Why Educators Need to Change Their Approach to Growth Mindset
According to Carol Dweck, telling your child he or she is smart may actually limit their potential.
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which was first published in 2006, Dweck introduces her “growth mindset” theory. Educators, schools, and districts have since latched onto her work, incorporating a mindset that encourages educators to step back from traditional approaches to education and encourage students to take on tough challenges.
Unfortunately, in the process of incorporating growth mindset into the education system, many have fumbled and failed to provide the necessary framework for students to continually learn and achieve success. And while educators should by no means abandon growth mindset, it’s time for schools, teachers and district leaders to take a new approach to incorporating it into student learning.
Dweck’s research revealed that when people believe talent, intelligence or other abilities are fixed traits, they avoid challenges or limit the amount of effort they expend on a task. These individuals adopt what Dweck refers to as a “fixed mindset”, and they tend focus on documenting the qualities they have been praised for, instead of developing and growing outside their comfort zone.
In his article “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” Po Bonson displays the way our schools place children in this fixed mindset. He points to Thomas, a young fifth grader who had been told by countless adults and teachers that he was “smart.” Of course, their praise wasn’t wrong — Thomas had tested in the top one percent on his school IQ entrance test. But as Thomas progressed through his education, his self-awareness of his own intelligence actually limited his growth. His father noticed that Thomas refused to try things he didn’t immediately excel at. When things didn’t come quickly to Thomas, he quickly gave up trying, saying things like “I’m not good at this.” Thomas perceived success and performance as innate and he didn’t believe he could be successful at tasks that didn’t come easily to him, which limited his learning in and out of the classroom.
Because educators realize that students like Thomas are not an anomaly, they’ve done a phenomenal job of shifting their focus from measuring student success and performance to reversing fixed mindset behaviors and encouraging student growth. This is, no doubt, a step in the right direction.
A recently published article, “How to Weave Growth Mindset into School Culture,” describes Arroyo High School’s multi-year efforts to infuse growth mindset into every classroom. Teachers and administrators have adopted a culture of encouraging students to take on challenging problems — to explore and stretch themselves.
Adilene Rodriguez, a student at Arroyo high school, serves as a powerful example of growth mindset success. Adilene says she always struggled in school — until her science teacher, Jim Clark, taught his class about growth mindset. He told his students to push themselves and try harder, whether they were struggling with a specific homework question or falling behind on a larger level. He constantly reminded students that they wouldn’t get things right every time, but promised them improvement and mastery would happen over time.
Adilene took this to heart. She starting engaging in class, she put more effort behind her homework, and she stopped telling herself that science was her weak spot. Clark even encouraged Adilene to enroll in AP Biology, something she had never even considered. A few years later, she excelled in science, and she enrolled in college-level genetics courses during her summer break. Adeline’s success was the result of Arroyo High School’s focus on growth mindset.
But not every school has approached growth mindset like Arroyo High School. In fact, in an effort to adopt a growth mindset and improve student outcomes, some educators have even undermined student growth.
This happens when educators and teachers encourage students to fail or try a different approach without providing students the necessary instruction, resources or support to get up and try again.
It’s the classrooms like Mr. Clark’s, where teachers put in extra time, approach teaching from various perspectives and provide online resources or additional reading to help a student improve their learning. It’s schools that push a culture of constant improvement that help students realized that “failure” is not a permanent label, but rather an opportunity to keep learning.
Unless educators and schools establish a framework that supports students when they haven’t achieved mastery, growth mindset will not work in schools. If teachers encourage students to tackle hard problems, approach things in a different way, and stop shackling themselves with unreasonable expectations, then district and school leadership must also make sure they’re also providing students with the resources they need to learn and master the material. If not, the status quo remains in tact and educators risk perpetuating negative outcomes and blaming students without examining the academic climate and structures that stand in the way.
If educators want to successfully adhere to Dweck’s research findings and encourage a growth mindset, individual schools need to make a culture shift. Growth mindset is not a strategy that one can simply apply and expect to see transformative results. District and school leadership need to create environments where students can make mistakes, receive productive praise and then benefit from instruction and resources that help them develop.
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