Let it Grow, Let it Grow…
Teaching Students How to Perceive Challenges, Invite Feedback, and Learn from Mistakes
Teaching students how to cultivate a growth mindset is one of the best ways educators can help students take accountability for their own learning.
Stanford professor Carol Dweck developed mindset theory in 2006, which claims that all humans have the capacity to view circumstances through either a growth mindset or fixed mindset.
When we adopt a growth mindset lens, we believe in our unlimited potential, the importance of perseverance, the value of making mistakes, and a focus on improvement. We embrace challenges, push through setbacks, and absorb constructive criticism. We are inspired by others’ success. While we may not always reach our goal, we tend to learn a valuable lesson from the experience of pursuing it.
When we view challenges through a fixed mindset, we believe that our knowledge and abilities are limited, practice is useless, and our mistakes are definitive. We avoid challenges, give up before we reach our goals, ignore constructive feedback, and are intimidated by others’ success. Being so focused on avoiding embarrassment, we often miss out on opportunities to grow.
Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset Examples
Let’s look at several scenarios viewed through the fixed and growth mindsets:
Fixed: School assemblies are a waste of time. I’m going to scroll through my feed until it’s over.
Growth: I’m going to give this speaker a chance and see if I learn something new today.
Fixed: This teacher won’t stop bothering me about my late work. I wish they’d leave me alone.
Growth: I’m going to take my teacher up on their offer for after-school help — they wouldn’t spend so much time trying to reach out to me if they didn’t care.
Fixed: I’ve never been good at science, so I’m probably not going to do well in chemistry.
Growth: I looked up chemistry and learned that it relates a lot to cooking, which is what I want to do. I’m going to try my best to approach the class with confidence.
In each of the examples, the student with a fixed mindset has already determined how they will perform or how a situation will play out, and the outcome is typically negative. “Fixing” circumstances is a method of self-preservation — by pre-determining the result, we can avoid failure, shame, errors, and judgment. Maybe we were humiliated in the past, or we perceived that we disappointed someone, and their response discouraged us from being the naturally open, curious, and confident person that we were when we first entered the world.
Regardless of how our behaviors have been reinforced, we always have a choice in how we approach the future. In the examples above, the growth mindset-oriented student’s thoughts indicate possibility, wonder, and determination. They may not be sure of how the situation will play out, but they trust that — if they pay attention and look for relevance — they will benefit from the experience in the long run.
What is important to know is that we all perceive our worlds through both mindsets — we are not all one way or the other. When we see our students struggling to learn a concept, work within a group, or take advantage of an opportunity, that is a critical time for us to model a growth mindset. We can do so through our class environment, social contract, and management styles:
- Display student work that, while not perfect, shows creativity and signs of revision
- Create a growth mindset board with quotes and examples from teachers and students
- Situate desks and chairs in arrangements that encourage collaboration
- Move throughout the classroom to pose questions and demonstrate accessibility
- Include flexible seating, portable whiteboards, and technology for students to work according to their learning styles
- Create a social contract with the entire class that includes how they want to be treated in the classroom and how they believe they should treat others
- Phrase class guidelines in a positive light, geared toward behaviors that you want to see happening, versus posting a long list of all the things that students should not do
- Admit when you make a mistake, use humor to show that you’re not concerned about being judged, and apologize sincerely when you hurt someone’s feelings
Some of the most powerful moments in the classroom happen when the teacher capitalizes on a moment to listen to their students’ feedback. When students can watch their teacher listen actively, reflect their concerns back to them, and take meaningful steps to integrate student feedback into their instruction and management style, students learn that they are not expected to be flawless. They can focus less on how others will perceive them, and focus more on how to work with others to achieve shared goals.
Researchers at the Project for Education Research that Scales (PERTS) at Stanford University found a significant increase in grade point averages (GPAs) for students receiving interventions to improve their achievement, as well as a strong correlation between growth mindset training, higher grades and student engagement. In teaching growth mindset, educators should avoid consolidated units focused on growth mindset, and instead strive to integrate opportunities to hone their growth mindset in daily lessons — doing so will demonstrate that the teacher is truly committed to helping their students practice persistence and develop resilience.
What Grade Level Should I Teach Growth Mindset?
Growth mindset can be applied to all grade levels, content areas, and learning styles. Below are several ways educators can teach growth mindset in their classrooms:
- Create opportunities for students to learn how their brains work and to test “neuroplasticity” — the ability to reorganize or grow new neural networks in the brain. There are a variety of multimodal activities to assess students’ knowledge of their own minds — students can create a game, video, presentation, or podcast featuring examples of how they have persisted to rewire their own brains.
- Assist students in determining their “triggers” — words, phrases, nonverbals, or actions that activate their nervous system and make them more likely to “shut down” or self-sabotage in an uncomfortable or intimidating scenario. Once students identify their triggers, teachers can help them develop “mantras” or empowered responses to use in place of automatic reactions.
- Hold space for journaling and reflection for at least five minutes each day — students can respond to a teacher-created prompt or come up with their own prompt to analyze how they approached new content through a growth mindset, or how they could have better collaborated within a group setting. Respond authentically to student responses, or have students share their reflections in dyads or triads to strengthen relationships.
- Set low-stakes challenges to encourage students to take risks. For example, if a computer science teacher is teaching coding skills, they can challenge students to use those skills through designing a personal website. Teachers can also afford “20% time” to students who are interested in working on a personal project; doing so helps students feel like they have ownership in how the class is organized and what they will learn.
- Help students get acquainted with giving and receiving negative feedback. Give students sentence stems to use in providing constructive feedback for their peers. Role play conversations where a student receives constructive feedback from a teacher, and have other students discuss what they notice. Initially, these opportunities should not be attached to grades, which might deter hesitant students from being honest.
- Feature guest speakers who demonstrate a growth mindset in their personal and professional lives, which can help students see how persevering, seeking feedback, and embracing challenges looks differently depending on the context.
- Investigate and celebrate “favorite mistakes” — slips in judgment or big errors that contributed to society or resulted in a positive change for someone who decided to adjust their perspective. “Favorite mistakes” can come from celebrities or historical figures, or from students’ personal lives. The goal in sharing is to maintain high expectations while showing that mistakes are inevitable and even valuable, if we choose to learn from them.
Why is Growth Mindset Important?
How we perceive the inevitable challenges in life, along with our ability to meet those challenges, is one of the most significant predictors of our success. When we help students develop a growth mindset in the classroom, we support them in setting goals, practicing challenging skills, nurturing their relationships, and tapping into their own creativity. We give them the green light for making mistakes, being okay with “not knowing,” and sharing their talents and abilities. When we help cultivate a growth mindset in our students and classrooms, we pave the way for future generations to turn their “Oops” into “A-Ha’s,” their mistakes into masterpieces, and their resilience into revolutions.