Here’s an anecdote that might be familiar to teachers:
Jonathan attends his Algebra I class every day wearing a scowl on his face. He’s consistently getting Cs, but his teacher, Mr. Muldoon, knows Jonathan has the capacity to do more. He’s offered to help his student after class, but Jonathan’s answer is always the same: “I can’t do it.”
Muldoon is tempted to write off Jonathan as lacking the work ethic, but he knows his class is a foundation. If Jonathan doesn’t get this, he will likely fail.
After a meeting with his counselor, it becomes clear that Jonathan has internalized the message that he’s bad at math.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Carol Dweck, Ph.D., author of the bestselling book “Mindset“ and a professor of psychology at Stanford University, studies motivation for learning and success. According to Dr. Dweck, “Mindsets are beliefs—about yourself and your most basic qualities. Think about your intelligence, your talents, your personality. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone…? Or are they qualities you can cultivate?”
Her research demonstrates that the way children think about their own intelligence has everything to do with the way they think about their own abilities. And that attitude is molded, in part, by the expectations of family, teachers, and peers.
Dr. Dweck’s seminal research in New York City schools sent researchers into fifth-grade classrooms across New York City. Randomly dividing classes into two groups, the researchers gave students a series of puzzles. After the students completed the puzzles successfully, the researchers praised the students in one group for being intelligent (“You must be smart”), and praised those in the other group for their effort (“You must have worked really hard”). In a follow-up, the research team gave students two choices: solve more challenging puzzles or stick with puzzles as easy as the first set.
The “smart” children overwhelmingly choose to take the easy way out, while 90 percent of the students in the “effort” group chose to take on the more challenging puzzles.
“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. In a follow-up study, everyone was given difficult puzzles designed for seventh-graders to solve. Predictably, all the participants failed. But the students praised for “putting in the effort” embraced the challenge, focusing in on trying as many different solutions as possible. Those who had been told how smart they were simply took their failure as evidence that they must not be so smart after all.
In the third round of testing, all the children were again given easy puzzles to solve. Those praised for their effort showed marked improvement on their scores compared with the first round of testing. Scores for those praised for their smarts actually declined.
Why Mindset Matters
It seems that praising children for ability can hamper their willingness to take on challenges.
“Emphasizing effort gives children a variable that they can control,” Dr. Dweck explained. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
Dr. Dweck developed a new way of talking about how children can be incentivized to learn. The “fixed” mindset—you are smart—assumes you’ve either got it or not. In that case, why bother trying?
By contrast, if you are told you can rise to the challenge—adopting a “growth” mindset—you come to believe that you can always improve—and learn along the way.
On the basis of this research, a whole body of mindset applications to learning has emerged. The implications are wide ranging.
Mindst has everything to do with our capacity to learn, grow, and adapt…or not. In “The Power of Believing You Can Improve,” a 2014 TED Talk, Dr. Dweck talks about the philosophy of one Chicago school where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate; for those who fell short, the school offered a new grade: Not Yet.
Going beyond an excel–pass–fail mentality, Not Yet confers a growth mindset: “You tried, we recognize your effort. You may not quite have everything you need at this moment; you’re getting there, you can do it.” It also pays homage to the process of learning and, in doing so, celebrates the value of striving to reach the goal.
In addition to rewarding effort, Not Yet confers other benefits to students by:
- Strengthening resilience
- Building persistence.
- Feeding a sense of accomplishment on overcoming a challenge.
In short, it creates an ideal environment in which to cultivate a growth mindset.
Transforming the Meaning of Effort and Difficulty
By teaching about how the growth mindset activates learning, we can tip students off to the science behind mindset and help them increase their metacognition, which is an awareness of what’s going on inside their minds when they are putting in the effort. In turn, this adds to their sense of control and builds awareness of the learning process.
The growth mindset confers other advantages, including developing a more optimistic view toward confronting challenges, and a way forward in taking responsibility for one’s own growth and development.
Muldoon wants to give Jonathan another chance. After examining Jonathan’s work in the first half of the year, he notes a steady decline after a strong start the year before. He decides to check in with Jonathan’s pre-algebra teacher, Ms. Goldfarb.
“He aced the first few tests last year,” notes Goldfarb. “But when the material got more difficult, Jonathan struggled, and instead of trying different ways to master the material, he just seemed to give up. He was apparently exhibiting a ‘fixed’ mindset.
“The thing is, I know he is capable of doing better, I just couldn’t crack the best way to motivate him.”
“But the great thing about Jonathan is that he can code like a wizard,” Goldfarb said. “He said he was creating an app to help people with disabilities find services when they travel. He’d been working on it for over a year. I told him I admired his perseverance.”
This led Muldoon to wonder: How could he get Jonathan to show that same level of determination and perseverance in math class?
7 Ways to Nurture—and Sustain—a Growth Mindset in Your Students
Many of us can relate to Jonathan’s story. We may have been in Jonathan’s shoes once, or as educators or parents, bought into the “you’ve got it, or you don’t” mentality. But how can Muldoon use the example of Jonathan’s coding exercise—with a clearly demonstrated growth mindset—to apply that mindset to learning algebra?
Here are seven strategies educators can adopt to help struggling students develop a growth mindset.
Praise Effort, Not Ability
Famously, Thomas Edison failed several times at inventing the light bulb. He may have had a genius for invention, but more importantly, he was dedicated to his mission. In a remarkable recognition of growth mindset, Edison said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that it won’t work.”
“Working on things we don’t know yet is what helps us become better,” says Eduardo Briceño, CEO and co-founder, with Carol Dweck, of Mindset Works. “Growth mindset frees us to take on challenges we think are more worthwhile and valuable – we can pursue them through the difficult tasks and persevere along the way.
Model What You Believe In
Influence mindsets by influencing the school or classroom culture. When students have people around them modeling the growth mindset, that creates the space for students to try-and-fail, and try again. Solicit feedback. Ask questions and be open to responses.
Foster the kind of school climate and social and emotional learning environment where students feel safe to take risks, to engage in learning through trial-and-error, and that celebrates incremental learning.
Identify New Strategies: Be Willing to Shift to a Different Approach
At the same time, when a strategy isn’t working, it’s important to have the flexibility of trying something different.
“Being open to seeing when a certain strategy isn’t working for a student, it’s important to have the capacity to adjust the approach, by saying, ‘Let’s explore this other way of working through the material,'” advises Briceño.
Picture Your Brain as a Growth Engine
Cognitive growth occurs throughout our lifespans. Remember that your students are all works in progress. Putting in the effort helps support that growth, and practice helps students reach for mastery. Educators have the responsibility to foster that growth. By understanding the brain’s normal mechanisms, and by disregarding the idea of native intelligence as the best indicator of success, students can gain that same awareness.
As Dr. Dweck says, “Picture your brain forming new connections as you meet new challenges and learn. Then keep going.”
Share the Stories Behind the Legends
Even those who are at the top of their game—in any domain, be it sports, music, acting, government or business—have faced challenges along the way to their success. Encouraging students of how even the best must apply themselves to keep going through the hard parts. Knowing what happens behind the scenes can inspire students to see that even what looks effortless is the result of hard work.
Celebrity examples of growth mindset come from every domain, from J.K. Rowling’s getting turned down by scores of literary agents for Harry Potter, to Malala Yousafzai’s bravery and perseverance in the face of adversity and her dedication to supporting girls’ education. LeBron James clearly showed the raw talent to win on the court, but it is his legendary work ethic that propels him to championships. That’s not the LeBron most students see, but it’s the one teachers can share to inspire students to put in time and effort.
Compare Students to What They May Become — Not to Anyone Else
One student in a family may have been so stellar in class that, when her younger sibling shows up, you expect—consciously or subconsciously—the younger sibling to perform equally well. But that younger student has her own unique gifts and challenges. A teacher’s job lies in recognizing this distinction and helping each student strive, learn, and grow to meet her own challenges.
Take the Not Yet View
In a learning environment where schools feel pressured to teach to the test, and every school is measured on student achievement at the time of the test, there seems to be very little room for “Not Yet” learning. But isn’t that the very lesson our students should be taking away from school—that, when faced with difficult life challenges, they have the capacity, the persistence, and the brains to make the effort and figure things out?
“Learning something new, something hard, sticking to things—that’s how you get smarter. Setbacks and feedback weren’t about your abilities, they were information you could use to help yourself learn,” notes Dr. Dweck.
For students like Jonathan to feel they have the space to grow it’s important to instill Dr. Dweck’s teaching that, by adopting a growth mindset, “everyone can develop their abilities through hard work, strategies, and lots of help and mentoring from others.”
Putting Research into Practice
The next time Muldoon sees Jonathan in the hall, he invites him to come in during lunchtime to help him look at the code on a learning app the teacher is working on that he can’t quite crack.
“I heard you’re a master at coding, and I need some help with that myself,” says Muldoon.
“Really? Why me?” asks Jonathan.
“Because I’ve tried and failed to find the problem 100 times. I could use some insight. Ms. Goldfarb shared with me that you’ve been working on an app yourself, so I thought maybe you could help me.
Jonathan’s eyes light up. Here’s a teacher who gets him! When he arrives in class the next day, he’s already sent his teacher the corrected code. When Muldoon asks for a volunteer to review the homework, Jonathan raises his hand. As he writes on the board, a classmate calls out an error in Jonathan’s work. Instead of looking defeated, he’s only momentarily chagrined.
“Great effort, Jonathan,” says Muldoon. “You’re almost there—and this is something we can all learn from. Now let’s see if the class can work out the rest of this together.”
It’s a breakthrough moment. At the end of the grading period, Jonathan’s grades have improved, but he still lacks confidence in some areas.
“I don’t know if I’m ready for next year, Mr. Muldoon,” he says. “And finals are coming up. What if I don’t pass?”
His teacher thinks carefully before answering.
“Of course, this exam is important. But it’s not the only thing I take into consideration. You’ve shown me you have the motivation to do whatever it takes. That will take you a long way—even if you haven’t mastered every step…yet. Let’s see what happens, and we can talk about maybe some extra-credit work to keep that effort going,” he said.
There is no set timetable to life. By letting Jonathan know that he’s on the right track, his teacher is sending an important message.
The Not Yet approach to cultivating a growth mindset allows students to understand that success means keeping the goal in sight and continuing to work toward it—whenever and wherever that may be.
Robin Stevens Payes is a Maryland-based science writer, coach and consultant in social marketing specializing in health, science and education. She’s also the author of the new teen time travel adventure series, Edge of Yesterday.