Myths and Facts Teachers Need to Know About the Growth Mindset (Opinion)
What do teachers need to know about the growth mindset?
Teachers are such an important influence when it comes to helping children develop a growth mindset. I answered questions about this topic in a tip of the week for the character lab:
Many people have heard the term “growth mindset”. What is it and why is it so important?
The growth mindset is the belief that intelligence and other abilities are malleable and that we can improve them through effort, seeking help, and trying new strategies. This is different from a fixed mindset, believing that you have it or you don’t, that you are a mathematician or an artist – or you are not.
Where have you seen fixed and growth mindsets in your life? What did you learn from this?
When I started my graduate studies, I noticed that the teachers were really different. In a seminar, they focused on dismantling student presentations and ideas. Who was the smartest in the room? How could they find the fatal flaw, and who could find it fastest?
The students were really influenced by this idea of a fixed mindset, what I call a Culture of Engineering. They would not be able to remember essential aspects of their work or answer questions. They basically choked each other.
And then there were other seminars where the faculty was still tough on the students, but it was more in a culture of we will help you learn how to improve this presentation. We will identify the faults and errors in order to be able to improve it.
Students reacted differently in this culture of growth, and they were motivated at the end of their presentations to improve them.
Is this what led you to study mentalities and cultural environments?
Yes. Also, I’m Latina, and as a bicultural person, I felt that different contexts can bring out different parts of our identities. We can really feel our gender or our racial or ethnic identity in some contexts, compared to others, because it feels more important.
We may be the only ones of our kind in a place, so we feel like we stand out more. And we don’t feel it as much in other contexts, like when we’re at home with our families, where we all belong to the same groups. Context influences our thoughts, emotions, motivation, performance, and even how we interact with people.
What’s the most important thing teachers and parents need to know about the growth mindset?
How we react even subtly to a child’s mistakes and performance can send messages beyond what we say.
There was a very nice study made by [psychologists] Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck in which parents took their children to a research lab, shared their own mental beliefs, and then asked their children to try to solve unsolvable problems. And the parents helped them solve problems and change their strategy: “Try something new”. “Have you thought about that?” Or they winced every time the kids made a mistake. They made this “dumb” face and said, “No, that wasn’t it. Try again.”
What predicted the children’s responses were these more subtle behaviors and how they interacted with their children as they struggled – the grimaces, the anxiety parents showed as the children struggled – not what parents believed in their heads.
How to counter these grimaces, then? What can we do instead?
Show examples of people who did really well, but for whom success didn’t come easily or quickly – the kind of mistakes they made, the teachers and mentors and family members who made them helped support them. It communicates the belief that struggle and mistakes are just normal learning opportunities.
Also, I enjoy practicing my favorite mistake. At the table, rather than saying, “What did you do today? ask “What was your favorite mistake today?” In class, teachers can write their favorite mistake on the board when they turn in their homework: “This is my favorite mistake I’ve seen made.” It shifts the conversation so that making mistakes isn’t shameful. You celebrate them, learn from them, and talk about how to tackle the problem next time.
What are some growth mindset myths we should pay attention to?
One myth is what psychologists call a false growth mindset, which misinterprets it as just trying hard – that if you try just hard enough, you’re bound to get better. But if you do the same thing the same way a million times and you don’t improve, you’ll think maybe it’s not for me.
A true growth mindset recognizes that there are many ways to improve and grow. You can ask for help. You can try another tactic. You can pause and come back to it.
Another myth is easier to explain with a visual. If you search Google images for “growth mindset” you will see many two-headed examples. One is usually red – it’s the fixed mindset, filled with all the bad things associated with a fixed mindset. The other is green, with all the good things associated with a growth mindset.
This is problematic because it suggests you have one or the other when in fact the mindset is a continuum. We all have fixed and growth mindsets within us. And there are different situations that bring out each of them.
Some of us are triggered by critical feedback – for example, when your child comes home with a D on a test, you know they’re going to be in their fixed mindset. They’re gonna be like, “I can’t do this.” Some of us get sucked into our fixed mindset by other people’s success, where we’re like, “Oh, I could never do what she does.”
When we create cultures of growth, we create norms in which we celebrate the successes of others and learn from what they have done so that we can achieve success on our own.
There are so many stereotypes about intelligence and ability, who has it and who doesn’t. There are far fewer people who can improve and grow.