Teachers’ approach to developing the right mindset can have a huge impact on students’ own efforts.
Many educators want to have a growth mindset and want to impart it to their students. But how do you know if you have a growth mindset? And how do you know if you’re passing it on? This is what my colleagues and I have been fretting over lately.
We used to think that growth mindset was a simple concept: if adults had a growth mindset they would naturally pass it on. Ah, those were blissful days. A growth mindset no longer seems so simple and we’re learning all the ways that teachers do and do not pass it on.
Why a growth mindset is not so simple
First of all, many educators confuse a growth mindset with other nice things. They equate it with simply being open-minded or flexible, or with encouraging students to work hard. They often take their existing beliefs and practices and re-label them “growth mindset”.
In fact, it takes a lot of hard work to deeply understand the idea of how and why people can develop their intellectual abilities.
Even after educators understand growth mindset, it takes a lot of hard work to move toward it. This is because we’re all a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. Therefore, as educators, we have to figure out what triggers our fixed mindset – what catapults us into a state in which we feel our fixed ability is being judged or in which we judge our students’ fixed abilities. Does it happen when someone criticises us, when we’re struggling, when we’ve made a big mistake? Or when a student is not learning readily from our teaching?
These fixed-mindset triggers can be powerful. We must learn over time how to recognise them and work with them. Only in this way can we learn to remain in a place where we have a growth mindset most of the time.
In short, even once we’ve fully understood what a growth mindset is – the belief in everyone’s capacity to grow their abilities – it’s a lifelong journey to fully embody that belief.
Why many teachers do not pass on their growth mindsets
One of the most surprising things that we’ve learned lately is that there is very little relationship between teachers’ mindset and those of their students, or between and children’s and parents’ mindsets. How can this be true? Well, that’s what we’re committed to figuring out, and here’s what we’ve learned so far.
Children learn from adults’ words and deeds.
Therefore, growth mindset has to be made visible and compelling to kids through our adult practices, such as:
- Focusing on pupils’ strategies and hard work and tying them to progress and learning
- Treating mistakes, difficulty, and even failure as something beneficial for learning, rather than something that can harm children or reflect badly on their abilities
- Giving students meaningful problems (rather than rote memorisation of facts and procedures), clear feedback for improvement, and a chance to revise the work to experience and demonstrate deepened understanding
- Sitting down with students who are stuck and saying: “Show me what you’ve done – let’s figure out how you’re thinking and what you can try next”
- Once in a while, I miss the days when things were simpler, but, much more often, I’m excited by our greater understanding of how teachers can help students to grow their abilities.
Carol Dweck is Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, 2016 recipient of the Atkison Prize from the National Academy of Sciences and author of Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential.
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