Mindset Theory – Fixed vs. Growth Mindset (Dweck)

Mindset Theory

Your intelligence and other characteristics – where do they come from?  Can they change?

People vary in the degree to which they attribute the causes of intelligence and other traits.  Are they innate and fixed factors (“fixed” mindset) or are they variable factors that can be influenced through learning, effort, training, and practice (“growth” mindset)?  A “growth” mindset is generally seen as more advantageous.

Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist on the faculty at Stanford University, proposed mindset theory as a way to understand the effects of the beliefs that individuals hold for the nature of intelligence.  This in turn has implications for learning and education.

Keywords: mindset, intelligence, traits, fixed mindset, growth mindset


Systems Thinking (Bertalanffy)

Summary: Systems thinking can be described as the ability to think about a system as a whole, rather than only thinking about its individual parts.

Originator and Proponents: Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Peter Checkland, Peter Senge, Donella Meadows

Keywords: systems thinking, stock and flows, interconnected relationships, interdependencies


Narcissism (Kernberg)

Kernberg describes the significance of object-relations on self-esteem regulation and pathological narcissism.


Key Concepts

Otto Kernberg’s theories have been instrumental in the continual development of the ‘Object-relations theory’ of psychology. This field of thought, developed by Melanie Klein in the mid 1900s, is one of the central schools of thought stemming from Freud’s psychodynamic theory. It emphasizes early interactions between infants and their primary caretakers (i.e. objects). These interactions are internalized over time as mental constructs and thus affect self concept and the nature of future relationships.

Kernberg has left numerous marks on object-relations theory, including his theory on narcissism, a form of transference based psychotherapy, a developmental model, and a construct for analyzing personality organization (most notably, borderline personality organization). His work on narcissism is often contrasted with that of Kohut, which although discusses similar phenomena, is marked by opposing points of view.

In Kernberg’s theory on narcissism, he focuses on the effect of object-relations on self-esteem[1]. He refers to narcissism as a basic structure of typically developing individuals. He defines it as libidinal investment of the self. Practically, it refers to the way in which self-esteem is regulated. Various forms of narcissism are discussed, as delineated below.

Normal adult Narcissism

Normal adult narcissism is considered the narcissism characteristic of typically developing individuals. This state is achieved to due the existence of healthy object relations. Meaning, the individual has experienced positive relationships with early caretakers, and has thus internalized a positive mental concept of the self and of others (objects).

A by-product of positive object relations is an integrated sense of self. The individual is able to cope with ambivalence and with the coexistence of good and bad in individuals and the self. Furthermore, the superego is adaptive and able to cope with disparity between the self and ideal self. Thus, a stable self concept is formed that can readily regulate self-esteem from within. Individuals who present normal adult narcissism have an inner voice which tells them they are good enough. With this basis, individuals can be active and effective players in their lives, and have a stable moral system while expressing innate drives such as aggression and sexuality in acceptable ways.

Normal infantile narcissism

As children develop, their objects relations and self concept are not yet fully integrated. Therefore, their regulation of self- esteem is partly focused at external gratification. In order to feel good about themselves, they need others to admire them or their possessions. However, at an early stage of development, this is age appropriate.

Regression to infantile narcissism

This is a pathological form of narcissism in which the superego has remained infantile, and thus maintained childish values and ideals.

Narcissistic personality disorder

This is the classic narcissistic pathology[2]. These individuals present aberrations in self-love, expression of love to others, and a deviant moral system and superego. Self- love refers to characteristic self absorbance. They are grandiose, and fantasize about excessive success in love, beauty, happiness, and influence. However, their self-love is excessively unstable and relies exclusively on praise and admiration of others.

When the environment does not respond as expected, or when they perceive an inability to achieve their grandiose aspirations, they come crashing downwards with intense feelings of worthlessness, depression, and extreme anger. Relationships are usually functional in nature, as they are necessary for regulating the narcissists’ self-esteem. When they perceive that others have achieved or own something that they haven’t, they present extreme envy and work toward destroying the object or achievement of the other by devaluation. They have a tendency to take advantage of others in order to feel superior. This precludes the ability to form stable and long lasting relationships.

According to Kernberg, this pathology develops as a result of early pathological object relations, which result in negative and ambivalent internalized mental images of the self and other. The defense mechanism characteristic of this state is splitting, a primitive method where the self and others are regarded as either entirely good or entirely bad. Having been let down by early relationships, the narcissist develops a mechanism where he becomes self sufficient by creating a pathological symbiosis between the self, the ideal self, and the ideal object. Meaning, in fantasy, the narcissist unifies the desires he has of himself and other, and therefore does not need others.

However, by taking the ideal self from the superego and unifying it with the self, the superego is weakened and becomes overly strict. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult for the individual to pass the superego’s high standards. Taken together with the fact that the narcissist does not have comforting object relations to fall back onto, failure becomes imminent and debilitating. When they manage to override the strict ambitions of their superego they feel on top of the world, but when they don’t manage to get there, they come crashing down with no internal structure telling them they are good enough.

Additional Resources and References



  1. Kernberg, O. F. (1985). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. Rowman & Littlefield.
  2. Kernberg, O. F. (1993). Severe personality disorders: Psychotherapeutic strategies. Yale University Press.

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Separation-Individuation Theory of Child Development (Mahler)

Summary: Mahler describes a series of stages occurring within the first three years of life aimed at the developmental goal of Separation and Individuation.

Originator: Margaret Mahler (1897-1985), a Hungarian-born American psychiatrist

Keywords: Separation-Individuation, Ego psychology, Developmental stages, Object constancy, Mother-infant interactions


Object Relations Theory (Melanie Klein)

Object Relations Theory (Melanie Klein)

Summary: A model of human psyche, transitioning from a paranoid-schizoid to a depressive position, while emphasizing the critical role of parental care during infancy.

Key Contributors: Melanie Reizes Klein (1882-1960) Austrian-British psychoanalyst[1][2]

Keywords: Object relations, unconscious phantasy, paranoid-schizoid position, depressive position, child development, binary splitting, projective identification


Theory of Mind, Empathy, Mindblindness (Premack, Woodruff, Perner, Wimmer)

Theory of Mind, Empathy, Mindblindness

Summary: Theory of mind refers to the ability to perceive the unique perspective of others and its influence on their behavior – that is, other people have unique thoughts, plans, and points of view that are different than yours.

Originators and key contributors:

  • Jean Piaget (1896- 1980), a Swiss psychologist, described the inability of young children to perceive others’ points of view due to ‘egocentrism.’
  • David Premack and Guy Woodruff developed the term Theory of Mind (1978) as applied to their studies on chimpanzees.[1]
  • Josef Perner and Heinz Wimmer (1983) extended Theory of Mind to the study of child development.[2]

Keywords: Social cognition, child development, false-belief, Autism spectrum disorders, mindblindness


Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (Mayer)

Summary: A cognitive theory of multimedia learning based on three main assumptions: there are two separate channels (auditory and visual) for processing information; there is limited channel capacity; and that learning is an active process of filtering, selecting, organizing, and integrating information.

Originator: Richard Mayer (1947-)

Key terms: dual-channel, limited capacity, sensory, working, long-term memory


Intrinsically motivating instruction (Malone)

Summary: Intrinsically motivating instruction takes place in computer gaming software when it provides players with choice around three key categories: challenge, curiosity, and fantasy.

Originators and Key Contributors: Thomas W. Malone

Keywords: challenge, choice, computer games, curiosity, fantasy, intrinsic motivation

Intrinsically Motivating Instruction

In trying to understand what made computer-based learning environments (CBLEs) fun and engaging, Dr. Thomas W. Malone studied computer games[1]. In doing so, Malone developed a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. The three categories which comprise his theory are challenge, fantasy, and curiosity[2].

Challenge: Each challenge must have a series of goals, which can be personally meaningful to the player and/or may be generated by the game to keep the player engaged. The game provides the player feedback on progress toward the goal throughout the game play. Because the computer game’s outcome is uncertain, this keeps the player engaged and motivated. When a player is challenged and succeeds through the struggle, a player’s self-esteem can increase, as long as the computer game’s feedback is constructive and supports learning. An optimal challenge should be neither too difficult nor too easy.

Fantasy: Malone defines fantasy as the “mental images” the players create based on interacting with the environment. The most effective fantasies in computer games are those which are more fully integrated with the content to be learned (intrinsic). Incorporating intrinsic fantasies creates more engagement, which increases memory of the material, because they may satisfy players’ emotional needs and help them learn skills within a meaningful context. (An example that Malone describes is an Adventure game where players practice reading maps, writing instructions, and feeling excited, puzzled, and triumphant as they proceed through it.)

[sociallocker]Curiosity: Two types of curiosity are important to successful computer game creation—sensory and cognitive. Sensory curiosity is activated by the aesthetics of the game (its look, sounds, feedback, authentic creation of a world or event). Cognitive curiosity is activated by presenting opportunities for the player to better their knowledge.[/sociallocker]

When a computer game is designed based on this framework, players are more motivated to play and learn[3].


  1. Malone, T. W. (1981). Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 5(4), 333-369.
  2. Malone, T. W., & Lepper, M. R. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. Aptitude, learning, and instruction, 3(1987), 223-253.
  3. Lepper, M. R., & Malone, T. W. (1987). Intrinsic motivation and instructional effectiveness in computer-based education. Aptitude, learning, and instruction, 3, 255-286.

Learner-centered design

Summary: Learner centered design focuses on creating software for heterogeneous groups of learners who need scaffolding as they learn while completing constructivist activities.

Originators and Key Contributors: Elliot Soloway, Mark Guzdian, Kenneth E. Hay

Keywords: constructivism, learner-centered design, learners, scaffolding, software

Learner-centered Design

Learner-centered design (LCD) theory emphasizes the importance of supporting the learners’ growth and motivational needs in designing software[1]. In addition, since learners have different learning needs and learn in different ways, the software must be designed for the specific learner-audience.

The concept of scaffolds is central to learner-centered design. In order to support learners optimally, software should be designed with scaffolds that will support the learners as they need it. Examples of scaffolds in software are hints, explanation and encouragement to help learners understand a process, and questions to help learners reflect on what they are learning[2].

Software scaffolds that support learners best are adaptive, meaning that they change according to what the learner needs in any learning moment. When a learner needs more support, the software provides an increase in feedback to help the learner grow, stay engaged, and progress in mastering a skill. When the learner is reaching mastery, the software will provide reduced scaffolds in response to the learner’s increased skill level.

In focusing on learner-centered design, four elements must be addressed in designing the software. They are:

  1. Context: The goal, purpose, and audience of the software
  2. Interface: The front end and/or aesthetics of the software that learners interact with
  3. Tasks: What the learners will do in the software
  4. Tools: What is needed in the software to support the tasks that students will do; these can include scaffolds

Designing software from a LCD perspective keeps the learner in mind and, if done well, provides an effective and meaningful learning experience[3].

For more information on learner-centered design, read The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.


  1. Soloway, E., Guzdial, M., & Hay, K. E. (1994). Learner-centered design: The challenge for HCI in the 21st century. interactions, 1(2), 36-48.
  2. Soloway, Elliot, et al. “Learning theory in practice: Case studies of learner-centered design.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. ACM, 1996.
  3. Quintana, C., Carra, A., Krajcik, J., & Soloway, E. (2001). Learner-centered design: Reflections and new directions.

Functional Context Theory (Sticht)

Summary: Functional Context Theory is a cognitive learning theory that was developed specifically for educating adults in businesses and the military.

Originator: Thomas Sticht

Keywords: Job task analysis, knowledge base, literacy, learning strategies, instructional strategies

Functional Context Theory (Sticht)

There are various styles of learning requiring educators to learn about their students so that they can choose the most appropriate learning theory upon which to develop their instructional strategies. The functional context theory is considered a cognitive learning theory. The theory is based on the premise that students learn best when instruction is based on prior knowledge base, making use of long-term memory[1]. Instructional strategies must be developed that require students to make use of their language and problem solving skills[2].

Although the functional content theory is a cognitive theory, it is in direct opposition to other major components of cognitive theories that hold the premise that learning occurs in stages and is totally separate and apart from any environmental influence.

Sticht stresses that learning has everything to do with a person’s environmental influences. Instead of developing in life’s predetermined stages, instructional strategies must be developed that are based on their relevance to the students and their own personal experiences[2]. Importantly, according to Sticht’s functional context theory, learning is accomplished through the context of the students’ activity, giving them the ability to transfer their classroom learning successfully to their daily work tasks.

Using this theory, educators combine literacy and other of the most basic skills, such as reading, in order to incorporate them with content learning. In 1975, Thomas Sticht developed this theory strictly for the education of adults[3]. His learning theory was tested in the development of a functional content course for enlisted Navy personnel. The goal of the program was to improve reading and math skills as pertaining to their specific job duties A job task analysis was conducted in order to find out exactly what level of reading and math skills soldiers needed to successfully complete their job tasks.

The results of the program enabled the development of technical manuals and instructional materials that the Navy could use to train their enlisted personnel. The purpose of the functional content theory of learning is to ensure that all instruction is based on a prior knowledge base, making instruction inclusive of knowledge and skills that students can actually apply successfully in the work place.

A very important component of the function content theory is literacy. The purpose is to improve adult literacy through the improvement of content, helping students use and improve their problem solving and critical thinking skills. Assessments are designed that are valid to the learning material, requiring context and content that will supply specific measurements directly related to the learning materials.

The assessment of learning success using the function content theory is not to be based on grades, but rather, on the specific content learning and, distinguishing between academic learning and function learning.

Sticht has used his functional content theory to develop instructional material for the health care industry, as well as a very diverse variety of jobs where specific content related learning is necessary. Programs have and instructional materials have been developed for office workers and mechanics. There are really too many fields to list.

The premise is that adults are not going to be interested in spending time learning something that is not relative to their work. By the time one adulthood is reached, people tend to know exactly what they want and they require context specific training.

The function content theory is coupled with the importance of adult literacy[4]. Reading and math literacy are important tenets of learning and job success. Without good literacy skills that are related to an individual’s work task, success cannot be expected.

Function content goes hand in hand with situated learning theory, which also is based on the premise that learning is best accomplished when it is based on the student’s previous knowledge and current situation. Academic learning involves the learning of facts needed for school success, but functional learning involves learning reading and math skills directly related to a real world job situation.

As early as 1861, teachers were working on developing experience specific instruction for freed slaves after the civil war. They strove to develop content learning that was based on the previous lives of the freedmen in order to help them learn, adding new knowledge to their previous knowledge base. Instead of beginning the education of the freemen at the level at which a child begins education, the materials were developed based on the current living environment of the freed slaves.

Adults must not be educated like school children are educated, rather, their education must be developed based on current life situations. World War II soldiers were educated through the use of materials that related to current job tasks. The basic principles of the theory first came to light during his time period in America’s history.

Although Sticht’s functional content theory is in opposition to other cognitive theories it is widely used for adult literacy education, preparing students for real world jobs. The use of function content has spread widely throughout adult literacy and vocational programs, preparing adults for real world job situations to enable them to be successful at their chosen vocation.

Thomas Sticht’s extensive research into those principles used to train WWII soldiers has made a he impact on adult education. The impact on instructional strategies now used in adult vocational and literacy education. The Functional Literacy Program used the principles that underlie the basic tenets of the cognitive sciences.

The immense impact Sticht’s research has had on adult education has created a ripple effect throughout adult educational programs, making teaching and learning more successful and effective.


  1. Sticht, T. G. (1987). Functional Context Education. Workshop Resource Notebook.
  2. Sticht, T. (2000). Functional Context Education: Making Learning Relevant.
  3. Sticht, T. G. (1975). Reading for Working: A Functional Literacy Anthology.
  4. Sticht, T. G. (1988). Adult literacy education. Review of research in education,15, 59-96.