement is generated from this information, e.g. favorite movie The Wizard of Oz prompts clicking heels together and saying "There's no place like home." This becomes another option players can choose when it is their turn. As play continues,  other players contribute a line and movement based on their favorite movie, book or story.
GAME: Gifts
  • Practice the improvisation principle of making the most out of what is given, which is also central to the "growth" mindset;
  • Practice receiving from others which enhances skills in collaboration;
  • Practice thinking on your feet and staying open while under pressure;
  • Practice making something goo
  • d out of an obstacle, which is central to the "growth" mindset;
While standing in a circle play begins by one player gifting the person to the right with some imaginary thing, e.g. "here is a jewelry box." The receiver makes a big deal out of the gift and justifies loving it by saying what it will be used for. Play continues around the circle in this way. The next round is more challenging. The gift is something awful, e.g. moldy food from the refrigerator, mud flaps off my car. The receiver again makes much out of being grateful for the gift and justifies this by thinking of some unusual use for it. 

Debrief after the game: What is it like to decide to have a positive attitude about the unknown and unpredictable "gifts" in life? What is involved with making some good out of a "gift" that is observably bad?

Belonging. An article "Who Gets To Graduate" in the May 18, 2014 New York Times Magazine about research out of the University of Texas discusses breakthrough work that investigated an important and complex problem: promising, highly-motivated students who lose their way in college and leave without graduating, in debt and demoralized. The research shows that for high-achieving students from lower socio-economic backgrounds floundered in high-ranking institutions because of cultural factors and a sense they did not "belong." Helping students talk about their loneliness and isolation, as well as improving their opportunity to develop positive social connections boosted their academic performance and long-term chances for success. Read "Mindset: The Template For Successful Learning and Change" which links to more research articles. 

Practice focused listening on what was just said;
Practice building on what has been given;
Practice working with the entire group to create something that no one controls;
Experience belonging through the process of creation;
The group creates wise sayings along the lines of the 1-sentence fortunes in a fortune cookie, using 1 word at a time. One person begins with any word at all, the next person adds a word and so on until a complete thought or sentence is formed at which point everyone demonstrates that this fortune is complete by saying "yes yes yes yes." Then a new fortune is begun by the next person in the circle. It is 
BRAIN PLASTICITY: Cutting edge research shows that we can grow our brain and increase our intelligence over the lifespan. The essence of the "growth" mindset is knowing the way our brains expand through new experiences, challenges and tasks. Many people struggle to accept the idea that they can change and it helps them to understand that their brain seeks out and gets excited by novelty, inventiveness and experimentation. This goes to the heart of what therapists and counselors do - promote the capacity to change and grow and help clients develop the skills they need to realize their goals.

To Harness Brain Plasticity, Start With Enthusiasm  - this is why we use Applied Improvisation games and exercises that emphasize positive energy, brain-s

Ten Habits of Highly Effective Brains

What has to happen for information to be storied in long-term memory and available for use when under stress?

More tools for use in the classroom or consulting room available at

One of the most empowering ways to achieve a shift in mindset is through a combination of cognitive and emotional heightening with some form of action or experience. This is the essence of the Applied Improvisation experience.

The parallels between the "growth" mindset and the practice of applied improvisation: from Derek Sivers blog

In a fixed mindset, you want to hide your flaws so you’re not judged or labeled a failure. In a growth mindset, your flaws are just a TO-DO list of things to improve. 
Applied Improvisation comes from a philosophy of acceptance of and making the most out of what is, including our flaws and strengths as individuals.

In a fixed mindset, you stick with what you know to keep up your confidence. In a growth mindset, you keep up your confidence by always pushing into the unfamiliar, to make sure you’re always learning (jump into uncertainty, experiment).
Applied Improvisation and creative methods provide a pathway for facing and dealing with the unfamiliar which promotes the development of skills for working with uncertainty and exploring new ideas.
In a fixed mindset, you look inside yourself to find your true passion and purpose, as if this is a hidden inherent thing.
In a growth mindset, you commit to mastering valuable skills regardless of mood, knowing passion and purpose come from doing great work, which comes from expertise and experience.
Applied Improvisation and creative methods foster internal confidence through gradual development of skills and exploration with new thinking that provides new experiences

In a fixed mindset, failures define you.
In a growth mindset, failures are temporary setbacks.
Applied Improvisation and creative methods use failure as a pathway to learning what works and letting go of what does of work. Failure and mistakes are part of the learning and growth process.

In a fixed mindset, you believe if you’re romantically compatible with someone, you should share all of each other’s views, and everything should just come naturally.
In a growth mindset, you believe a lasting relationship comes from effort and working through inevitable differences.
Applied Improvisation occurs through interaction and collaboration with others, and is grounded in the philosophy that working out issues and conflicts is a skill set that can be learned.

In a fixed mindset, it’s all about the outcome. If you fail, you think all effort was wasted. In a growth mindset, it’s all about the process, so the outcome hardly matters.
Applied Improvisation works with agreements and structure that allow an unpredictable process to unfold. Change and learning occur when what is known and certain gets shaken up in a way that is challenging enough to engage the brain's full attention but not so stressful so as to shut it down. In Applied Improvisation games and exercises, the learning is woven into a process-driven experience.

Beyond Growth Mindset: Creating Classroom Opportunities For Meaningful Struggle by Brad Ermeling, James Hebert, and Ron Gallimore, Education Week TEACHER Published online Dec. 1, 2015.


One study hundreds of students making the transition to 7th grade were assessed by researchers. They found that students with a growth mindset were more motivated to learn and exert effort, and outperformed those with a fixed mindset in math—a gap that continued to increase over the two-year period. Those with the two mindsets had entered 7th grade with similar past achievement, but because of their mindsets their math grades pulled apart during this challenging time. (Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development78. 246-263, Study 1.)

In a study with adolescents, students who received growth mindset training (compared to matched controls who received other instruction) showed significantly increases in both their math and verbal achievement test scores. Girls who received the growth mindset training narrowed the gender gap in math. (Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents' standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 645-662.)

Researchers taught college students a growth mindset and taught the control group about multiple intelligence, which basically puts forth the idea "don't feel bad if you don't do well in one area, you may still be smart in other areas." There was also a no-training control group. The growth mindset group showed significantly higher grades than the control groups. This was particularly true for African American students, who also showed a sharp increase in their valuing of school and their enjoyment of their academic work. (Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 113-125.)
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is host/creator of the storytelling show (mostly) TRUE THINGS, which is performed monthly at The Performing Arts Studio in Port Jefferson, NY. To subscribe to the newsletter with complete information about upcoming workshops and events email: and put "subscribe" in the subject line. Follow her on Twitter


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