How do we embrace growth mindset and lead our students to do the same?
By Lisa Lawmaster Hess
When do you review your students’ cumulative record folders? Before the school year starts? A few weeks in? Only when you have a concern?
Student files are packed with data, some of which is qualitative and some of which is quantitative. We tend to put a lot of stock in the quantitative information, seeing test scores — and IQ scores in particular — as predictive of school success.
But, while this might be true to some extent, veteran teachers know that no number tells the whole story. What our students do every day in the classroom and what they go home to every night play a role as well. Helping our students to believe they can achieve what psychologist Albert Bandura calls “self-efficacy” can be key to helping our students achieve potential that they — and the test scores — might not even know they have.
One factor that goes hand-in-hand with self-efficacy is mindset. The province of another Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, mindset is an education buzzword that has entered the public consciousness. Search “mindset” on Pinterest and a seemingly endless array of articles, infographics, and classroom ideas pop up. While these visuals are a great teaser and an even better assist at bringing the concept into the classroom, they’re not enough to lead us to a thorough understanding this complex concept.
For every educator who has embraced the concept thoughtfully, there are others who’ve hugged it tightly enough to squeeze all the meaning out of it. In 2016, Dweck gave an interview in response to the rise of what she refers to as “false growth mindset” in order to set the record straight and encourage a continued use of her work in a more nuanced fashion.
So, what is mindset? Generally speaking, it’s the mental outlook with which we approach both particular situations and life in general. In medicine, mindset has been linked to patient outcomes; in the business world, as in education, mindset has become intertwined with professional growth.
In her research, Dweck has identified two mindsets: fixed and growth. Those with a fixed mindset see talents and abilities as inborn (fixed). You either have it or you don’t and, if you have it, you’re often driven to prove yourself over and over. Failure is the enemy because it calls capability into question. Those with a fixed mindset often shrink from challenges in order to avoid even the possibility of failure. If and when they do fail, fixed mindset folks rarely take the blame. In an effort to preserve self-worth, they point to circumstances, other people and factors outside themselves as the cause. They are smart and talented, after all. Smart and talented people don’t fail.
Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, see talents and abilities as just the start. They believe that with hard work, effort, and determination, they can grow their talents and abilities. Failure, rather than being something to be avoided at all costs, is an opportunity to learn, adjust and devise a strategy to do better next time. Fall down, get back up and press forward with new knowledge of how to approach the challenge.
Let’s get back to those student folders. When we read them, it’s easy to develop a fixed mindset about our students — who’s smart, who’s good at math, who’s a natural at art, music or sports. The danger in this is that we set expectations — some too high, some too low — artificial boundaries that trap our students in the enclosure of prior performance. When we apply these labels before we even meet our students, we’re in danger of creating our own fixed mindsets about their capabilities.
Does this mean the sky’s the limit for every student? Maybe … maybe not. I would argue that all that information, fixed as it is in a cumulative record folder, is a snapshot. What we’re aiming for is a video — a day-by-day version of who our students are and what they can do.
So how do we embrace growth mindset and lead our students to do the same? Here are some ideas.
Make it clear that we have faith in them — and then let that emanate from every interaction. For some of our students, we might be the first ones to convey this. We don’t need to gush and praise incessantly (and, in fact, we shouldn’t). Simply reminding them that they are God’s children, created in his likeness is a great starting point from which to lift them up when they struggle. Our belief in our students’ abilities can inspire their belief in themselves.
Tell them about mindsets — and how to identify them. Mindset shouldn’t be a mystery. Its power lies in our ability to discern when we are in which mindset and make a conscious decision to stay where we are or take steps toward growth.
Help them understand that we’re a mix of both mindsets — and that’s okay. No one is all growth all the time. Once we know what the mindsets are, how they look and how we look when we’re embodying them, we can choose where we want to be. That’s only the first step, of course — once we make the choice, we need to do the work.
Teach them how to focus on learning as a process. One way we do the work is by focusing on the process. This single adjustment plays a huge role in not letting failure get us down and keeps us from slapping a label (“stupid,” “bad at this,” “never going to get it”) on ourselves; when we’re process-focused, we realize that where we are at one moment in time isn’t where we’ll always be. In her work, Dweck points to the power of “yet,” — as in, “I don’t understand this yet” — as a bridge to the next step in the process.
Celebrate the imperfect as a stepping stone to success. I originally phrased this one as “celebrate failure” but that has too much potential for going wrong, beginning with the label itself and moving to accepting failure as an endpoint, which is just as much a fixed mindset thought as “smart people don’t fail.” Failure is both a loaded term and an imprecise one. Teach students instead to recognize when they’re not where they want to be, and to then become like a GPS, recalculating so they can decide where they made a wrong turn and set themselves back on course, making adjustments based on what they know now.
Praise without labeling. As educators, we avoid pejorative labels, but sometimes the seemingly good ones can be just as damaging. Kids who are “smart,” “talented,” and “a natural” can feel burdened by the pressure to live up to these labels in every interaction just as kids who are slapped with less desirable labels can kept down by those. As with behavior, labeling the action (“smart thinking”) instead of the child can make all the difference.
Finally, as educators, we need to learn to differentiate between a true growth mindset approach and a false one. According to Dweck, growth mindset, simply put, “is about believing people can develop their abilities,” whatever those abilities may be. Effort, perseverance, and intention are ingredients, but they don’t tell the whole story. Just as we need to make sure our car is pointing in the right direction at the start of our journey, so, too must we help our students stay pointed in the right direction so their energies are expended in a way that leads them to their goals.
If, for example, you gave a homework assignment wherein the top half of the page was addition problems and the bottom half was subtraction problems, it would be necessary for your students to change strategies mid-way in order to complete the assignment successfully. Students who worked tirelessly (effort) from top to bottom without changing their strategy (perseverance) would nevertheless arrive at the wrong answers for half the assignment. Praising wrong answers because students employed effort and perseverance and intended to complete the assignment would be doing our students a disservice. Gently reminding them that they needed a different strategy for the bottom half of the page (or helping them to reach that conclusion themselves), then giving them the opportunity to expend their efforts in a way that would lead them to the solutions they were seeking could take them from fixed mindset thinking (“I’ll never get math!”) to growth mindset thinking (“I can fix my mistakes.”).
In the end, mindset is the toolbox, holding the equipment our students need for success: effort, hard work, strategy, intention, perseverance, self-efficacy. Taking good care of the toolbox assures that what’s inside will also be well-protected so that each tool can be taken out and used as needed for its intended purpose long after our students leave our classroom.
As for those cumulative record folders? They make a pretty nice shed to house the toolbox right alongside all that other equipment.
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.
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