Have you heard the phrase ‘growth mindset’? It is the belief that we all have the ability to learn and improve. It was coined by Dr Carol Dweck, an American psychologist who was interested in student attitudes towards failure.
She researched the behaviour of thousands of children, and came to the realisation that the way students reacted towards learning, challenging themselves and failing can have an enormous effect on their motivation and achievements.
Her discovery led to the development of growth mindset vs fixed mindset theory. Let’s take a look:
Growth mindset versus fixed mindset
These two mindsets can make a big difference to how students learn, develop and grow. Here’s an overview of how these two mindsets differ:
|Fixed mindset||Growth mindset|
|Believes that intelligence is fixed or static||Believes that intelligence can be developed|
|Tends to avoid challenges for fear of failure||Embraces challenges as learning opportunities|
|Gives up easily when faced with obstacles||Persists when faced with a stumbling block|
|Sees effort and hard work as pointless||Sees hard work and repetition as an integral part of learning|
|Reacts negatively or defensively to constructive criticism||Uses constructive criticism as a way of improving and developing skills|
|Feels embarrassed about making mistakes||Views mistakes as an inevitable part of the learning process|
|Feels threatened by other people’s success||Celebrates and feels inspired by other people’s success|
Strategies for developing a growth mindset in your students
Creating a growth mindset is actually quite simple – but it’s not a one-step process. Instead, you need to create a classroom culture which recognises, promotes and rewards a growth mindset, by using a variety of strategies:
1. Talk the talk AND walk the walk
Don’t underestimate the ability of your students to grasp the concept of a growth mindset. Explain the framework to them, and encourage them to be mindful of their mindset and attitude. Frame mistakes and failures as opportunities to grow.
And if you, as the teacher, model this behaviour, it can be a powerful example. Give your students the opportunity to see you making mistakes. Your positive response will teach them that mistakes are not embarrassing, or a sign of stupidity. Instead, they provide us with the chance to learn and do better next time.
2. Change your praise from performance-based to effort-based
Teachers know how powerful language can be. And, when you change the language you use, it sends a profound message to your students about classroom values and learning goals. So, when it comes to praising your students for their work, make a conscious effort to base positive feedback on effort rather than performance or ability.
What does this look like in practice?
Well done – you’re so smart!
Great job – you kept trying and didn’t give up, even though it was difficult.
You got an A in the test – fantastic!
The revision approach you took to this test really paid off.
You’re very artistic.
I can see you really thought about what colours to use here.
This is perfect!
You went back to check your work – that extra step made a big difference.
3. Encourage your students to set goals
The start of a new school year is a good time to encourage your students to set personal learning goals. No matter what subject you’re teaching, your students can think about what they’d like to achieve in the next month, term or even academic year. These goals could be skills-based, e.g. developing their collaborative skills, or performance-based, e.g. achieving a certain grade in an exam.
However, it’s important that you offer your students guidance when creating their goals. If your students set vague goals, or goals that are wildly ambitious, they are less likely to achieve them, and striving for goals that are out of reach will have a negative impact on their motivation. Instead, encourage them to set SMART goals – goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. That way, they’ll be more likely to achieve them.
4. Use the word ‘yet’ when discussing skills and abilities
You’ve probably heard all these sentences from students who are struggling with a new skill:
“I don’t understand.”
“I can’t do it.”
“I can’t solve this problem.”
But when fostering a growth mindset, ‘yet’ is a powerful word.
“I don’t understand yet.”
“I can’t do it yet.”
“I can’t solve this problem yet.”
This way, your students can express their frustration. But at the same time, adding ‘yet’ reframes the struggle and ignites the belief that students will be able to master the skill – if they persevere.
5. Create opportunities for improvement
In one growth mindset case study, a teacher changed her praise from performance-based to effort-based – and realised that, in fact, some of her students weren’t sufficiently challenged by the work she was setting. She said, “If I need to praise students for their efforts and find many of my students completing assigned work with little effort, I now have to make work more challenging for some of my students, so I can praise them for their efforts.”
So, it’s worth keeping a close eye on how much effort your students are putting into completing their work. If you realise that you have students that aren’t sufficiently challenged by the work you are setting, you can use this information to differentiate some tasks and provide follow-on material. In this way, a growth mindset can help you to target the zone of proximal development and push your students’ learning to the next level.
To learn more about growth mindset theory, watch Dr Carol Dweck’s TED talk, where she talks in detail about her research findings.
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