Growth mindset was popularized by Carol Dweck from Stanford University in the book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success." Dweck's book is a must read for anyone interested in developing a growth mindset. Mary Cay Ricci and Eric Jensen take mindset and bring it home to educators. Mary Cay Ricci writes about using growth mindset in the classroom in her book "Mindsets in the Classroom: Building a Culture of Success and Student Achievement in Schools." Eric Jensen, focuses specifically on poverty and the impact of mindset in the book "Poor Students, Rich Teaching: Mindsets for Change."
Mary Cay Ricci describes a Growth Mindset as "a belief system that suggests one's intelligence can be grown or developed with persistence, effort, and a focus on learning."
Growth mindset matters
Fixed mindsets lead students to believe that their intelligence can't change. You either have it or you don't. Students with a growth mindset recognize the importance of persistence, effort, and resilience. For teachers, it is important to focus feedback on growth. Teaching traits of persistence leads students to success and the ability to overcome adversity.
5 Questions to help determine if your school (classroom or district) is aligned with a growth mindset:
1. Are expectations high for all students and are all students challenged?
Students should be challenged and encouraged to go deep into the curriculum. Critical thinking should be required of all students. Critical thinking includes reasoning, making decisions and judgement, and students should be problem solvers. Mary Ricci points out that some students who are not great readers or aren't great at math may never be required to think critically. This is a disservice to these students as some students may be strong in critical thinking skills regardless of math and reading skills.
Strategies should be implemented to ensure learning for all students. Some of these strategies may include (from FPS Instructional Playbook):
- Ask students a variety of level of questions
- Provide multiple opportunities for students to respond
- Ask follow up questions
- Provide wait time to ensure opportunity for all students to process questions
Teachers should avoid inappropriate reactions to responses such as:
- Telling students they should have known the answer
- Ignoring a student's response
- Making subjective comments about incorrect answers
- Allowing negative comments from other students
- Avoid using sarcasm when addressing a student's response
Teachers should probe incorrect answers with low-expectancy students
- Using an appropriate response process
- Letting students "off the hook" temporarily
- Answer revision
2. Are instructional groupings flexible?
Students may be at a variety of levels. It is important that students not be placed in "ability groupings" that never change or change very slowly. Instruction should be based on a students current understanding of the specific learning goal. Pre-assessments can be used to determine instructional level. Both Ricci and Jensen discuss the importance of "not labeling students" which comes, at least in part, from the research of John Hattie. Not labeling students is listed in the top 20 factors of Hattie's 138 factors that impact learning. Labeling students as poor (or minority students or disabled students) and therefore unable to learn is a fixed mindset. Each student should be met where they are at in relation to the learning target. Instead of permanently labeling a student "gifted" maybe change the language to "highly motivated." This shifts the thinking from the student is smart to the student has control over what helps them to be successful. Even labeling students as "gifted" can have a negative effect as students don't know what to attribute their success to and may worry that if they are not successful, that they will no longer be considered gifted. This leads some students to avoid challenges.
3. How are students graded?
Students should be able to recover from a failure in your grading system. Students should be able to identify the learning target that is being assessed. If grades are mainly used as a way to sort and select students, this does not encourage growth. Instead, grading becomes a game that students learn to manipulate. If students are graded on the first day or early in the learning process, then the student's grade become fixed based on the knowledge the student had at the beginning of the learning cycle. A growth mindset grade recognizes where the student is once the learning is completed. Formative assessments are used regularly along the way but are not included in the gradebook. They simply inform next steps in instruction.
4. How does the school (teachers, administrators, parents) respond to failure?
“Experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.” -Cognitive Psychologist Jerome Bruner (1961)
In a growth mindset school, students are challenged. When students are challenged, they will fail sometimes. If you are only asked to do activities that you never fail at, then you are not really learning, you are just practicing things you already know. Responding to failure is key to growth. As discussed above, grading systems that are used to sort and select students can be manipulated by students avoiding challenging courses and coursework in order to attain the highest possible GPA. Students who are allowed to take risks without permanent penalty will be more likely to accept the challenge. Students should be encouraged to not look back long and to use failure to inform future growth and future decisions. Failure should not be permanent. Students should be celebrated for accepting difficult challenges.
5. What do adults focus on in their feedback to students?
Adults should focus on the need for persistence, resilience, hard work, perseverance, and ability to shift gears as keys to growth mindset. These behaviors are vital to student success both in school and in life. Parents should be included in giving this type of feedback. Schools should reach out to parents to explain what growth mindset is and why it is so important. As parents, we sometimes protect our children from failure. In reality, we would better serve our children by encouraging them to challenge themselves and learn from failures. Hattie's research shows the great importance of feedback in student learning. Feedback that has a focus on persistence and effort will give students a greater understanding on what they should focus on in order to be successful.