When You Help Your Students Develop a Growth Mindset, You Unleash Their Potential
December 6, 2019
December 6, 2019
By Gayle T. Dow and Lauren Davis
“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
– Thomas Edison
We know that children’s academic ability is strongly influenced by how they perceive themselves. It’s human nature and we’ve seen it in ourselves. An effective way to help young people develop both a healthier self-image and better learning skills is through encouraging a growth mindset. Such a mindset can be characterized by mental toughness, resilience, hardiness, and grit—and can greatly influence a child’s motivation, perseverance, and how he or she handles setbacks and failures.
Psychologist Carol Dweck first described fixed mindset, which is the perception that traits and abilities are fixed and unchanging, and growth mindset, which is the perception that traits are abilities are malleable and can improve with effort. Adopting a fixed mindset can lead children to view their abilities as present or absent (i.e. “I’m a math whiz” or “I can’t do math”). If a child is struggling in a subject area and has internalized a fixed mindset, the child is much more likely to give up trying and accept failure when faced with a setback. On the other hand, if a child has been taught a growth mindset, rather than internalizing failure, the child understands setbacks are just one step in learning and if a topic is difficult to master, he or she can develop skills or strategies to be successful.
Fostering a growth mindset can result in a child who can navigate failures and continue to try instead of folding under pressure and quitting.
To teach a growth mindset to young students, we use the analogy that the brain is like a muscle; it needs exercise in order to grow, expand, and become stronger. By encouraging children to exercise their brains, as we would their bodies, we can teach that thinking can be improved with effort. You can help get this started in three stages.
Since the concept may be new, in stage 1 you introduce it by discussing the concept of growth and letting children find additional examples, such as plants, to underscore that brains have a similar potential to grow. Additionally, students can complete simple assignments such as word searches, crosswords, or color-in activities easily found online that include concepts of effort and resiliency. This sets a foundation of knowledge about how a growth mindset can later be applied to a variety of situations.
At stage 2, move to specific examples of a growth mindset from movies or books (e.g., Aseop’s Tortoise and the Hare or Williams Steig’s Brave Irene or Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again) and then connect them to the children’s personal lives. You can also easily create classroom visuals that encourage a growth mindset with posters that contain messages such as, “Never give up!” or “Keep trying!”
Finally, in stage 3, encourage your students to internalize a growth mindset. For example, if a child says, “I can’t do this” suggest something like, “I’m having a hard time with this, but I can ask for help and keep trying.” This is also an ideal time to introduce the power of “yet” (i.e., “I can’t do this yet”). Children can explore this by discussing the feelings they experience and the consequences that result from using fixed mindset phrases compared to growth mindset phrases.
In sum, the elementary school years should prepare children not only to develop a growth mindset, but encourage them to use it even when met with setbacks.
Teaching a growth mindset to older students presents additional challenges as middle and high school students face not only potential struggles that come with increasingly complex subjects, but also are more likely to feel overwhelmed by any resulting criticism or failure. There are also three stages for introducing a growth mindset for this age group.
Stage 1 involves creating an appropriate environment, one in which students feel it’s safe to take risks and that mistakes are opportunities for growth. To develop a sense of safety on assignments, if possible, avoid high-stakes testing in favor of lower-stakes assessments, with opportunities for multiple drafts or a revise-and-resubmit policy. This will encourage students to take a risk with an assignment while maintaining the safety net to ensure their grades will not suffer from a novel approach. Simultaneously, teachers should also set high expectations for all students to promote student growth. Similar to Vygotskian principles of scaffolding, students can achieve more success with encouragement and high expectations dictated from the teacher.
Since middle and high schoolers are better able to understand advanced concepts, stage 2 begins with examples of the benefits of a growth mindset through examples of people who demonstrate resilience (e.g., nonfiction examples of Temple Grandin who navigated autism to become a leading expert in animal behavior or civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.; fiction examples such as Pearl Buck’s classic The Good Earth or Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’). In addition to examples, presenting scientific research highlighting the benefits of a growth mindset is beneficial in this age group. For example, you can introduce the brain-based research on neuroplasticity and the empirical evidence of a growth mindset from Carol Dweck.
Since teens are more capable of goal-setting than younger children, stage 3 involves formulating a plan for realistic and healthy micro-goals. Micro-goals serve two purposes: they allow any task to be broken down into manageable and achievable chunks and they allow students to experience a small success, which then serves as a confidence-booster. Your students can get better at this if you incorporate personal time management and organization skills activities into class assignments. High school students especially benefit from goal-setting activities such as setting a timeline to study for a test or outlining post-graduation plans. During this stage, students should be taught that trial and error is often necessary in order to achieve goals and that embracing mistakes is part of learning and success. Whenever a mistake is made, teachers should avoid just praising effort; instead, discuss what happened, brainstorm ideas about a new technique or approach, and then generate a new micro-goal.
Studies show that teachers who encourage a growth mindset philosophy have students who tend to be more confident and less prone to academic stress and anxiety. Researchers believe this is due to an increased ability to accept and learn from failure and criticism instead of ignoring it or letting it negatively affect self-perception. Moreover, a growth mindset has been found to be positively correlated with improved classroom grades, perhaps due to this increase in self-efficacy and persistence when met with setbacks. A growth mindset can also provide a framework of resiliency that students can carry into their adult lives. With a carefully implemented and modeled growth mindset, teachers may witness students who not only have greater motivation and more positive attitudes towards school, but an improved overall learning ability, as well.
Dr. Dow is an educational psychologist and associate professor at Christopher Newport University. Davis is a senior at CNU, majoring in psychology and minoring in Leadership and Childhood Studies.