Theme of the Week – Monday 14th January 2019

Growth mindset refers to a learning theory developed by Dr Carol Dweck.  It revolves around the belief that you can improve intelligence, ability and performance.  The opposite, a fixed mindset, refers to the belief that a person’s talents are set in stone.  Years of research have shown that mindset is malleable.  This means that by helping students to develop a growth mindset, we can help them to learn more effectively and efficiently.

What if your true learning potential was unknown, even unknowable, at best?  What if it were impossible to foresee what you could accomplish with a few years of passion, toil, and training?  According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, this isn’t some hypothetical situation, dependent on any manner of factors from genes to environment.  It’s a mindset.  And it’s one you can cultivate at any point in life.

A “growth mindset,” as Dweck calls it, is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a tendency to believe that you can grow.  She explains that while a “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, a growth mindset thrives on challenge and sees failure “not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.”

Believing that our qualities are carved in stone creates an urgency to prove ourselves over and over.  If we have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character, we’d better prove that we have a healthy dose of them.  It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

The fixed mindset can negatively impact all aspects of our lives.   There are so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves at school, in their careers or in their relationships.  Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character.  Every situation is evaluated in terms of ‘will I succeed or fail?  Will I look smart or dumb?  Will I be accepted or rejected?  Will I feel like a winner or a loser?

But when we start viewing things as mutable, the situation gives way to the bigger picture.  A growth mindset is based on the belief that our basic qualities are things we can cultivate through our efforts.  Although we may differ in every way in our initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, we can all change and grow through effort and experience.

This is important because it can actually change what we strive for and what we see as success.  By changing the definition, significance, and impact of failure, we change the deepest meaning of effort.

In this mindset, the hand we’re dealt is just the starting point for development.  So how does this apply to learning and what can we do to help instill this attitude in our students? 

Below is a list of 25 ways to develop a growth mindset:

  • Acknowledge and embrace imperfections.  Hiding from our weaknesses means we’ll never overcome them.
  • View challenges as opportunities.  Having a growth mindset means relishing opportunities for self-improvement. 
  • Try different learning tactics.  There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all model’ for learning.  What works for one person may not work for another.
  •  Follow the research on brain plasticity.  The brain isn’t fixed so the mind shouldn’t be either.
  • Replace the word “failing” with the word “learning.”  When we make a mistake or fall short of a goal, we haven’t failed, we’ve learned.
  • Stop seeking approval.  When we prioritise approval over learning, we sacrifice our own potential for growth.
  • Value the process over the end result.  Intelligent people enjoy the learning process and don’t mind when it continues beyond an expected time frame.
  • Cultivate a sense of purpose.  Students with a growth mindset have a greater sense of purpose.  Keep the big picture in mind.
  • Celebrate growth with others.  If we truly appreciate growth, we’ll want to share our progress with others.
  • Emphasise growth over speed.  Learning fast isn’t the same as learning well, and learning well sometimes requires allowing time for mistakes.
  • Reward actions, not traits.  Tell students when they’re doing something smart, not just being smart.
  • Redefine “genius.”  The myth’s been busted: genius requires hard work, not talent alone.
  • Portray criticism as positive.  We don’t have to used that hackneyed term, “constructive criticism,” but we do have to believe in the concept.
  • Dissassociate improvement from failure.  Stop assuming that “room for improvement” translates into failure.
  • Provide regular opportunities for reflection.  Let students reflect on their learning at least once a day.
  • Place effort before talent.  Hard work should always be rewarded before inherent skill.
  • Highlight the relationship between learning and “brain training.”  The brain is like a muscle that needs to be worked out, just like the body.
  • Cultivate grit.  Students with that extra bit of determination will be more likely to seek approval from themselves rather than others.
  • Abandon the image.  “Naturally smart” sounds just about as believable as “spontaneous generation.”  We won’t achieve the image if we’re not ready for the work.
  • Use the word “yet.”  Whenever we see students struggling with a task, just tell them they haven’t mastered it yet.
  • Learn from other people’s mistakes.  It’s not always wise to compare ourselves to others, but it is important to realise that humans share the same weaknesses.
  • Make a new goal for every goal accomplished.  We’lll never be done learning.  Just because a midterm exam is over doesn’t mean we should stop being interested in a subject.  Growth-minded people know how to constantly create new goals to keep themselves stimulated.
  • Take risks in the company of others.  Stop trying to save face all the time.  It’s good mess up now and then.  It will make it easier to take risks in the future.
  • Think realistically about time and effort.  It takes time to learn. Don’t expect to master every topic under the sun in one sitting.
  • Take ownership of our attitudes.  Once we develop a growth mindset, we should own it.  Acknowledge ourselves as people who possess a growth mentality and be proud to let it guide us throughout our educational career.