How to help students develop a ‘growth mindset’

What is a growth mindset?

A mindset means a person’s beliefs about their abilities and their attributes.

Researcher Carol Dweck has studied the attitudes people hold about their learning ability and has come up with a continuum, with a ‘fixed mindset’ at one end and a ‘growth mindset’ on the other.

People with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and ability are innate and fixed, and there’s not much they can do to change that. When they make mistakes they think it shows a lack in their intelligence or ability. They consider it impossible to improve or change these weaknesses, so they try to avoid revealing these failings and looking foolish. As a result, they are focused on how intelligent they appear (rather than learning) and might choose to disguise poor performance with a lack of effort and motivation, and ignore useful feedback. To avoid attributing failure to low ability,  learners wtih a fixed mindset might use strategies for self-handicapping (such as procrastination or setting unrealistic goals), or even strategies that guarantee success (cheating, setting goals too low). They avoid challenges, and give up more easily after setbacks, as both these aspects of learning reveal their deficiencies. They also dislike effort, which they think signals low ability.

People with a growth mindset believe their abilities and intelligence can be developed and improved through perseverance, good strategies and support from others. They do not deny differences in capability between people, but they believe people can increase their intelligence through the right learning strategies and effort. They are focused on learning, rather than demonstrating their intelligence, and so they pursue challenges and excel in the face of difficulty. They have a passion for stretching themselves and persevering, even when it’s not going well. They demonstrate a willingness to make an effort, and to learn from constructive criticism, and are prepared to make mistakes and experience setbacks, in order to work out the best ways to adapt their action. They see a setback or failure to achieve a task as simply meaning they need to work harder or change strategies, and accordingly they adopt mastery-oriented behaviours. They see error as an everyday, common experience that is integral to the learning process. They have more grit.

Clearly, a growth mindset is more useful for learning. Growth mindsets are positively linked to the use of cognitive strategies, help-seeking behaviour and a belief in self-efficacy.

Everyone has a mixture of both fixed and growth mindsets, often with different mindsets in different learning areas. The key is to identify when fixed mindset thoughts and actions occur, and consciously replace them with more growth-oriented thoughts and behaviours.

A student with a growth mindset tends to:

  • believe that learning and growth is possible in every area of ability
  • tackle tasks with confidence that they can manage them
  • relish challenge, struggling and hard work because they believe this means they are getting smarter
  • acknowledge and reflect upon error as a tool for improvement
  • explore new subjects and interests
  • have the confidence to withstand setbacks, stay on track, and apply more effort when they face difficulties.
  • understand the value of effort and using strategies to overcome challenges
  • have a hunger for learning
  • see the classroom as a world of opportunities to learn

A student with a fixed mindset is likely to:

  • see challenges and mistakes as showing their inherent deficiencies in their intellectual ability.
  • avoid challenges and the risk of failure or mistakes
  • protect themselves by presenting themselves as capable, but unmotivated “If I really cared, I could do well”
  • view effort as only necessary for those with lower ability
  • feel stupid and incompetent when they have to work hard at something
  • have confidence and success in a limited realm of actions and performances, but falter when facing difficulty
  • stick to tasks and activities in which they can be successful
  • have a hunger for approval
  • see the classroom as a world of threats and defences

Why are mindsets for learning important?

True learning is uncomfortable and often fraught with difficulty, involving faltering, confusion and disorientation. The most productive learners are not more intelligent than others, but more willing to endure these feelings of being lost or confused. A growth mindset helps students develop constructive responses and behaviours for learning, such as redoubling their efforts and trying new strategies, whereas a fixed mindset can foster negative perceptions and patterns of helpless responses, including a loss of task enjoyment and motivation, and a lack of effort and persistence. When students doubt their capacities in school, they go on to behave in ways that make this belief come true, such as by studying less or avoiding future challenges. They protect themselves by reducing effort and using ineffective strategies. Students with a fixed mindset might excel as long as learning comes easily for them, but generally their achievement lessens when facing difficult tasks.

Growth mindsets promote behaviours and beliefs that help students achieve desired academic outcomes. For low achievers in particular, a growth mindset can narrow achievement gaps. Students with a growth mindset have greater motivation and achieve higher grades and test scores. Growth mindsets are of greatest benefit to underachieving students, minority groups, and girls within traditional male subjects such as maths and science. Students whose learning could suffer because of economic disadvantage or who experience negative stereotypes about their learning potential (girls, boys, cultural groups) are protected from these constraints if they hold a growth mindset.

Growth mindsets

  • promote academic resilience
  • increase students’ willingness to take on challenges
  • maintain student motivation and increase persistence
  • promote problem-solving and self-regulation of learning
  • counteract the negative effects of stereotypes (for example, that girls are poor at science)

How teachers can affect mindsets

Teachers are an important influence on student mindsets. Teachers can transfer their mindsets to students and affect student achievement. A teacher’s emphasis on performance, through highlighting the work of high-achieving students or continually focusing on outcomes rather than the learning process, leads to stronger fixed mindsets in students. In addition, teachers with fixed mindsets tend to use ability grouping in their classrooms and therefore create self-fulfilling prophecies for student achievement.

When the teacher has a fixed mindset about their students, students maintain their level of achievement. When teachers have a growth mindset, student achievement increases, particularly among lower achievers. Find out which mindset you mainly demonstrate here.

Growth mindsets can be supported by a range of classroom practices. It is often necessary first to directly teach students information they need to make the shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Research shows that you can directly teach students a growth mindset, and that doing so positively influences their motivation and achievement.

To encourage growth mindsets in your students:

  1. directly teach students about how the brain works
  2. create a class culture that encourages growth mindset attitudes and behaviours

How to teach students about how the brain works

You can teach students to develop a growth mindset by teaching them how the brain works and how it changes with learning. Students who are taught about the elasticity of the brain, and that it is possible to grow their brains, subsequently do better in academic work.

Students need to know that when a person stretches themselves to learn something new, the brain forms new connections, and over time intellectual ability can be enhanced. In fact, scientists have discovered that the brain grows more when people try to learn something new, and less when they practise things they already know.

It might also be important to express the advantages of a growth mindset in terms that students can appreciate. For example, in cultures that value interdependence: “A growth mindset helps you to achieve goals that matter to you and to people you care about.” Draw on teenagers’ desire to conform, by presenting a growth mindset as the normal way to approach learning. Or, alternatively, present a growth mindset as a reaction to adult positioning: “Don’t you hate the way people put you in a box and say ‘You’re not good at this’? A growth mindset means you don’t let other people box you in – it’s up to you to put in the work to strengthen your brain.”

A specific intervention that has been trialled in research teaches students scientific facts about the malleability of the brain, to show that intelligence can be developed. Students are asked to read an article which explains that the brain can get smarter the more it is challenged, just like a muscle gains strength with use. They watch videos about the anatomy and function of the brain, and read summaries of research showing that animals or people who repeatedly practise particular kinds of learning have denser networks of neurons in their brains. Students read quotes from admired adults and celebrities, and success stories of growth mindset-oriented people. The intervention then asks students to give a personal example of something they used to not know or be able to do, but with practice got better at. Finally students are given writing assignments in which they offer advice to a struggling student. The idea here is that ‘saying is believing’, and the act of forming key messages about the brain in their own words helps students internalise ideas, as well as offering them an opportunity to mentally rehearse responses they can use when they are struggling. Such interventions were found to impact students’ mindsets in positive ways even after a relatively short amount of instruction, and to lead to more positive and constructive learning behaviours and attitudes.

How to develop a class culture that encourages growth mindsets

  • Embrace challenge. Whenever a student faces a challenge or gets stuck, frame it as an opportunity for learning or for growing the brains of everyone, you included. Be excited and positive, and relish the moment as a lucky opportunity to practise problem-solving skills and develop new learning strategies. “This one is hard, so it should be fun!”
  • Ensure an appropriate level of difficulty because making learning too easy leads to a false sense of mastery, without deeper processing. Also mix up the conditions or contexts in which strategies are practised or applied, and give students opportunities to actively test themselves rather than just study material.
  • Invite confusion when introducing new ideas and strategies. Be confident that everyone can master new ideas and strategies with effort and support. Celebrate confusion as a means to greater understanding. Invite students to seek intellectual problems and reveal their confusions as rich opportunities for learning.
  • Value mistakes. Normalise mistakes as a part of learning and emphasise that everyone makes them. Make your own mistakes visible. Be intrigued by mistakes, and view mistakes as an opportunity to learn to do something differently. “Well, that didn’t work. How interesting! What does that tell us? What should we try next?”
  • Let students struggle! Avoid jumping in to fix every problem. Rather let students work through problems, figure out answers and invent strategies for themselves. Praise the struggle, perhaps by saying “Your brain is learning right now, can you feel it?” Jumping in to help conveys the message that their frustration should be minimised and prevents students from developing resilience and problem-solving skills. When teachers don’t jump in to solve problems or provide answers, they give students the message that they believe they can do it.
  • Expect and value effort. Avoid praising fast and easy work or answers, as this kind of endorsement discourages children from sticking with a challenge and working hard. Students might come to think that doing things quickly and easily is valued as a reflection of their ability. When students perform tasks quickly or easily, this means they were not challenged and very little learning occurred. So apologise to them for wasting their time with a task they didn’t benefit from. Praise them when they persevere, work hard, try different strategies and challenge themselves. Value practice, not perfection.
  • Value effort that leads to learning Don’t praise effort when students aren’t actually learning anything. Although it is good that they tried, it’s not good that they are not learning. Teachers can appreciate the effort that students have put in so far, but then say: “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.” Be honest about students’ mistakes and failures, but then be confident that you can work together to do something about it, empowering the student. Present yourself as a mentor and a resource for learning, rather than a judge of student performance and ability.
  • Encourage students to diversify their strategies when they get stuck. Coach students on the need to change strategies or ask for advice from others to improve strategies for learning when existing strategies have not been successful. Effort in itself is not enough to ensure learning if that hard work is wasted on ineffective learning strategies. Students need to try new strategies and seek help from others when they get stuck. Explain the formula for success in learning is “effort + strategies + help from others”. Teach them to identify the problem, and brainstorm three ways to overcome it, before selecting one to try. Make evaluating their progress part of the process.
  • Emphasise reflection as a key part of the process of learning from mistakes. Help students to identify and focus on areas for improvement, for example, engaging in problem-solving, and deliberate practice (isolating one component of a task to master before moving on) or brainstorming other potential solutions or resources for problems to try next time. After practising a strategy or producing a piece of work, you might ask students to identify what worked well, how it could be improved, or to suggest three ideas to make it better.
  • Praise processes, such as challenge-seeking, focus, strategy use, hard work and persistence, rather than outcomes. And don’t praise, or attribute outcomes to, intelligence, which encourages a fixed mindset and leads students to continue to seek tasks in which they can demonstrate existing intelligence. This means changing words like “smart” and “clever” to words like “hardworking” and “determined”. Rather than focus on the grade or mark, focus on the process: “What did you do to get there?” When giving feedback, indicate where students might need to adjust their strategies. Growth mindset feedback informs students on where they are in their learning and what they need to do to improve.
  • Ensure that students understand that tests and marks do not measure intelligence, but just their performance at a particular moment of time, and offer opportunities for students to plan strategies to improve. Analyse the most common errors on a test with the whole class – students may place less significance on future errors when they realise they are not alone with their errors.
  • Value ‘having-a-go’. Make opportunities for students to try new things in fun, low-stress ways, and highlight the incremental progress made through effort and practice. Choosing activities in which there is no single right answer can encourage students to take on new challenges.

How to talk to students about growth mindsets

  • Encourage students to notice when they find something hard and have to struggle, and remind them that is the feeling of their brain learning.
  • Come up with class slogans such as “learning starts with error” or “go out and try this and come back to share your interesting mistakes!”
  • Express new expectations about success. For example: “The point is not to understand this all straight away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What might you try next?”
  • Use the powerful word “yet”, as in “you haven’t learned this yet” or “I’m not a music person yet” or “You’re not supposed to understand, not yet”. Write “not yet” rather than “fail” (‘NY’ rather than ‘D’ or ‘F’) on tests or assessed work. These two words convey your belief that the required learning is well within the student’s grasp.
  • Use a green pen rather than red for marking – tell students green means “go”, as in “let’s go work this out” or “let’s go keep on learning”.
  • Tell students that when they feel confused, that is a good sign, because the student who is confused is often the one who understands enough to see a problem.
  • Normalise difficulty by asking questions like, “where did you struggle?” and “how are you working to solve those problems?”
  • Tell confident children with high ability that this ability is just the starting point and that to fulfil the potential of that ability challenge, effort and learning are required.
  • Have high expectations. Don’t accept effort as a good enough response, and certainly don’t tell students “just to do your best”, which implies they can only do what they can within their fixed quota of intelligence.
  • Encourage students to replace comparisons between people (“She is smarter than me”) with within-person comparisons (“I am better at this today than I was yesterday”).

With younger children:

  • Talk about how challenges are to be welcomed as opportunities to grow their brains, and that tackling challenges provides opportunities for them to feel strong, happy and excited to learn new things.
  • Talk about trying to “bounce like a ball” when they feel challenged, frustrated, or disappointed, instead of “flopping like a beanbag” (taken from Pawlina & Stanford, 2011). When they flop like a beanbag, that means they think they can’t help themselves, and their brains don’t grow. When they bounce like a ball, they try to think of some things to try to fix the problem, which grows their brains and gives them a good feeling.
  • Create an environment in which everyone is on the look out for problems that are opportunities to grow their brains. Brainstorm ideas and create a ‘Challenge Board’ of things students might practise.
  • Use a “ask three friends” strategy – encourage children to help each other before seeking a teacher’s assistance.
  • Remind children of other learning successes they have had when they hit problems and had to think of ideas and try hard, and the feelings they get about that. Use language like “Remember when you couldn’t…, but now you can”.

Quiz: Are you a growth mindset or a fixed mindset teacher?

In a previous article we considered the importance of growth mindsets for students, and what to do to promote growth mindsets in your students. But what about you? Research shows that the mindset of the teacher influences the mindsets of students in his or her class. Try this little quiz to reflect upon which mindset you generally employ in regard to your teaching.

1. Have you, or others you know, got a natural ability for teaching?

a) Yes, I think that some people are born to be teachers

b) No, I think good teaching develops with time and experience

2. How often do you execute a lesson perfectly as planned?

a) Most of the time

b) Sometimes

c) Rarely  – there are always unexpected contingencies that I need to respond to, or adaptations I need to make. Sometimes students just don’t get it and I need to think again.

3. How do you organise your teaching to match students’ ability?

a) I have to plan lots of independent work which students can engage with at diverse levels, and change my teaching groups almost weekly to reflect student’s changing needs.

b) I have ability groupings which remain pretty constant over the term. I know my student’s abilities and they don’t tend to change.

4. Which of these do you prioritise in assessing student learning?

a) Competence as measured by correct answers and performances.

b) The processes used – for example, the use of strategies, focus, and attitudes towards persevering and taking up challenges.

5. What do you do when a student makes a mistake or experiences difficulty?

a) I jump in to support them with prompts and strategies so they don’t get discouraged.

b) I give them the answer if they start to get embarrassed.

c) I encourage them to keep puzzling or  struggling, and to try other strategies or talk to friends. I want them to learn to invent strategies for themselves.

d) I bring the mistake or difficulty to the attention of the whole class.

6. How do you feel when a student has trouble learning something?

a) I feel incompetent, I feel I am not a good teacher.

b) I feel challenged. I know I need to increase my understanding about this student, this difficulty, and the topic I am teaching in order to improve my teaching.

c) I feel exasperated. I blame the previous year’s teacher, or the parents.

d) I feel resigned. Obviously this work is beyond this student. I will take them back down a level.

7. What is your response when a colleague offers to come and observe your lesson?

a) Great! An opportunity for some constructive feedback. I think I will ask him/her to focus on the quality of my feedback.

b) No thanks. I’m scared I’ll get negative feedback.

c) No thanks. I don’t have any problems.

d) Here’s a chance to prove myself as a good teacher. I’ll teach that lesson on probability as I know that is pretty easy for the students so I’m unlikely to experience any problems.

8. How do you respond to challenges in your career?

a) I feel anxious and shy away from them.

b) I feel excited and embrace the opportunity.

9. When students don’t pay attention or don’t follow your directions, do you:

a) Feel incompetent and defensive?

b) Blame the students or the programme requirements?

c) Wonder whether students have understood what you are teaching or what you could do to improve students’ motivation?

10. When a colleague makes suggestions for your teaching, do you:

a) Feel criticized and angry?

b) Feel defeated and look for an excuse?

c) Listen with interest, and ask questions?

d) Seek the next opportunity to try these out?

11. How do you feel when it seems as if a colleague is better than you at something?

a) I feel jealous, but console myself that there are other things I can do better than him/her.

b) I feel threatened, and think about how I can prove myself competent.

c) I feel eager to learn, and wonder if this teacher might engage in a mentoring relationship with me.

12. How do you feel about collaborative teaching?

a) I’d rather go it alone. I have enough teaching talent to carry me forth.

b) I have got my teaching all organised and working well. I don’t want to have to adjust anything.

c) I’d jump at the chance. Think what I could learn about teaching and my students from watching someone else teach them.

 

Which mindset are you?

If you identify fixed mindset tendencies for yourself, this is ok and an important first step towards a growth mindset. When you can identify and accept your tendencies towards fixed mindset thoughts, you can work through them and try to replace them with growth mindset beliefs.

Do you need to develop a growth mindset for yourself?

Listen to your thoughts and identify when you evaluate or categorise student ability, make a hasty judgement that a student has low ability, or provide comfort to such a student about his or her low ability (a fixed mindset view which leads to lower expectations on the part of the student). Counter that with growth mindset thoughts: “What can I do to uncover this student’s motivation?”, or “what is preventing this student from learning?” Rather than determining that some children can’t learn and finding a reason for that, determine to find a way to help them learn. If you don’t hold a growth mindset (yet) then work on developing your own growth mindset before teaching it to your students. You can hold a fixed mindset alongside a growth mindset, as long as you are mindful about how you use each. (Dweck suggests there is no point banning a fixed mindset, as a permanent growth mindset would be artificial. Instead we have to accept, recognise,  and understand our fixed mindset). Teachers who understand the growth mindset do everything they can to unlock students’ learning potential.

Also, try considering your teaching ability from a growth mindset. Don’t expect an error-free lesson to define your ability as a teacher. Perhaps you haven’t figured out yet how to support a particular group of students or to best teach a difficult unit, but maybe other teachers have experience and can share their strategies with you. These are the situations (and the students) who give you a chance to become a better teacher. Give yourself time to experiment and find out what works. Set yourself reasonable and achievable goals, and engage in frequent reflection. Believe that the challenges you experience in teaching are great opportunities for you to learn about and improve your teaching.

PREPARED FOR THE EDUCATION HUB BY

Dr Vicki Hargraves

Vicki runs our ECE webinar series and also is responsible for the creation of many of our ECE research reviews. Vicki is a teacher, mother, writer, and researcher living in Marlborough. She recently completed her PhD using philosophy to explore creative approaches to understanding early childhood education. She is inspired by the wealth of educational research that is available and is passionate about making this available and useful for teachers.