Revisiting Growth Mindset

by Jared Campbell

Most educators have heard of having a “growth mindset” and not a “fixed mindset.” The basic premise is that having a growth mindset helps you see your skills and abilities as malleable — you can shape them over time with hard work. However, having a fixed mindset means that you view your skills and abilities as more permanent.

As with much research, findings and implications often become skewed when put into practice. This breakdown in implementation is often referred to as the “research to implementation gap.” It is almost unavoidable; yet, we have to work diligently to prevent misconceptions from happening. One way is to continually revisit ideas to make sure we stay grounded in the original intent of the research.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has been a leader in the idea of our mindsets. Dweck summarized her research in a 2015 article in Education Week by stating that “students’ mindsets—how they perceive their abilities—played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset).” She was recently interviewed because of the gap from her research to its implementation. She addressed several misconceptions, and I would like to highlight a few. A link is provided at the end of this blog that will connect you to the actual interview.

A growth mindset is not something you either have or not have… even thinking that would actually be an example of a fixed mindset belief. All of us, students and adults, are a complex mixture of the two mindsets. There will be some areas where we see challenges as beneficial and promoting growth, and there will be some instances when we feel more trapped.

An example of having a growth mindset applies well to professional athletes. Some athletes thrive in highly competitive environments despite the high risk of failure. They believe that the act of extreme competition makes them a better athlete, no matter the outcome. I am reminded of a recent NFL player interview where the sentiment was essentially, “We lost. I didn’t play my best. I believe in myself and my team. We will review the film, learn from our mistakes, and get back to work on Tuesday to prepare for the next game.”

That very same professional athlete may not have the same mindset when it comes to say, water polo, or even the next player they face that got the better of them during the last meeting.

The point is this, we all face situations that can alter our mindset. Having a growth mindset is something that we continuously work to improve.

Another area that stands out as a misconception is that all praise is good for promoting a growth mindset. This could not be farther from the truth. Telling a student that they worked hard, did their best, and that you are proud of them when they got a “D” on a test does little more than imply that you believe their best is a “D.” This actually supports the belief that their ability is fixed at a “D” and that their teacher recognizes it.

So, what kind of feedback can we provide students that supports a growth mindset?

I am reminded of the cycle for systematic instruction. Within the cycle, there is continuous positive reinforcement and corrective feedback. In essence, what have you done well and what do you need to improve upon? This type of feedback focuses a student on the areas on which he or she can improve upon, not the general outcome of the work.

When we give students feedback, make sure to positively reinforce the specific behaviors for which we want to increase the probability of future occurrence as well as be explicit about the areas in which students can improve and how they can go about improving.

Consider a student learning to add fractions with unlike denominators:

“In this problem, you found a common denominator by multiplying the first fraction’s numerator and denominator by the denominator of the second fraction, and the second fraction’s numerator and denominator by the first fraction’s denominator. This is an excellent strategy that will always give you a common denominator. When you add the fractions, however, you only add the numerators. The denominator will remain the same. Think about it like a label. If you have 2 thirds and 4 thirds, when you add them you will get 6 thirds. The denominator is what you have, the numerator is how many. When you add them, what you have doesn’t change; just the amount changes. Keep finding the equivalent fractions like you have been, but remember to add the numerators and keep the denominator when you add the two fractions.”

This example reinforces the method used to find equivalent fractions. It also addressed the error, and explains how to correct the error. This combination of reinforcement and feedback by the teacher helps students to improve the quality of their work, as well as contribute to a growth mindset.

For more information on mindset, the article containing the interview can be found here: click here

The 2015 article referenced can be found here: click here

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  • Dennis Cullen
    Mathematics, Paraprofessionals, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS/RtII)
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    Mathematics, Paraprofessionals, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS/RtII)
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