Response: Classroom Strategies to Foster a Growth Mindset
The question asked last week was:
What are actions teachers can take to help their students develop a growth mindset?
As Professor Carol Dweck -- one of authors of today's guest response and the developer of the term and concept -- has written elsewhere:
Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence is simply an inborn trait--they have a certain amount, and that's that. In contrast, individuals with a growth mindset believe that they can develop their intelligence over time.
Thanks to Professor Dweck's work, I have been explicitly applying this concept in the classroom for the past few years, but won't take up space here to share my experiences. Instead, I've developed a list of resources you can access here.
We're lucky today to have Professor Dweck and Dr. Lisa Blackwell, the co-founder of the organization designed to help schools be more effective in helping students develop growth mindsets, as the co-authors of today's guest response.
In addition, several readers offer their comments.
Response From Carol Dweck & Lisa Blackwell
Dr. Carol Dweck is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and internationally renowned expert on mindsets and motivation. Her colleague and Mindset Works co-founder, Dr. Lisa Blackwell, is a former school leadership coach and the principal designer of Brainology. She is currently VP of Design, Implementation, & Evaluation at Mindset Works, which offers curricula, professional development, and tools that foster a growth mindset in students and educators. Learn more about deepening student motivation at Mindset Works:
Students typically begin each new school year with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. Will their teachers be supportive or severe? Will they succeed or not? Adding to the anxiety is the fear of public embarrassment if they do have difficulty. Here is a 5th grader talking about how he feels about challenges and about making mistakes in class:
Our research1 on the growth mindset2 shows that students who believe they can grow their basic abilities have greater motivation and higher achievement than do students who believe their abilities are fixed, and that teachers can influence students' mindsets. The beginning of the new school year is a great time to establish your classroom as a growth mindset environment. Here are some things you can do right away to lay a foundation for growth all year:
1) Establish high expectations (not just high standards). Research by Geoffrey Cohen and colleagues3 shows that this increases motivation in vulnerable students. So let students know that you are challenging them because you know that all of them have the ability to meet those expectations. For example:
- Use lesson-framing language that outlines high expectations, as in this Growth Mindset Framing Tool.4 For example, when introducing a new topic, you can tell your students, "This will be a challenging concept to learn, but all of us can reach the goal. I want you to stretch."
- Write comments to your students that contain specific feedback on ways to improve, along with an explanation that you are providing it because you believe they have the capacity to develop a high level of skill in that area.
2) Create a risk-tolerant learning zone. Let your students know that you value challenge-seeking, learning, and effort above perfect performance, and that the amount of progress they make individually is more important than how they compare to others. Make it clear that mistakes are to be expected and that we can all learn from them. For example:
- At the beginning of the year, write a letter to your students saying how much you look forward to supporting their individual growth, and explaining that mistakes are welcome in your classroom. (See this Welcome Back Letter5 contributed by a middle school teacher.)
- When you introduce a new topic or assignment, tell students they should expect to find some things confusing and to make initial errors. Ask kids to share their "best" mistake of the week with you, and what they learned from it (and do the same yourself).
3) Give feedback that focuses on process--the things students can control, like their effort, challenge-seeking, persistence, and good strategies--not on their personal traits or abilities. Avoid praising children for their "smartness," and instead help them understand the importance of their own actions in achieving success. Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck6 showed that praising students for effort triggers growth mindset thinking. But many students think that effort is simply doing something for a long time, or doing the same thing over and over. Instead, help your students understand the many ways to employ effort effectively, such as seeking out challenges, setting goals and making plans, using creative strategies, and sticking with it when they are having difficulty. For example:
- Recognize your students' effort with tools such as this Effective Effort Rubric7 and teach them to use it to self-assess and build on their effort strategies.
- Give feedback that is appropriate to the situation--for example, don't praise effort if the student did not work hard. See the Growth Mindset Framing Tool8 for sample language in situations where students worked hard and succeeded, made an effort but have not yet met the goal, or did not exert effort.
4) Introduce students to the concept of the malleable mind. Recent research in neuroscience shows that our brains develop through effort and learning, and that they are more malleable than previously thought. Teaching this can be a powerful way to help students develop a growth mindset about their own ability. For example:
- Have your students read and discuss an article about the malleable brain, such as You Can Grow Your Intelligence.9 Let students know that when they are practicing hard things their brains are forming new connections and making them smarter. Instead of feeling dumb when they struggle, they will learn to "feel" those connections growing.
- Teach students about how the brain changes with learning and how they can build their brains with effective learning strategies through programs like the Brainology10 blended learning curriculum.
By introducing the growth mindset into your classroom early in the year, you can begin to build a culture of growth that will support your students as learners all year long.
Responses From Readers
Modelling growth mindset in how we speak and act with kids is probably the most important thing we can do.
I love how Dweck's research helps us to question the focus on grades, awards, tests, and results and places the focus on descriptive feedback that both supports and challenges the efforts of students.
One of our Board Trustees said it best when I presented our school's plan that included the work of Dweck. He said, "with a focus like this, you basically remove any excuse why a child cannot be successful in school. Keep the focus on effort and with the support of us, children will achieve more."
All kids have strengths but the conversation needs to be on why they have these strengths and the purposeful practice that has gone into developing an interest and/or strength in this.
Teachers can tell stories of their own growth experiences - anecdotes from their own lives that show how they developed their own intelligences. They should probably at least have examples of how they became smarter as teachers! We can help our students take a growth mindset by taking ourselves off the "all-knowing-teacher" pedestal.
Sharing anecdotes from Gladwell's Outliers or the various studies that find the importance of diligent practice (eg., Bloom 1985; Winner 1996) could provide examples of growth, in addition to the teachers' own examples.
I think well crafted self evaluations of personal student work that allows students to explore alternatives to their thinking can be a powerful way to help students consider alternatives to a fixed mindset.
When a forced choice evaluation is presented, students are often faced with the cognitive dissonance necessary to choose an alternate way of thinking. Self evaluation allows a teacher to accept student response while providing opportunity for quality directed feedback, hopefully in the form of questioning, assurance, clarification, and mutual respect.
I think kids won't change their mindset in an environment void of caring and kindness. They have to feel, and believe, that a change in thinking will produce a change in results, and that their teacher will notice, care, and value their journey. Learning is a partnership, and valuing students for who and where they are at the introduction, and celebrating their growth (meaningfully, not based on something as dry and impersonal as standardized test scores) while they are a learner in your classroom (and beyond if the teacher is so fortunate) until the time of departure gives purpose to the work of teaching.
Teaching a growth mindset is a challenge in our current education and social structure.
The best a teacher can do is to allow students to work through the failure process, without grades being viewed as a negative consequence, but as a means of growth through failure.
Remember, school is about grades and not mindsets. If we want to teach a student how to develop a mindset we need to provide students with appropriate motivation to fight through their current and misplaced view of failure. As a psychology teacher I teach this within my curriculum. I also teach the learning process, both cognitive and affective. Once students see learning as a process of growth through improvement, the rest is easier to get intrinsic buy in.
Also, intrinsic motivation to improve your ability to grow mentally is a must. This is very difficult within our current education structure which says those who have little social interaction with other students during class and can read and comprehend, are successful students. Actually, our education system says the opposite about success. Growth and failure are bad and conformity with blind agreement is good, where the teacher is viewed as the giver of knowledge.
Complete growth isn't good is our schools today, I wish it were though.
Thanks to Doctors Dweck and Blackwell, along with readers, for taking the time to contribute their responses!
Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.
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