Growth mindset in the classroom

The terms fixed and growth mindset were coined by Carol Dweck as a way to describe the way that learners need to feel about themselves and their abilities in order to become successful learners. Dweck describes a fixed mindset as a focus on ability rather than achievement and effort. Individuals who have a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenge, gives up easily, sees effort as pointless and ignores useful criticism. On the other hand, individuals with a growth mindset embrace challenge, persist in the face of feedback, embrace effort and learn from criticism.

Central to growth mindset is the concept of neuroplasticity. This is the idea that we aren’t born with fixed intelligence but instead that when we learn our brains make new neural connections and we can actually become more intelligent. “Your brain is like a muscle. When you learn, your brain grows. The feeling of this being hard is the feeling of your brain growing.” – Carol Dweck Research has shown that the more you engage in a task, the more parts of your brain develop. When taxi drivers studying for ‘The Knowledge’ were scanned, their hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with spatial awareness and memory, was shown to have grown significantly. Therefore it is important that children are taught this concept as it then allows them to have the self-belief that they can get better and ultimately have a growth mindset.

There are a few key aspects we need to teach to ensure children develop a growth mindset so they can become successful, independent and resilient learners.

The first of these is to teach the children the power of yet – this simple word can have a big impact. There is a huge difference between saying “I am not good at this” and “I’m not good at this yet”. By adding the word yet it suggests you will get there with some hard work and resilience.

Teaching the appropriate reaction to mistakes is also essential. Everyone experiences mistakes and failure at some point but having a growth mindset and reflecting on your learning helps you realise that you can learn from failure by receiving feedback and using it to improve. We should encourage children to ask themselves what they would do differently next time. This stops them dwelling on the past and helps them focus on what needs to be improved in the future. Michael Jordan is arguably one of the greatest ever basketball players ever. He offers an interesting insight into his growth mindset when he says, “I have failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Effective feedback is also important in promoting a growth mindset culture. In one of Carol Dweck’s most famous studies, students were praised for effort or ability. Those who were praised for ability were more likely to ask for feedback on how they did on a task compared to others. Those who had been praised for effort wanted feedback on how they could get better. In addition to this teachers should also be conscious of not purely praising children as this may feel children good at the time but isn’t actually giving them any constructive feedback. Instead professionals should make sure they are giving constructive feedback that informs future learning.

However there are several pitfalls we have to be aware of when promoting a growth mindset culture:

The first of these is that growth mindset shouldn’t be something that you teach once and expect the children to adopt, it has to be something that encompasses your whole approach to teaching and pervades all areas of the curriculum. Your words and actions must be consistent with its concepts – for example if you teach that making mistakes is okay as we learn from them and then react to them as if they are problems, rather than this being helpful to students you will in all probably only assist them in developing a fixed mindset.

As practitioners we also have to be careful that we don’t just give out the message that if you keep trying you will succeed. As we all know if you continually practice something wrongly you will always do it wrong and never improve. Instead we must send out the message that with practice and guided instruction you can improve. We must make it clear to students that they need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they are stuck, then use and apply these.

Finally, it is essential that schools engage their parents in this process as it important that children receive a consistent message from those around them. Encourage parents to follow the schools example and praise for effort, hard work, persistence and learning from mistakes and not for being smart. If children are getting mixed messages from home and school it will be hard for them to develop a mindset for success.

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