October 17, 2018

Growth Mindset Education

“I’m not good with numbers.”

“Don’t ask me to draw—I’m not creative!”

“I’m not really a people person.”

We’ve all heard someone say one of these lines before—maybe you’ve even uttered one yourself. And often, we take these statements as steadfast truths: you were never good with numbers, so you never will be.

But are they?

I grew up in the 90's: the golden age of graphic tees. One of my favorite such tees had a purply-blue watercolor image on the back of an evening sky and a shooting star flying from left to right. On the front it said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

I’ll admit: When I first read about the concept of growth mindset, this feel-good platitude immediately jumped to mind. As much as I loved that tee, the concept sounded like fluff.

But there’s nothing fluffy about growth mindset. In fact, it’s rooted in cold hard research in neuroscience, education, and cognitive psychology. It’s the concept that our character, intelligence, and abilities are malleable and capable of being developed with intention, effort, and support from others. Alternatively, a “fixed mindset” is the concept that those same elements that make us “us" are carved into stone, and that there’s nothing we can really do to change them.

Grounded in Psychology Research

The term “growth mindset” was born from the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck over 30 years ago, who noticed through her work with young students that, while some seemed to shut down in the face of challenge or failure, others thrived. The latter group of students—exhibiting what we now call growth mindset—saw challenge and failure not as a sign of their unintelligence but as a chance to put in additional effort and stretch their abilities.

“The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.” - Carol Dweck

Students who exhibit growth mindset are more likely to excel academically, and there’s evidence that helping students develop it can actually help close achievement gaps. Moreover, growth mindset is a key ingredient for long term professional success, mental wellbeing, and healthy relationships.

From Proving To Improving

When I was young, I played the oboe. I was pretty good at it too, and tried out at local and state competitions. But as the competitions got more, well, competitive, I started to feel an intense, paralyzing anxiety. I was afraid to screw up in front of others, and I was afraid my teacher—and I—would discover the hard limits of my ability. So, at a certain point, I stopped going to competitions.

I certainly didn’t know it at the time, but I was trapped by my fixed mindset. “Success” meant proving myself, and that was a definition that had been reinforced throughout my time in school.

At Experience Institute, we work with people in workplaces and college students to identify ways they can become more growth mindset-oriented. The truth is, however, that mindsets are formed at a very early age. That begs the question: How do we support young people to develop perceptions of themselves as capable of improvement and growth? How do we re-think education, from a series of tests to prove oneself, to a journey of learning opportunities?

That’s no small feat. But here are a few ways you can start incorporating growth mindset education, whether you're a teacher, a parent, or work with youth in another context.

1. Talk about Brain Science

The concept of growth mindset is so powerful that simply learning the brain science—that is, the effect on our brains that positive thoughts and effort have—can improve student outcomes. Here’s a very simple explanation that you can use to talk with even kindergarteners about the brain’s plasticity.

2. Share Stories about Effort and Failure

Kids and adults alike are inundated with stories of successful people - star athletes, accomplished musicians, tech entrepreneurs that sell their start-ups and make millions. We understandably end up thinking, “Well, they’re just more talented, or more intelligent, than I am.” These stories often overlook the countless hours of practice these people put into their endeavors, as well as the setbacks they encountered along the way. But effort and failure are necessary parts of learning - and life. One of the best ways to counter the ‘myth of the no-effort genius’ is by sharing real stories that pull back the curtain on effort and failure. Share these stories - be they online or from people in your community who can share their story in person - with your students. One of my favorite stories is J.K. Rowling's.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work." - Thomas Edison

3. Praise the Process, Not the Person

Dweck’s research shows that students who are praised for their intelligence—“You did it! You must be smart.”—achieve less than than those praised for their effort—“You did it! You must have worked hard.” When students attribute past successes on their intelligence, they’re likely to link current struggles to a lack of it. When they attribute past success to the product of good strategies and effort, however, they’ll come to value hard work. Next time you give a student feedback, consider how to give more growth mindset-oriented feedback. For example, instead of saying, “You got a 97 on your last math test. See, I told you you’re good at math,” you might instead say, “You really studied for your math test, and your effort really paid off.” Here are a few more quick tips for giving thoughtful feedback.

4. Create a Community of Support

Think back on a time when you did something that was new or scary for you. What enabled you to do it? Chances are that someone was there to push you or cheer you on. We’ve incorporated that lesson into our Leap Kit programs, which we use in schools to help students create their own learning experiences and projects. We invite each of them to build “board of advisors.” Similar to a board that would support a nonprofit, a student’s board includes people who can play different roles: cheerleader, expert, connector, etc. When they feel discouraged or need guidance, they know who to reach out to to keep moving forward.

After I learned about growth mindset, I thought, “Well of course I have a growth mindset.” ...And then I started to notice the fixed mindset cropping up in my day-to-day thoughts. In reality, we’re all a mix of both. As you try out the above ideas with your students, start to notice when and where you exhibit fixed and growth mindsets—and maybe even share your journey to embody the latter with them.

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