This post originally appeared on the blog Gil Teach.
When I first learned about growth mindset, I was fascinated. It explained so many behaviors and beliefs that I had witnessed over the years.
The difference between students who were a burden to teach because of their negative attitude, lack of motivation, or refusal to acknowledge feedback and those who were a pleasure to teach because of their willingness to take on challenges and eagerness to learn and work hard — as soon as I saw the first group as having a fixed mindset and the second as having a growth mindset, it all made sense.
But figuring out how to change those students who had a fixed mindset about my class into students who had a growth mindset about it was not quite as obvious.
Since then, I have done a ton of research including developing a whole unit to teach growth mindset. (You might use the word “obsessed” to describe my feelings about Carol Dweck’s theory, and you might be accurate if you did.) I have read and synthesized and read some more.
These are the essential steps that I have come up with if you want to teach growth mindset to your students.
1. Start off by teaching students the brain science. Give students as much instruction on the way that the mind works as is appropriate for their grade level — what Dweck called in “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids” published in Scientific America, “explicit instruction regarding the mind as a learning machine.” The piece that Dweck created to use in her actual studies is available online here. It might seem strange to talk about how the brain works if you’re not teaching an anatomy class, but this is an essential first step. It’s one that Dweck and her colleagues used in their studies, and it doesn’t take too much class time.
2. Then teach them about people who have succeeded because of their mindset. If your students are determined to have a fixed mindset about something, it won’t be easy to change their minds. The next step on the path of convincing them that they can grow is to give them actual examples of how it all works. As a society, we tend to look at what people have accomplished rather than the long, boring, tedious path that they often took to that accomplishment. But if you research the actual success stories, those people will readily admit what it took to get them where they are.
3. Praise students in the right way. This is another tricky one. It’s easy to be super excited about students doing a good job at anything—and so tempting to tell that they are great and wonderful and smart. But by praising their talent or innate abilities, we create students whose identity rides on that praise, and who are therefore so afraid to fail that they will stop trying. Instead, when we praise their effort, we encourage the process, and we encourage them to take on more challenges. As Dweck explains in “Teacher Practices: How Praise and Feedback Impact Student Outcomes” published on mindsetworks.com (a website she helped create), “Overall, praise for intelligence actually led to less persistence, less enjoyment, and worse performance than praise for effort.”
4. Give them opportunities to take on challenges and let them fail. This one is also so difficult. How can we let students fail? How are we supposed to encourage them to make mistakes? What if they get so frustrated and upset by those mistakes that they give up all together? But failure is key to a growth mindset, and seeing mistakes not as setbacks but as opportunities to learn and grow is also key. So give them work that might be a little too hard, that they might not be able to complete at first, and then let them figure it out.
5. Give them meaningful feedback. If students are to improve their performance, they need to know what they are doing right and where they could do better. Just telling them “great job” or “good effort” doesn’t really give them anywhere to go. Dweck calls this “comfort feedback,” and she has shown that it only serves to lessen students’ motivation to succeed. Again, it may seem like students need encouragement not criticism, but telling them something because it makes them feel better will not help them grow or learn.
6. Remember that everyone has a growth mindset about some things and a fixed mindset about others. By tapping into the areas in students’ lives where they do have a growth mindset, where they have worked hard and struggled and taken on multiple challenges — you will help them understand that it is a belief that can be applied to all areas of their lives. For many students, this might be sports, for others it might be art or even their gaming abilities.
And tapping into those areas in your own life where you lack motivation, where you tell yourself that you just aren’t naturally good at something — where you have a fixed mindset — will help you understand what those kids are going through.
This process might seem daunting, but it is one that has been proven again and again. We can help our students find success— and become much more fun to teach!
Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for 16 years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She blogs about empowering students to find their own answers at GilTeach.com.
She believes that analyzing a poem with 20 17-year-olds is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, that teenagers should celebrate the epic battles of their lives, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects.
When she is not busy milking goats or working in the garden, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.