The Importance of a Growth Mindset for Students
We’ve all heard a student complain, “This is too hard, I’ll never understand.” Or maybe even, “I’m not a math person, I just don’t get it.” These statements both reflect a fixed mindset, and one of our responsibilities as educators is to encourage a shift in our students from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. According to Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and a leading researcher in the field of motivation, a growth mindset is the “understanding that abilities and intelligence can be developed.” Once students have this mindset, watch their confidence soar! Even as they face academic struggles, they will understand that the struggle is part of the process of learning.
A positive growth mindset is so critical in order for students to learn and grow. How can you, as a teacher, encourage this mindset shift in each of your learners?
Evidence From Brain & Neuroscience Research
Scientists know now that the brain is more malleable than ever thought before. Connections between neurons can improve over time and with practice. Brain growth can actually be increased through activities such as asking questions and repeated practice, as well as through habits like a healthy diet and plenty of sleep. Research shows that the brain is like a muscle, and when you challenge it, it gets stronger. You can even speak to your students in simple terms about neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to restructure itself based on repetitive practices. As we learn new things, our brains create new neural pathways, and these pathways allow us to perform the same task or learn new related information much faster. When students truly believe that their increased effort will make a difference and increase their learning, they are said to have a growth mindset.
The Impact on Education
So how does a student’s mindset effect their education? Students with a fixed mindset tend to give up on challenging tasks quickly. In fact, in most cases, they will avoid challenges at all costs! They often feel that their effort is pointless, so why even bother? Students with a fixed mindset do not handle criticism well. Instead of learning from constructive feedback, they usually ignore it. And finally, these students often feel threatened when other are performing well.
On the other hand, a student with a growth mindset looks for challenges and embraces them for the learning opportunity they can be. When they face struggles, they persist. They truly believe that their effort is what will all them to reach mastery of a subject. Students with a growth mindset learn from criticism they may receive, instead of ignoring it. And when they witness people being successful, instead of being jealous or feeling threatened, they find it inspiring!
As you can imagine, a fixed mindset can only lead to students not reaching their full potential, whereas students with a growth mindset will almost certainly reach higher levels of achievement. Students who hold a growth mindset are more likely to set goals for themselves, because they know that through hard work and determination, they can reach those goals.
What Teachers Can Do
Step One: Establish Your Own Growth Mindset
How can educators encourage a shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? To begin, you must make sure you have a genuine growth mindset of your own. Without one, you may inadvertently hinder your students’ learning through your responses to them. For example, if you have a fixed mindset towards math, you might lower your expectations when you see a student struggling. You may even give them what you deem comforting feedback such as, “I know this is hard to do. Not everyone can do this level of work and that’s ok.” In reality, those types of comments are damaging and do nothing to instill a growth mindset.
On the other hand, a teacher who solidly demonstrates a growth mindset, offers praise that is focused on effort and not achievement. If students are praised too much based on their achievements, they have no incentive to try a more challenging task that they might not be successful at. However, if they know their effort is worthy of praise, they are more likely to try other challenging tasks or skills.
Step Two: Share the Brain Research
Once you are in the right frame of mind, share the brain research with your students. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just give them an overview of how the brain can change and grow through repeated practice of skills. There are many short, student-centered videos available online, and you will find a direct link to one of these in our Smart Goals section below.
You can then have students practice reframing statements of a fixed mindset into more of a growth mindset. For example, pose this statement: I am just not a math person at all. I’ll never understand it! Encourage your students to turn and talk with a fellow student about how that statement can be shifted into a growth mindset. They may come up with something like this: This particular skill is challenging for me, but I’ll keep trying until I get it. You should also encourage the use of the word “yet.” As in, I don’t understand this…yet! But with some more practice, I will be sure to get it.
Step Three: Establish a Classroom Culture of Learning
Perhaps the best way you can encourage a growth mindset in your classroom is by establishing the kind of classroom culture that encourages learning. First, let it be known that mistakes are acceptable, and even welcome. Remind students that they can learn from their mistakes! One way you can do this, particularly in math, is to share problem samples that are incorrect, and challenge your students to find the error and correct it. They will learn directly through this process, as well as have the positive thinking that they were able to correct a mistake.
Secondly, set aside time regularly for your students to set goals. Students should set specific, measurable goals such as “I will be able to multiply two 3-digit numbers” or “I will be able to explain the phases of the moon in writing and with drawings.” It is equally important to also give them time to reflect on their progress towards those goals. As students reflect, they are able to see the growth they have made and that will only solidify to them the benefits of a growth mindset, and prove that their brain really can take in new information!
And finally, make sure your students have plenty of opportunities to engage in cooperative work, as opposed to competitive work. In small groups, students tend to feel a sense of responsibility and want to put forth their best effort for the benefit of the group. When one group member is struggling, they know they can turn to the other for help and encouragement. This continued effort and praise of the process are fine examples of a growth mindset at work.
A genuine growth mindset is not cultivated on one lesson, or one day, or even one week. It is a way of thinking that evolves over time and with practice. By using some of the strategies above, you and your students will be well on your way to developing a strong growth mindset.