Developing a positive, growth mindset early on is crucial for a successful, happy life. When kids learn that putting forth effort and using the right strategies can help them get better at things, they feel empowered, and try harder. When they know their brains are capable of growing, they are more confident, resilient and are not afraid to fail!
Instilling this mindset in our students will give them the skills and outlook to support their learning throughout education and into adult life.
So how do we teach this simple and incredible concept? To start, we need to understand the basics.
What is growth mindset?
The beliefs we have about our own abilities and potential are part of our mindset which is so powerful it can fuel our behaviour and predict our success. Our mindset shapes our everyday lives, helping us interpret our experiences and future possibilities.
In her research at Stanford University, Dr. Carol Dweck identified two different types of mindsets; fixed and growth.
A fixed mindset occurs when people believe their intelligence and abilities cannot be altered in a meaningful way. They see mistakes as failures, rather than opportunities to learn, avoid risks and fear new experiences.
A growth mindset occurs when we believe our intelligence and abilities can be improved upon with effort and the right strategies. The see mistakes as opportunities, love challenge and relish new experiences.
How do we explain this to students?
Obviously the above explanations are not appropriate for young children so we have to change our wording. When I’m talking about growth mindset with my students I say something along the lines of the following:
Everyone in the world has a way of understanding things. We call this a mindset. You have a mindset, your friends have a mindset, and I have a mindset.
Then I’ll tell them a little bit about their brain and it’s amazing ability to change and grow – and how having a growth mindset can help with that.
Your brain is AMAZING! Did you know that, when you’re awake, it can produce enough electricity to power a lightbulb? I can also grow – and you can help it. You can grow your brain by trying new things and not giving up when something is tough.
With older students, I will talk a little about a brain being made up of neurons and how repeating activities helps connect these neurons – like building bridges.
Okay, so we’ve introduced the concept, but how do we build on that and build and encourage a growth mindset culture in our classrooms?
We can move our students towards a growth mindset by through the language we use, the lessons and activities we plan, and by modelling it with our own behaviour.
Here are my top tips to help develop a growth mindset attitude in your students:
1. Don’t teach it solely in isolation
The concept of growth mindset is often introduced at the beginning of the year though individual lessons. That isn’t a problem – in fact, it’s a good idea because not all students will have come across it before and it’s important that they have that understanding. To help with that I have put together a growing bundle of growth mindset printables that can be used at school or home to help build student's positivity and resilience. Click the image to be taken to my store.
However, once the idea has been introduced, we need to revisit it and incorporate growth mindset directly into the lessons we deliver, and encourage pupils to apply it as often as possible. This way, students will begin to apply this way of thinking automatically
2. Language is crucial.
In her research, Dweck found that people’s mindsets can be moulded by subtle environmental cues. This includes the words that we use to praise our pupils. Some phrases reinforce a fixed mindset: “You’re so clever” whereas others lead towards a growth outlook: “You worked really hard to find the answer”. Emphasise the process rather than the person. Reward students for trying hard and for persevering when they are struggling. Praising effort rather than students getting things right all the time decreases the pressure on pupils who feel like they can only volunteer an answer if they’re sure it’s right.
A great place to start, is to harness the power of yet. Adding the word yet to student’s negative statements can transform attitudes. For example, “I can’t do this” becomes, “I can’t do this… yet”; “I don’t understand” is suddenly, “I don’t understand… yet”. This tells your students that there’s always room for them to learn and improve.
3. Use questioning to support
As teachers, we ask around 300-400 questions a day and it’s easy for one style of questioning to creep in. Closed questions have their place but if used too often they can they can lead students to believe that the only thing that matters is the right answer. And for those students who are struggling to find that answer, it can be hard for them to believe they can ever change their abilities.
Use open questions wherever possible and ask students to explain their answers in a way which makes sense for them. Another great question to ask is “Can you tell me how you came to that conclusion?” This has the added benefit of helping other students see there are different ways to find answers.
4. Highlight the benefits of feedback
As teachers, we know the importance of feedback – it’s something which is ingrained in our day-to-day work – but we might not always explicitly talk about its benefits, or use it often enough in a clearly constructive manner. For students who already have a growth mindset this probably won't matter - they like feedback because they can use it to improve. However, those with fixed mindsets may see feedback as purely negative.
Try giving students a few moments each week to think about the feedback they have been given and how it has helped them improve. Then ask one or two to explain their example to the rest of the class.
For pupils with a fixed mindset, this modelling will encourage them to see that feedback can be an informative and useful tool.
5. Value mistakes
“Mistakes are proof that you are trying”.
I’m sure we’ve all heard that phrase bandied about in school, but it’s more than just a twee phrase. It’s actually true. One of the most powerful messages give to our students is that mistakes are an opportunity. They should be encouraged to identify where they went wrong, learn from it and improve for next time.
Be sure to establish early on in the year that mistakes are not only accepted, but welcomed as opportunities to learn. Students then have a safe, non-judgmental space to practice in and teachers can turn mistakes into a chance to work on the correct strategies together.
It’s also important to model your resilient attitude. Admit when you make a mistake – show students that adults can make mistakes at times. When something goes wrong, adapt and learn from it, expressing vocally, how you are overcoming the challenge. They will soon begin to mirror this behaviour and eventually develop their own resilience. Equally, you should often make deliberate strategic mistakes for students to figure out.
6. Embrace challenge!
For pupils with a fixed mindset, challenge is scary. Why risk failing and being embarrassed by stumbling on a hard question?
With this in mind, it’s important that harder tasks (or challenges and extension activities) are framed in a positive light. Pupils should be aware that it’s not just about getting it correct, but giving it a go.
Always speak about challenging tasks with enthusiasm and excitement. Make it clear that if anyone would like to have a go they can. Take note of the language you use to set the activity. Rather than saying “this question is really difficult”, say “there are lots of opportunities for you to try out different strategies with this question and do lots of learning”.
I hope you find these insights into growth mindset helpful, but it’s by no means an exhaustive list. I’d love to know how you embed a good growth mindset culture in your classroom?
I'm Ruth. I'm a teacher based in Manchester, UK.
I've been teaching for eight years and am currently based in Year Four, but I have also taught in Year One and Reception.
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