There has been a lot of buzz about “growth mindset” in the education community. Just ask any current teacher, and chances are she’ll tell you about a recent PD during which “growth mindset” was on the agenda.
“Growth mindset” was pioneered by Carol Dweck, psychologist and professor at Stanford University. It’s the idea that a person can learn anything or develop any particular skill through effort, dedication, and the right frame of mind. In her research, Professor Dweck demonstrates a direct correlation between having a growth mindset and living a less stressful and more successful life. Dweck calls the opposite a “fixed mindset,” the belief that intelligence is based on innate abilities that cannot be developed and are immune to change. Professor Dweck’s research is particularly relevant to education because students who have a growth mindset are, overall, more motivated to learn than students with a fixed mindset.
Beyond Professor Dweck, much has been written about the importance of growth mindset in early education, especially in subjects that are traditionally associated with a fixed mindset, like mathematics. Overwhelmingly, students believe that they are either “good at math” or “bad at math,” and that their math abilities will not improve with work and practice. These types of students, the ones with a fixed mindset, are consistently outperformed by students with a growth mindset.
Professor Jo Boaler, also of Stanford, promotes a math education reform largely centered around the employment of growth mindset techniques in math learning. But because students are unlikely to assume a growth mindset on their own, teachers must actively encourage and foster a growth mindset culture in their classrooms.
However, before teachers can begin inspiring their students to develop a growth mindset, they must have a growth mindset themselves. This means that the idea of growth mindset needs to start at a higher level—with superintendents, principals, administrators and other school and district leaders. As high school teacher Keith Heggart wrote in Edutopia, “…the notion of developing a growth mindset is as equally applicable to staff and teacher performance as it is to students.”
The benefits of a school-wide culture of growth mindset are twofold: One, teachers will feel more comfortable trying new methods, curriculum, activities and strategies in their classrooms. And two, once teachers have a noticeable attitude of growth mindset, it will begin to trickle down to their students.
Administrators can create a culture of growth mindset in their schools in a number of ways. To start, they should model the very same growth mindset practices they want to see their teachers adopt in the classroom. For example, administrators should make faculty meetings and professional developments a risk-tolerant environment in which mistakes are welcomed. By showing teachers that initial confusion isn’t a permanent setback when learning how to implement a new instructional method or technology, administrators encourage teachers to embrace that attitude in their own classrooms as well. In fact, Dweck and Boaler both argue that initial confusion is often necessary for true learning and growth.
Administrators should also consider modifying their districts’ teacher evaluation process to reflect the tenets of growth mindset. Teachers should not only be evaluated on their performance but also on their effort, growth and improvement. Professor Dweck, along with Claudia Mueller, found in their research that praise for effort (rather than performance) actually triggers growth mindset thinking.
Growth mindset is essential for successfully implementing new technology and instructional programs. Dr. Todd Keruskin, Assistant Superintendent of the Elizabeth Forward School District, says that one of the best ways to jump start a school-wide growth mindset is to visit other schools, districts, museums, businesses and nonprofits for inspiration as to what your school could potentially accomplish and to trigger growth-oriented thinking. As school and district leaders begin to transform from fixed mindset thinkers to growth mindset thinkers, innovation can’t help but naturally follow.
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