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How to Foster a Growth Mindset in the Classroom

December 10, 2020

Of the many challenges educators face, one of the most formidable—and least obvious—is student mindset. Teaching students to comprehend, absorb, and apply new material and concepts is challenging under any circumstances. The undertaking is much greater, however, when students doubt their ability to learn.

Can simply believing you have the ability to learn increase your ability to learn? According to growth mindset researchers, the answer is yes.

A more detailed look at mindset theory, as well as some of the ways that teachers can foster growth mindset in the classroom, illustrates mindset development’s importance in education.

What Is Growth Mindset?

One theory of intelligence holds that people can be categorized according to their implicit beliefs about ability. People with a fixed mindset believe that abilities are innate, while people with a growth mindset believe that they can acquire abilities through effort and study.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist, developed the fixed versus growth mindset theory. The Stanford University professor’s pioneering research, as well as her 2006 book, Mindset:The New Psychology of Success, popularized the concept of fixed and growth mindsets.

To gain a better understanding of what growth mindset is, compare the differences between fixed and growth mindset outlooks and behaviors.

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

Fixed and growth mindsets profoundly affect the way that individuals respond to failure. People with a fixed mindset view failure as a result of their lack of ability, while people with a growth mindset see the opportunity to expand their abilities and to work harder and smarter.

The fixed mindset vs. growth mindset dichotomy can also be expressed in terms of goals. People with a fixed mindset wish to appear intelligent because they believe that failing to do so reveals a weakness. People with a growth mindset are much less apprehensive about how their intelligence is perceived because they believe that knowledge and ability can be improved through effort. These outlooks produce almost diametric goals related to learning: a person with a fixed mindset wants to avoid appearing unintelligent; a person with a growth mindset wants to overcome challenges.

While the basic concept of fixed mindset vs. growth mindset is simple, mindset designations are much more nuanced in reality. An important factor of the mindsets is that they can be different in different domains. For example, a person may have a growth mindset in athletic or artistic endeavors but have a fixed mindset in academic endeavors.

Furthermore, mindsets aren’t absolute, immovable states. The fixed or growth mindset exists on a spectrum, and even those positions can vary. A person may have a predominant growth mindset in one area—math, for example—but an especially challenging problem may trigger a response that’s more consistent with a fixed mindset.

Dweck has described the growth mindset theory as a response to the self-esteem movement, which held that lavishing students with praise builds confidence that leads to improved achievement.

Mindset researchers propose a different approach. Instead of giving students general praise or praising outcomes—an ineffective practice in Dweck’s view—teachers should focus on praising students’ efforts and the steps they take to overcome challenges and make progress. By doing so they reinforce the simple but powerful idea that ability can be improved.

Benefits of a Growth Mindset in Education

Dweck’s early research demonstrated multiple potential benefits to encouraging a growth mindset in education. One of her studies showed that praising students’ efforts rather than their intelligence made them more likely to pursue more difficult challenges. Another study demonstrated the influence of simple mindset interventions. Her research showed that students who were taught about developing intelligence went on to perform better in school and exhibit more motivation in the classroom.

Growth mindset has been widely embraced inside and outside of education. (Growth mindset has become a popular topic in the business world, for example.) However, the concept isn’t without its critics. Skeptics point out that few researchers have been able to replicate Dweck’s results, and much of the corroborating research that’s been done has been done by Dweck and her colleagues. Still, mindset research continues to advance, and evidence of the benefits of a growth mindset in education continues to mount.

How to Foster a Growth Mindset in Students

Learning how to foster a growth mindset in students requires time and practice. The approach requires consistent instruction that reinforces and demonstrates the idea that students can improve their ability. At the most basic level, mindset techniques involve shifting emphasis away from outcomes and toward efforts and process. Rather than praising an accomplishment, the instructor praises the efforts and learning steps that led to the positive outcome.

Looking at examples of how instruction and language can be altered to encourage a growth mindset illustrates how teachers can change the way that students perceive the learning process:

  • Fixed mindset statement: “It’s OK if you’re having trouble. Maybe algebra isn’t one of your strengths.”
  • Growth mindset statement: “When you learn how to do a new kind of problem, it develops your math brain.”

Another example stresses the importance of encouraging students to work through problems:

  • Fixed mindset statement: “Great effort. You tried as hard as you could.”
  • Growth mindset statement: “The goal isn’t to get it right immediately. The goal is to improve your understanding step by step. What can you try next?”

Teaching students to be encouraged when they experience difficulty can also reinforce growth mindset:

  • Fixed mindset statement: “Don’t worry, you’ll get it if you keep trying.”
  • Growth mindset statement: “That feeling you’re experiencing of algebra being hard is the feeling of your brain developing.”

A growth mindset approach still demands optimal performance from a student—simply rewarding efforts isn’t effective, and, in fact, it can be harmful if the student’s efforts are ultimately fruitless.

Part of growth mindset instruction is teaching students to ask for help and to use any resources that can assist them. Just as students are still responsible for learning the material, teachers are still responsible for giving them the tools they need to learn.

10 Strategies for Fostering a Growth Mindset in the Classroom

Helping students develop a growth mindset requires deliberate effort from teachers, but many of the methods can be easily integrated in their existing practices. The following strategies and tips can help educators foster a growth mindset in the classroom:

1. Normalize struggle. Struggle is part of the learning process, and emphasizing and reinforcing that idea helps students react positively when they feel challenged.

2. Encourage engagement with challenges. Portray challenges as fun and exciting, and easy tasks as boring.

3. Embrace the word “yet”. If someone makes the statement “I’m not a math person,” adding a simple qualifier will signal that a process exists for gaining ability. “You’re not a math person yet.”

4. Tout the value of hard tasks to the brain. Promote the idea that brains are malleable “muscles” that can be developed. Research on brain plasticity supports the idea of neural growth, and mindset research has shown that believing the brain can grow has a demonstrative effect on behavior and achievement.

5. Demonstrate mistakes and celebrate corrections. Mistakes should be viewed as learning opportunities. Teachers can model this outlook in reactions to their own mistakes and steps they take to correct a mistake.

6. Set goals. Having students set incremental, achievable goals demonstrates the attainability of growth and progress.

7. Develop cooperative exercises. Working together to solve problems emphasizes process and reinforces the importance of getting help and finding solutions. It also deemphasizes individual outcomes.

8. Provide challenges. Part of developing a growth mindset is teaching students to overcome obstacles. A particularly hard math problem or complex writing assignment that stretches their abilities can provide opportunities for growth and further instruction that emphasizes problem-solving.

9. Avoid praising intelligence. This may seem counterintuitive, but praise for “being smart” reinforces the idea that intelligence is a fixed trait. This can be demotivating for the students being praised (“I’m smart; I don’t have to try harder”), as well as for those who don’t not receive the praise (“That student is smart; I’m not”).

10. Don’t oversimplify. “You can do anything!” may feel like harmless encouragement, but if students aren’t put in a position to overcome challenges, they’ll conclude that such statements are empty, and the educator will lose credibility.

How to Foster a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Administrators

Extending the concept of growth mindset theory to teachers and administrators is critical. Research suggests that growth mindset approaches are more effective in supportive environments. However, individuals interested in promoting growth mindset initiatives can encounter resistance. Cultural changes in any institution or system are difficult, but understanding those challenges is the first step to finding common ground and moving forward.

Overcoming Challenges

Changing the instructional practices and policies that teachers and administrators have established can be difficult for many reasons:

  • Teachers and administrators who have invested time and effort in their current methods of instruction and classroom culture may resist change, particularly if their methods have been successful.
  • Teachers and administrators who are routinely asked to make changes or adopt new teaching methods may feel skeptical about a new method’s benefits.
  • Teachers and administrators commonly work under tight time constraints that make it difficult to learn new methods or implement new policies.
  • Teachers and administrators may have fixed mindsets themselves and discount the mindset theory’s validity.

Efforts to overcome resistance to growth mindset initiatives should focus on the demonstrated benefits to students. A shared goal of helping students can ease the challenges of culture change.

Five Tips for Creating a Growth Mindset Teaching Culture

Working together to reframe their shared challenges and goals can help both teachers and administrators develop growth mindsets and culture:

1. Value the process over the result. Valuing the process over the result can be difficult in a results-driven environment, but teachers and administrators who value the growth mindset and its long-term benefits are more likely to stay the course.

2. View challenges as opportunities. Students aren’t the only ones facing challenges; teachers and administrators can benefit just as much from an outlook that celebrates the process.

3. Experiment with different teaching methods and learning strategies. Helping students build the skills they need to improve is a key element of the growth mindset approach. Teachers and administrators who embrace a growth mindset shouldn’t be afraid to experiment.

4. Celebrate growth. Finding teaching strategies that reach students and help them learn should be celebrated with the students, as well as with other teachers and administrators. This reinforces the emphasis on effort and process. It also provides opportunities to share valuable learnings.

5. Communicate about your growth mindset. Sharing successes and failures among teachers and administrators helps to establish a culture that values challenges and a growth mindset.

Providing Tools for a Lifetime of Learning

A growth mindset’s defining characteristic—the belief that intelligence is malleable—provides a powerful formula for improving student outcomes. Students who believe that they can get smarter and that effort makes them smarter will put in the effort that leads to higher achievement.

The understanding that they can always learn new skills and overcome challenges through hard work is a lesson students can carry well beyond their school years. As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, many of the learning challenges that students will face can’t be foreseen. By helping them develop a mindset that doesn’t shrink from challenges and teaching them learning methods that can be applied to any subject or obstacle, educators prepare students for increasingly dynamic work environments and an increasingly complex world.

Educators interested in how education and learning can be life changing should explore American University’s School of Education degree programs, including its online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and online Master of Education (MEd) in Education Policy and Leadership. Preparing teachers and policy makers to transform the education system to benefit all learners is a core principle of American University’s School of Education.