It is rare to hear a podcast, listen to a speaker, or read an article about learning today without some reference to mindsets, or what researcher Carol Dweck has called fixed and growth mindsets. The concept appears simple: Rather than assuming that each of us has fixed talents, intellect, and potential, we focus on growing the talent we have, building on the intellect we possess, and realizing the potential that lies within us. Dweck’s research has consistently shown that each of us can become more talented, smarter, and capable of more than we assume, if we focus, risk, reflect, and persist in our learning and growth.
Yet, the promise of a growth mindset too often goes unrealized for students and educators. This powerful concept keeps getting caught in the assumptions we make about students and their learning, the ways in which we respond to and encourage students following learning attempts, and even in our own mindsets. In fact, the misuse and misunderstanding of mindsets threatens to undermine their credibility and diminish the potential to support students’ growth and success.
Let’s examine how each of these three factors can get in the way of our intentions to instill hope and nurture change in the learning lives of students. First, despite proclamations about the benefits and importance of instilling growth mindsets in learners, schools still group students by past performance, thus sending a message that the past is predictive of future potential. Educators assign students to remedial learning environments, that often feature marginally effective instruction, while ignoring the underlying misconceptions and confusion that interfere with current learning. The experience risks reinforcement of a message that the student is not capable of learning success. Further, schools often celebrate fast learning, without considering the lasting value of learning that requires time, struggle, and effort, suggesting that when learning comes easy, the learner must be smarter.
A second way in which we risk undermining a growth mindset involves the ways in which we’d respond to learning attempts. Most educators have absorbed the message that we do better to focus on effort over outcomes in learning. Rather than telling students that they are smart, we reinforce their efforts. Rather than pointing out lack of success, we note how hard students have worked. Yet, effort alone is often not enough for learning to occur and focusing on effort alone may not help students to reflect on all that contributes to their learning success. When we limit our reinforcement and encouragement to praising effort, we risk patronizing students and sending a message that we are trying to be kind, without being helpful. Building and reinforcing a growth mindset requires us to probe beyond effort and ask students to reflect on elements such as strategies they employed, resources they tapped, past learning they activated, and other learners who may have offered insights and perspectives that contributed to their learning. A growth mindset requires more than committing to work hard and continuing to try.
A third area for reflection is how our own mindsets may be inhibiting our efforts to support a growth mindset in students. It is a fact that it’s difficult to teach others what we do not believe or practice ourselves. Trying to teach students to have a growth mindset when we do not approach our practice with a growth and learning commitment is not likely to be successful. We need to ask ourselves how we respond when we face professional challenges. Do we become anxious and look for ways to avoid taking risks and feeling vulnerable? When we fail to reach some students, do we blame the student, or do we ask how we can adjust and what we need to learn to change the outcome? And, when we see other educators succeed, do we feel jealous and make excuses, or do we seek them out to learn and grow from their experience and skills?