Sonoma County Office of Education

Technology for Learners

New View of Student Learning Potential

Author: Rick Phelan
Published: 07.24.13


One key shift in the transition to Common Core Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments centers on how educators see student learning potential.

New models of cognitive development recognize multiple learning paths and acknowledge the learning potential of every student. This is a shift from the fixed models of intelligence that were prevalent in the past.

The way we view learning potential affects our ideas about how instruction should be organized and delivered. Twenty-first century educators will be most effective if they realign their views on learning potential and provide engaging opportunities to promote student learning.

Fixed Mindset: Predetermined Success or Failure
Psychologists and other social scientists have long debated human learning potential. Varied experiments and studies have probed the human brain to better understand how people learn.

Some people believe that the brain’s learning abilities are fixed and have very limited ability to change. Following this thinking, the role of the teacher would be to impart learning through lectures and to administer tests that result in “standard curves of distribution” in student achievement.

People holding this view of intelligence believe that the brain’s capacity can be measured with various assessments. Assessment outcomes define average, below average, and gifted intelligence ranges. Success or failure is pre-determined based on the brain the individual is born with. Feedback from teachers comes in reporting a score, grade, or performance level.

Purposeful Engagement: Lifelong Opportunities for Learning
The alternate view maintains that the brain develops based on purposeful engagement and that people have the capacity for lifelong learning and improvement. Here, the thinking is that a person’s brain can be continuously expanded and the individual’s basic qualities can be cultivated and improved upon.

Stanford cognitive psychologist Carol Dweck puts it this way, “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.”

This distinction brings new understanding to the core belief that underlies many school professional learning communities: the belief that all children can learn. Given this way of thinking, educators have opportunities to work with students and expand their thinking abilities.

Chart of Intelligence Mindsets

The chart below is based on the work of Carol Dweck. Learn more at the Brainology website.

  Static Mindset Growth Mindset
  Intelligence is static

Leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to …
Intelligence can be developed

Leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to …
Challenges Avoid challenges Embrace challenges
Obstacles Give up easily Persist in the face of setbacks
Effort See effort as fruitless or worse See effort as the path to mastery
Criticism Ignore useful negative feedback Learn from criticism
Success of Others Feel threatened by the success of others Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others
  As a result, they may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential

All this confirms a deterministic view of the world
As a result, they reach ever-higher levels of achievement

All this gives them a greater sense of free will


As 21st century educators strive to “shift” their understanding of intelligence, many questions emerge related to instruction, materials, and assessment. Instruction needs to move away from “one size fits all” lessons to more personalized learning. Materials and assessments need to be more adaptive to individual students.

Related posts in this blog offer insights on how this can take place with:
Digital Curriculum
Blended Learning
Assistive Technology
Smarter Balanced Assessments

Blog: Technology for Learners