Growth mindset is gaining increasing traction in education. However, it remains unfamiliar territory for educators. Many are left with the idea that it's a highly valuable outlook for learners to have, but with no idea how to teach it. So how do we cultivate the growth mindset for teachers to pass on to their students?
What follows are some proactive measures you can take to adopt, model, and infuse the qualities of the growth mindset in your practice. Explore them gradually with learners, and encourage them to find out as much as they can on their own. You'll find these are strategies that will benefit both you and your learners. After all, as you teach, so do you learn.
Growth mindset for teachers: 9 simple approaches
1. Show the value of struggle
We've talked about useful failure before and its role in learning progress. It's only by recognizing mistakes as opportunities for improvement that we move past that momentary obsession with our failure. Carol Dweck, the godmother of the growth mindset, calls it dealing with "the tyranny of now."
Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, once advised that "strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle." It's essential for students to know that struggle and failure in and out of school isn't just a possibility, but an inevitability. It is how we persevere in the face of it that will define our success.
2. Encourage learners to adopt mindset language
Do you know what a "mind virus" is? The term features prominently in Richard Brodie's book Virus of the Mind. A mind virus is a belief we have about ourselves that is deeply self-destructive. It's ingrained in our subconscious through our experiences to the point where it has become a personal truth.
These mind viruses are a large part of what is the opposite of the growth mindset—a "fixed" mindset. The fixed mindset tells us our potential is limited, and we cannot change and grow in the ways we want because our intelligence is finite. Of course, none of this is true. Transforming these beliefs, and thereby eradicating the mind viruses, begins with changing our language about ourselves.
Teaching students positive self-talk can be a powerful antidote to harmful mind viruses. Some of the most common ones our learners have are in this infographic below. Begin to consider how you can help them turn such statements around to develop better attitudes towards their self-worth and potential.
3. Focus on the whole journey
It's impossible to condense a learner's entire academic career in a single percentage or experience. For many years this was the norm in education. More and more, however, we are choosing as educators to focus on the holistic journey a child takes through their formative years. With that awareness comes gaining a much more accurate picture of their capabilities, and how we can encourage them to improve.
This is where formative assessment comes into the picture. Formative assessment is an assessment as learning. In our book, Mindful Assessment, we suggested focusing on appraising the broader picture of a learner's journey, rather than simply part of it or the end of it. Doing this contributes to a higher level of nurturing their potential as they continue to learn:
"In practicing aikido, the sensei would never simply tell a student, "That was 74 percent." Instead, the sensei would watch mindfully and comment on what needs improvement, demonstrate it, and then provide the opportunity to improve.
"Similarly, a parent teaching a child to cook would never say, "That was 74 percent." Instead, like the sensei, the parent would watch, demonstrate, and allow the child a chance to get better. These acts of mindful nurturing and guidance are examples of natural learning, and we perform them instinctively."
4. Ask learners what they want to learn
There's a lot to be said for involving students in every part of the learning journey. It can include something as simple as asking them what they want to learn. The rigorous curriculums we must follow as educators can leave many teachers feeling like there is little room for imagination or flexibility. But even if we can't deviate from it completely, we can still provide our learners with choices.
Providing options for the direction content will take helps give students a sense of autonomy over their learning. The more involved they are in plotting the course of their lessons collaboratively with you, the more likely they are to feel engaged in learning.
5. Play the long game
You'll find that most learners will not adopt a growth mindset right away. It takes time to develop and a singular focus to maintain. However, once it becomes second nature, the growth mindset is very empowering when it drives us to excel.
As you begin to work with the embedding the growth mindset principles in your practice, think ahead into the future. Don't look for or expect immediate results. After all, the growth mindset is a gift we give ourselves, and students have to learn to take the lead in their shift at some point. It may begin with something as simple as a learner solving a problem or suddenly understanding a concept they struggled with previously for a long time. It doesn't matter where the cultivation of growth mindset starts, so long as it begins someplace.
For many of your learners, also understand that the journey will be painful and perhaps even a little scary. If we're used to thinking a certain way, and most of that way has been debilitating to our growth, it can be a challenge to turn that thinking around. Some will resist, and others may reject it out of hand. To lead students to discover the growth mindset in their way, you must be patient and stay the course. The future rewards to your learners, and yourself, in adopting a growth mindset are immeasurable.
6. Explain the benefits of what they're doing
Students won't find relevance in learning a concept if they don't see how it can be useful to them. Without connection through context and relevance, learning won't happen. Part of the growth mindset comes from realizing how our personal growth relates directly to what we are learning in our studies.
The great thing about relevance is that we can provide it in several different ways. One of the best ways to do this is to connect students' learning directly to the world outside school. A prime example of this was the success we had with the first-ever Solution Fluency Thinkfest, held at Melrose High School in Canberra back in late 2016.
Four primary schools were asked to use Solution Fluency to research and develop a solution to the question, "What is the most urgent problem in the world?" They presented concerns about everything from animal cruelty to space pollution and showed us that they care deeply about topics that connect to the world in which they live.
When learners understand the benefits to themselves—and the world—of what they learn and how they can apply it, something magical happens. They begin to see the truth of how meaningful learning carries into life beyond school and how it contributes to the holistic growth of a person. Additionally, they discover how the education they devote their energies to can benefit both them and others when practically applied. That's the growth mindset in action.
7. Include students in learning assessment
As bold as this idea may be for most educators, the truth is our students can benefit greatly from being involved in their assessments.
In his report The Student’s Role in the Assessment Process, Richard Wells tells us that self-assessment "gives students ownership of their own learning and provides them with a means for evaluating their growth and setting goals for the future." Independent goal setting and learning ownership are hallmarks of the growth mindset as it applies to learners.
Despite the trepidation we feel about it, students can play an incredibly valuable role in formative assessment applications. You'll often find that students are their own harshest critics, and can be far more discerning about their performance than any teacher. It can start as simply as having them co-construct success criteria along with you, or by practicing debrief sessions after lessons, as with Solution Fluency.
8. Cite examples of the growth mindset in action
When exploring a concept like the growth mindset for the first time, practical examples can help. Let's begin with a few from an article by John Rhodes:
Example 1: Running late and missing the bus or carpool
We've all faced this situation. We wake up late and jump out of bed, already stressed and then, skip breakfast and coffee, hurriedly dress, rush to the curb to find that we've missed the bus or the carpool.
A fixed mindset response will be to mutter, curse and call yourself or someone else names and then, remain in a foul mood for the rest of the day. A growth mindset response will be to decide to go to bed earlier tonight, set an alarm and lay out your clothes and breakfast dishes in the evening itself, so that tomorrow can be better and different.
Example 2: Poor feedback from the boss
So, you reach office and your boss calls you in to yell at you about a report you'd prepared or a project you're handling. They think you aren't doing a great job of it. The fixed mindset response will be to beat yourself up, feel that you aren't talented or skilled enough for the job or that your boss is a moron who has no idea what it takes, and then, spend the rest of the day cribbing and complaining and even, job hunting.
The growth mindset response will be to evaluate your performance, seek actual, constructive feedback that can help you improve, figure out what can be better with your project and then, do that and move on!
Example 3: Praising your child
Kids love praise and parents love giving it. So, when you're child comes to you with an A on his math paper, you can either go the fixed mindset route and say "You're so smart" or you can go the growth mindset way and acknowledge the effort he or she put in, saying "Wow, you really worked hard on that paper!"
What about other reading? Begin with Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology for Success. Beyond this, titles like Dr. Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself are full of stories about people who have applied mindset principles to accomplish miracles of physical and mental transformation.
9. Always encourage next steps
Growth means continuation, expansion, and outward or upward movement. It means extending beyond what is into the realm of what can be. We accomplish this through the magic of considering two simple words after we've learned something: What now?
As learning takes place, we must always be considering what the next steps are. What are we going to do next, and where will we go from here? This continuation of learning is how we encourage a growth mindset as it pertains to lifelong learning. When we stop learning, we stop growing.
One of the most crucial steps, when we are using the Essential Fluencies in workshops and classrooms, is urging learners to consider how they can use what they've learned in future situations. It's about carrying our learning forward to not only apply it but to augment it. Learning should never stop—it should be a lifetime journey. Those with a growth mindset are always using the "what now" approach to see where learning can take them next.