Growth mindset is the firmly held belief that people can learn new things or develop new skills and talents through experience, hard work, good habits, and by asking for help. This is in direct opposition to a fixed mindset—the belief that the abilities or talents we’re born with are “locked in” and unable to change, grow, or develop beyond a certain point. Each of us is a combination of growth and fixed mindsets, depending on the context, skill, or even the day. This simple, but powerful idea was discovered by psychologist Carol Dweck and discussed in her popular book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
The tenacity and grit required for a growth mindset doesn’t come naturally. It needs to be modeled, taught, and practiced to earnestly take hold. Soon after Dweck’s groundbreaking book was published, teachers, managers, coaches, and parents quickly saw the benefits of the empowering concept and put this idea to use in their fields of influence. When done successfully, it can definitely pay off, particularly in the classroom. Investing time in teaching and building a culture around growth mindset has remarkable benefits, like helping students persist, stay motivated, and earn better grades.
But as more educators and leaders in and out of the classroom saw the benefits of growth mindset, the idea took on a life of its own. The tenets of growth mindset weren’t fully understood, leading to a new phenomenon dubbed, “false growth mindset.” That’s when people think or claim to have growth mindset, but their words and behaviors don’t reflect it. Dweck herself doubted the existence of this at first, but upon further reflection, it was hard to ignore.
How do you know if you’re cultivating growth mindset or false growth mindset in your classroom? Ask yourself these three questions.
1. Do I blindly praise effort, or do I encourage progress and new learning strategies?
In the spirit of being a students’ biggest cheerleader, educators with false growth mindset may fall into the trap of praise for praise sake. While encouraging students to try seems helpful, blindly praising effort without telling the truth about current achievement isn’t going to cultivate the persistence they need to face tough challenges. Instead, be honest. If a student is trying, but not seeing the results of their hard work, offer new strategies or approaches instead.
2. Do I avoid challenging my students to set them up for easy wins, or do I affirm their potential and let them see how strong they are?
All students have the potential to grow and learn new things. While educators with false growth mindset believe this, their actions may say otherwise. To foster growth mindset, students need to get comfortable with problem solving. They need to wrestle with ambitious challenges and standing up again after a disappointment. In those difficult moments, students discover that learning doesn’t occur in a straight line. With practice and guidance, they’ll learn to ask for help, or consider a different approach. Teachers creating a culture of growth mindset will help their students get to this point, instead of enabling them with work that’s too easy.
3. When a student gets discouraged or loses motivation, am I quick to blame their mindset, or do I refocus their energy and effort?
Every student will have moments of self-doubt. When that happens, educators with false growth mindset may blame or even shame students for not persisting in the face of new challenges. For example, when things aren’t going your way, think of how it makes you feel when someone says, “Just try harder.” It’s not likely to have the desired effect.
Instead, when students lose motivation or get discouraged about their learning or abilities, Dweck suggests that’s the time to refocus their effort. Provide honest, constructive feedback on their progress; share tips for new strategies; be compassionate; and offer meaningful ways to practice the skill or competency they’re struggling with.
Before anyone can foster growth mindset in their school or classroom, it’s vital they fully understand what it means, and how to model and use it. When taught and practiced the right way, it can be a powerful skill that students tap into throughout their lives.