Avoid the pitfalls that lead to false growth mindset
If you’re an educator, you’ve most definitely heard the term “growth mindset.” In fact, the concept has spread far beyond classrooms and schools. It’s even implemented at some companies to foster creativity and productivity.
Although the concept is wildly popular, it’s also widely misunderstood. Teachers strongly believe in growth mindset, but many aren’t sure how to use it effectively in their classrooms.
In this post, we’ll look at some common growth mindset misconceptions and pitfalls. When you understand these challenges, you’ll use growth mindset more effectively—and see better outcomes with your students!
What is growth mindset?
In short, people approach challenges with one of two mindsets: fixed mindset or growth mindset. These core beliefs were first described by Carol Dweck, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University.
People with a fixed mindset believe that abilities are fixed traits that don’t change over time. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe their abilities and intelligence can grow with experience, effort, and practice.
A fixed mindset causes children to shy away from challenges. If they fail, they’ll see it as proof that they lack talent or ability. For that reason, it’s safer to avoid the possibility of failure whenever possible.
Children with a growth mindset view challenges and even failures as learning opportunities. They believe that when you keep trying, you learn and improve. With hard work, solid strategies, and plenty of help, they know that their abilities can develop.
Naturally, educators believe that growth mindset holds great potential for teaching and learning. In a survey by the Education Week Research Center, 98% of educators agreed that using growth mindset in the classroom will lead to improved student learning.
False growth mindset
However, only 20% of teachers strongly believe that they’re good at fostering growth mindset in their students. And just one in five say that growth mindset is deeply integrated into their teaching practice.
According to Carol Dweck, this is likely because many people don’t fully understand the concept of growth mindset. She calls this misunderstanding “false growth mindset.” False growth mindset stems from oversimplifications of Dweck’s complex concept.
Growth mindset starts with you
In order to help students develop a growth mindset, teachers must first do the internal work needed to develop their own growth mindset.
Dweck says that instead of taking this “long and difficult journey,” many educators simply assume that they have a growth mindset already, either because they know they’re “supposed to” or because they’ve oversimplified the concept.
She also points out that no one has a growth mindset all the time. Everyone is triggered into a fixed mindset sometimes, and it’s important to find your fixed mindset triggers. For instance, you may fall into a fixed mindset when you encounter a challenge well outside of your comfort zone. You may also be triggered when you meet someone who is much better than you at a skill you pride yourself on.
Walking through the process of understanding your fixed mindset triggers, working on them, and learning to stay in a growth mindset more often will allow you to more effectively walk your students through this same process.
It’ll also help you understand that growth mindset is an ongoing practice. You’ll be able to treat yourself and your students with grace when you sometimes slip into a fixed mindset.
It’s not just about effort; it’s about strategy
Growth mindset is certainly about effort, but it’s not only about effort. Praising ineffective effort won’t lead to progress. Low-achieving students who frequently hear, “Wow, you tried so hard!” will see this empty praise as a consolation prize. They’ll understand that the teacher doesn’t believe they can improve, which ultimately makes matters worse.
Dweck says that the commonly used phrase, “Praise the effort, not the outcome,” isn’t entirely accurate. The idea of growth mindset is to focus on the learning process. So, when we emphasize effort, we should show how that effort led to progress or success. One way to avoid false growth mindset is to praise the effort that leads to intended outcomes.
Instead of praising ineffective effort, support the student in finding a more effective strategy. Students should understand that effort isn’t the magical solution to every problem. We don’t want them to become overly obsessed with effort, stubbornly persisting with ineffective strategies. We want them to understand when to ask for help and how to use available resources.
Once the student has made progress or solved the problem, then praise them for sticking with it until they found a strategy that worked. You can find more information about this here.
Don’t rescue a child who is facing failure
Even adults who do have growth mindset sometimes rush to shield children from failure. Although the goal is to protect a child’s confidence, the effect is the opposite.
When we rush to reassure a child, it conveys the idea that failure is negative. In these situations, we also tend to send fixed mindset messages like, “It’s okay if you’re not awesome at drawing. You’re good at so many other things!” Children then develop the idea that their abilities are fixed.
Research shows that we can help children develop growth mindset by responding to failure as though it enhances learning. You might say, “What can we learn from this?” or, “Where should we go next?”
This matter of fact, process-focused approach is far more helpful than our efforts to rescue kids from failure. Children should know that they don’t need to be rescued from failure. Failure is a learning experience that provides useful information for improvement.
It’s never too late
When parents and educators think about fostering growth mindset, they often think of young children. But it’s never too late for students (or adults) to learn growth mindset.
In one research study, Dweck’s colleague found that ninth grade students who took growth mindset workshops went on to seek more challenges than their peers. Workshops taught the students that teen brains are especially open to learning and had the students write a letter to a struggling ninth grader, counseling them on growth mindset.
They also listened to testimonials from public figures who explained how growth mindset helped them succeed, and they talked about why someone would want a growth mindset. For some students, the idea of developing their intellectual abilities isn’t exactly thrilling. However, many teens are interested in changing the world.
So, Dweck and her colleagues asked teens how they would like to contribute to their family, community, or society. Then, they talked about how having a strong mind could help the teens make a difference in the future.
Teaching growth mindset may look different for different age groups, but it’s never too late to foster positive change in your students.
When used correctly, growth mindset is a powerful learning tool. Implemented ineffectively, however, it can be frustrating for teachers and damaging for students. Common misconceptions include the idea that hard work is the only requirement for success and that we can foster growth mindset simply by talking about and understanding the idea.
Instead of praising effort that doesn’t lead to improvement or success, we can say, “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried so far and what you can try next.” Help students develop a variety of strategies and the ability to ask for help or feedback when they need it. Metacognitive tools like reflection are another important component of effective growth mindset instruction.
Finally, understand that no one will have a growth mindset all the time, not even you. Work on accepting the fixed mindset and becoming aware of the thoughts and situations that trigger it. With practice, you and you students will begin to develop a growth mindset—not the false kind, but the real deal.
If you are one of the 80% of teachers who struggle to implement growth mindset concepts in your classroom regularly, you may be interested in growth mindset bell ringer journals. They are short and easy to use, yet rigorous and effective. You can check them out here. If you’re not sure how or where to even begin, read this article, 10 Things You Need to Know About Growth Mindset.