Many teachers will have come across the idea that students’ attitudes to learning can be understood within the framework of ‘growth’ and ‘fixed’ mindsets. However, the nuance of growth mindset theory and how it can be applied within a school setting is often poorly articulated, leaving teachers confused and lacking clear action points. In this article, we’ll explore the background of the theory and explain practical steps which teachers can take to apply it within a classroom setting.
First, some definitions:
Fixed mindset = where you consider traits about yourself, including basic abilities, intelligence and talents, as fixed and unchanging
Growth mindset = where an individual considers their abilities, intelligence and talents as subject to change depending on the amount of time and effort they put into improving them
These terms were first coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Carol Dwek. She conducted a number of experiments which found that children with so-called ‘growth mindsets’ show significantly more progress at school than students with ‘fixed mindsets’. Further to this, she also found that each mindset can be taught – that is, the language and teaching strategies used by educators could be used to impact students’ inherent attitude to learning.
“In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” – Carol Dwek
“In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence.”
In a landmark experiment, Dwek set a group of primary school students a moderately difficult maths challenge. After solving the task, half of the children were praised for the hard work they put into the task, while the other half were praised for being clever enough to solve it. Dwek then offered both groups the opportunity to challenge themselves further with a harder test. Students in the first group (the ‘growth’ group) were more likely to opt into the harder test, while those in the second group (the ‘fixed’ group) were far less likely to do so.
Dwek went on to present both groups with a series of increasingly difficult academic challenges. While the children from the fixed group became increasingly disheartened and pessimistic with each test, the students from the growth group approached each question with curiosity and enjoyment. Furthermore, while students from the fixed group performed worse and worse with each increase in difficulty, students in the growth group actually performed better as the problems got harder.
While the children from the fixed group became increasingly disheartened and pessimistic with each test, the students from the growth group approached each question with curiosity and enjoyment.
In short, if students’ success is attributed to a quality they perceive as fixed, such as intelligence or talent, any failure will be seen as inevitable. This will cause the student to question whether they were really intelligent or talented in the first place – or as Dwek puts it, ‘if success meant they were intelligent, less than success meant they were deficient’. However, if students think that outcomes are determined by the amount of effort they put in, they will be empowered to improve their performance by trying harder, leading to enhanced learning overall.
If students think that outcomes are determined by the amount of effort they put in, they will be empowered to improve their performance by trying harder, leading to enhanced learning overall.
Clearly, encouraging a growth mindset presents significant benefits to students, both in terms of their academic attainment and their enjoyment of learning. But what can you do to nurture a growth mindset in your school?
Simple changes to the language you use when providing feedback to students will go a long way in shaping their attitude to learning. When praising students, try to focus on the work that students have put in rather than natural ability. For example, rather than saying “you’re so good at maths”, try “I can see that your hard work really paid off”. Similarly, “you’re a very talented writer” could be exchanged for “I can tell that you put a lot of thought into this piece of writing”. This will help students to measure success by the extent of the effort that they’ve put in, rather than the achievement of external milestones or goals.
Simple changes to the language you use when providing feedback to students will go a long way in shaping their attitude to learning.
Marking work based on a traditional grading framework means that students will focus on external markers of success, which aren’t necessarily related to how hard they’ve tried or how much progress they’ve made. Students will often focus on whether they’ve passed or failed, rather than thinking about what their strengths and weaknesses are and what they can do to improve. Although it will sometimes be necessary to let students know where they are in relation to their target grades, a focus on qualitative feedback will encourage students to think about how they can improve, rather than whether they’ve passed or failed.
Students who proactively ask for help are showing a growth mindset, as they are using academic challenges as an opportunity to improve and learn more, rather than seeing them as a signal that they’ve reached their limit. Try to praise students for asking for help in the first instance, and you’ll find that they will become less embarrassed to reach out, and begin to find real enjoyment in the learning process.
Try to praise students for asking for help in the first instance, and you’ll find that they will become less embarrassed to reach out, and begin to find real enjoyment in the learning process.
Similarly, a willingness to make mistakes is great for learning, as it facilitates original thinking and engagement with key ideas. As far as possible, try to make your lessons an environment where students don’t feel embarrassed about getting the answer wrong, as long as they are willing to learn from their mistakes.
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