by Jonathon Denholm November 27, 2021 6 min read
Students' mindsets directly impact their performance in the classroom. A teacher’s priority is making sure their class learns information and practices skills, but it’s challenging to do so when students doubt their abilities.
Children learn more when they believe they can, and we can help them by fostering class environments that promote growth mindsets.
Growth mindset is a theory developed by a psychologist named Carol Dweck based on her research of motivation and development.
In her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck defines it as follows: “A growth mindset is when students understand that their abilities can be developed.”
The core belief of this theory is that children will learn more if they believe that they are capable of learning.
When a child has a fixed mindset, they believe that an ability is a fixed trait that cannot be developed further. They believe that they either are or are not smart. With a growth mindset, children understand that develop and improve skills with practice.
Children with opposing mindsets approach situations quite differently.
The child with a fixed mindset will avoid challenges because they doubt their abilities and are afraid of failure, but a child with a growth mindset views them as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Fixed Mindset: Spelling is hard for me, so I’m not going to do my spelling homework.
Growth Mindset: I’m not great at spelling, but I’ll get better if I do my homework.
When a student has a fixed mindset, they get discouraged easily and will give up sooner when met with an obstacle. However, when they have a growth mindset, they know that obstacles can be overcome and will remain persistent.
Fixed Mindset: This math problem is too hard, so I’m not going to do it.
Growth Mindset: This problem is difficult, but I’m going to try my best.
With a fixed mindset, a child views effort as meaningless when it involves skills that don’t come naturally to them, but with a growth mindset, the child understands that reaching goals involves hard work and practice.
Fixed: I’m not good at writing essays, so why bother?
Growth: Essays are hard, but the more I write, the easier they will get.
Students with fixed mindsets take feedback as a sign of failure, but students with growth mindsets learn from criticism and use feedback to make improvements.
Fixed: The teacher left a note on my paper saying to read the directions more carefully next time. I’m so dumb.
Growth: I lost a lot of points because I didn’t read the directions. I have to slow down and read carefully next time.
When their peers are strong in certain skills than they are, children with fixed mindsets view them as threatening competition. However, children with growth mindsets are motivated by their successful peers and are inspired by them to keep trying.
Fixed Mindset: The teacher like’s Sally more than she likes me because Sally is better at reading than I am.
Growth Mindset: Sally is the best reader in the class. I bet if I read more then I can be great at reading too.
There are numerous ways to nurture growth mindset in the classroom. Not every student will respond to the same strategies, so it’s essential to employ a variety of methods.
Students are sometimes overwhelmed when completing work or practicing skills because they are only thinking about the final outcome. Breaking big projects into smaller goals helps the children see that taking little steps is still making progress. Large tasks seem much more manageable when they can be redefined into simpler, more achievable segments.
Setting goals helps place value in the process of learning and practicing. Students are able to see that finished projects are the result of a collection of work. Therefore, they will begin to view learning as a journey instead of a destination.
A fixed mindset will cause a child to believe that are incapable of success because they lack natural skills. One of the most effective ways to coax a child towards a growth mindset is to get them to use the word yet.
For example, if a student says they don’t want to finish a math exercise because they’re not good at division, respond by saying, “You’re not good at division yet.” Having the child repeat their challenges using the word “yet” will eventually help them feel more motivated to practice when they begin to accept that success is possible when they put in the work.
Children don’t always want to push themselves out of their comfort zone when they feel that they are proficient at a skill. For example, a student who can confidently add single digits might be hesitant to attempt addition with double digits.
This isn’t to say that you should force a child to do things outside their comfort zone. The goal is for the child to find the motivation within themselves. You can help the child break down double-digit addition, so they can see that single-digit addition is the primary building block. Because they feel confident about their ability to add single numbers, they will start to see that doubt-digit addition is an achievable goal.
It’s tempting to say that challenging tasks and concepts are “easy” as a way to put children at ease. However, when a child isn’t able to understand or complete it right away, they may feel discouraged and believe that there is something wrong with them.
Embracing struggle in the classroom makes it clear that not everything is going to be quick and easy. By acknowledging the fact that students will struggle from time to time, it helps take away the negative connotation. Students will stop viewing it as a sign of weakness and more as an opportunity for improvement.
Children are often afraid of making mistakes because they view them as failures. Instead, reframe them as attempts at learning. When they make mistakes, take notes and keep track of them so they can see their progress.
One way to give students a visual of their process is to have them complete written tasks in pen or marker, so they cannot erase their mistakes. When the task is completed, they will have evidence of the steps they took to finish the work, mistakes and all.
It’s also essential for teachers to acknowledge the mistakes that they make in the classroom because adults don’t often admit to messing up in front of children. When students see that even their teacher makes and learns from mistakes, they will have less anxiety about making them themselves.
It’s easy to celebrate success at the end of a project or after a test, but children should learn that they can celebrate hitting smaller milestones along the way. You don’t have to wait until the end of the school year, unit, or project to praise them.
When praising students, make sure that your compliments aren’t centered around intelligence or being smart. This gives the incorrect idea that smart is something you are instead of something you practice.
The following section gives some examples of how to adjust praise to shift from a fixed to growth mindset.
Fixed: Good job! You’re so smart!
Growth: Wow, I can see how hard you worked on this. I’m so proud of the effort you put into it.
Fixed: Don’t worry. Some people just aren’t great at math.
Growth: I know you’re frustrated. Let’s see try some different ways to find the answer to this problem.
Moving away from a fixed mindset helps students feel more motivated about challenges and new content. Emphasizing effort over intelligence allows students to push themselves out of their comfort zones and try new things without the fear of failure.
Children who view challenges as opportunities are more likely to achieve goals, take risks, and value progress.