Fixed mindset or growth mindset: Which is your classroom?

  • Children are observed and “graded” from the time they’re born: She learned her alphabet at age 2; he has math aptitude. Or the opposite: She has trouble with numbers; he struggles with reading.

    Here’s the question: If you are one of those students, do you learn to believe those things about yourself? And if so, do you carry those labels with you as finite truths? Or do you see them simply as the way things are today, with potential for growth in the future?

    Are you more likely to see a problem as an “I can’t” situation, or as an “I can’t, yet”?

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    If it’s the latter, you may have a better chance of success in the long run, because you don’t inherently see your intelligence as innate,  something you were just born with. Regardless of whether you are the child who’s always been called smart or the child who has struggled, if you believe your intelligence level is fixed, that belief can limit your responses to challenges in the future. It’s the difference between believing you can’t do math, and believing you can’t do math but if you work hard, you’ll get it.

    That’s the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, according to the work of Stanford researcher Dr. Carol Dweck, who wanted to understand why some students are deflated by failure and others are able to rebound and even thrive. After years of study and research, she came to the conclusion that the way students see their abilities affects their motivation and, ultimately, how they perform in school. She also is the author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Ballantine Books).

    “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over,” Dweck writes. In other words, if you believe that your intelligence, your creativity, or your personality are finite, you will constantly feel that you need to show that you are smart, creative, or likable. In fact, Dweck and her colleagues found that students with a fixed mindset will actually resist learning something if doing so means they won’t fail.

    However, “There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with,” she writes. “In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.” To this student, failure just means he or she needs to work harder, find another way, or ask others.

    In 2016, Education Week’s Research Center surveyed 600 K-12 teachers about the growth mindset. Some of the results:

    • More than 90 percent believe that a growth mindset is linked to positive student outcomes, including performance, persistence, and level of participation.
    • An even higher number – 98 percent – believe a growth mindset has the potential to change the classroom for the better.
    • However, creating a growth mindset is easier said than done. Only 20 percent of teachers felt they were successfully doing this.
    • Not surprisingly, that means 85 percent of teachers want more professional development to focus on cultivating a growth mindset.

    So as a teacher, how do you encourage and emphasize your students to have a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset?

    Classroom communication is key. The education website Teachthought offers more than two dozen ideas on how to encourage a growth mindset, including:

    • Encourage students to admit mistakes or imperfections and embrace them.
    • Teach students to believe that they are “learning,” not “failing,” when they have a struggle.
    • Create a sense of purpose; it helps students with a growth mindset thrive.
    • Emphasize improvement, not speed.
    • Reward what students do, not how they are. “You did great on that project” is better than “you’re so smart.”
    • Watch your criticism – make sure you add positive elements.
    • Say “yet” to a student who’s having difficulty. It’s not that they haven’t learned something, it’s that they haven’t learned it yet.

    Classroom communication makes all the difference when you’re trying to change the mindset. DominicanCAonline’s (Dominican University of California) Effective Classroom Communication Using Five Voice’s Strategies (EDUO 9240) emphasizes the concepts in Chuck Moorman and Thomas Haller’s book, The Teacher Talk Advantage: Five Voices of Effective Teaching. They write that teachers can cultivate voices of structure, nurturing, teaching, debriefing, and accountability.

    “Learn effective verbal-based communication skills that help teachers reach and teach students,” says the course description. “Discover use of words that empower, uplift, and affirm and phrases that motivate and inspire.” The professional development course is self-paced and online.

    Photo credit: Wavebreakmedia, via iStock