The “growth mindset,” popularized by Carol Dweck, has become a hot topic in the education world—and rightfully so. The concepts outlined in Dweck’s book resonate with much of what teachers already know, and challenge some of the current practices of the educational system.
Teachers know that through encouragement, goal setting, and hard work, students can develop grit, determination, and self-efficacy. Some kids walk into the classroom with their mind already “set” to be unsuccessful, but teachers have watched students who persevere become much more successful adults than other students who don’t have this trait.
Helping Our Students Achieve Success
What I found most surprising about Dweck’s work—what was “new” to me—was how malleable a student’s mindset really is. In study after study, students achieved more and learned better with simple encouragement and the freedom to fail without consequence.
As schools or “systems,” we often don’t realize the unintended consequence of structures in place that reinforce a fixed mindset. The more research that is shared, the more schools should rethink some of the tried and true tools that we use to talk to, measure, and punish students. Too often, schools, teachers, and even parents don’t realize the (unintended) effect we have on a student’s self-perception.
Finding the Best Approach
But what does all this theoretical knowledge mean for individual teachers working with individual students on a day-to-day basis? Here are some practical guidelines for how teachers can use the research found in Dweck’s work with students who have different needs:
- Students with disabilities: This group of learners is probably the most in need of a growth mindset—especially in the wake of No Child Left Behind testing. When all students have to achieve pre-set grade level measures, regardless of their ability level, students in special education need to focus on growth. Since learning is a challenge for these students, many of them give up on themselves early in their educational careers.
A Practical Solution: Make it visible. All students need to be able to “see” how their work is paying off to avoid becoming discouraged. At our school, we monitor students who are below grade level and chart their growth. The student takes ownership of the learning and can see how their work translates into progress, even though they may be behind their classmates in learning.
- Gifted and talented students: These students often fall into two different camps: either students who are intellectually gifted and are very high achieving, or students who are intellectually gifted and don’t fit the “school” system very well. The latter students often have a great growth mindset—they love to learn and focus much more on learning than on grades. Students who are high achieving and high intellectually often struggle with the concept of “growth.” For these students, coursework often comes easily for them, and they can become accustomed to not needing to “grow.” When faced with a challenging situation, these students can become easily frustrated—even to the point of giving up.
A Practical Solution: Coach them through it. The growth mindset is key for these students, but teachers need to be aware of the emotions tied to failure for them. Having never experienced a setback or a learning goal beyond their reach, students don’t know how to react to adversity or failure. Teachers must coach them through it, step by step, being sensitive to the emotions that come with growth.
- Students learning English: I cannot imagine the determination it takes to learn a new language as a student. It comes with a high level of insecurity and self-consciousness, so we must care for these students and focus on their progress and growth.
A Practical Solution: Make it heard. Much like making it visible for students with disabilities, teachers need to make it heard for students who are learning English. By periodically recording an individual’s oral reading or speaking, the student can reflect on their growth over time while learning the language. It isn’t about being perfect—it’s about getting better.
- Students who have not been successful in the past: This could apply to any student, but those who have experienced academic failure are some of the most in need of the growth mindset. Grades themselves are much more “fixed” than “growth” when it comes to mindsets. An F on a paper or for a class can feel very final and hard to overcome down the road. Once a student feels like a failure, it is a hard feeling to shake.
A Practical Solution: YET: If you take away only one thing from this, please remember the Power of Yet. It is well worth the ten minutes and will change the way you teach and approach your students.
Ken Blanchard is famous for saying, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Remember that the feedback we provide to students reinforces either the growth or the fixed mindset. We have power in our words and need to use them to help students grow into productive adults.
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