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How to Teach a Growth Mindset

13th July, 2016

By Scott W

Here are our top tips on how to teach a growth mindset.

Building a Growth Mindset can help with a child's confidence and resilience.

Take a Mindset Questionnaire:

Get your students to take a questionnaire to see whether they currently have a fixed or growth mindset. This will be a good resource to refer back to as you begin to discuss the impact of these feelings. Here is a link to an online questionnaire.

Note: Do not teach tell the children why they are completing the questionnaire as this may skew the responses.

Explain what the Mindsets are:

Children need to understand what the mindsets are and look like. Explain the concepts to them, using examples of thoughts which come from both fixed and growth mindsets. You can use a sorting activity for this or a jigsaw activity where thoughts are in pairs, one fixed thought, one growth.

See 'What is a Growth Mindset?' for more on this.

Recognise their own Fixed Mindset Thoughts:

Get the children to write down any fixed mindset thoughts they have had in the recent past. This may be difficult, but good questioning will help the children open up. Once they have a list of these thoughts, see if the children can counter them by turning them into growth mindset reflections.

I am terrible at this. → I am terrible at this, at the moment.

Note - Don’t undermine the activity by changing the feeling itself. See how we have still used the word, ‘terrible’.

This is a good starting point - just being aware of the difference in mindsets can unlock many student’s potential and empower them to see learning as a positive path, rather than an impossible mountain. Much of the responsibility, however, lies with tutors, teachers and parents, who can take steps to ensure their children develop a more positive relationship with their own abilities.

Avoid ‘Ability Praise’

In a now famous experiment, Dweck and her colleagues took 128 children and split them into two groups to sit an IQ test. Upon completing the test, one group were told, ‘Wow! You did really well! You must be very clever.’ The other group were told, ‘Wow! You did really well! You must have worked very hard.’

The two groups were then asked if they wished to take a more challenging test. 90% of the children praised for their hard work wanted to sit the more difficult test, whereas the children who had been praised as intelligent were reluctant to take the test at all.

Is this any surprise? For those who had been classified as intelligent, taking another test constituted the potential to fail. If they did poorly on that test, their status as ‘smart’ would be under threat, so why would they bother? Conversely, for those who worked hard, the test was an opportunity to advance themselves further, as hard work had been aligned with doing well. The opportunity lay in their effort, not in their innate ability.

More surprisingly, even, was that when sitting the second test, those who had been praised for their hard work performed significantly better than the group praised as being clever.

Why was this the case? Well, Dweck believes that those children who were praised as being hardworking, understood that they could improve their scores by working hard, whereas the students who were praised for being smart, thought they would do well without putting any effort in.

What other ramifications does ability praise have? Well, if children believe that success is equivalent to being intelligent in this field, what does failure constitute? If we continually tell children they are good when they do well, we are inferredly confirming that when they fail, they are bad at something. Whilst we believe knowing your strengths and weaknesses is a good thing, this must be accompanied by an understanding that these abilities are transient.

Reflecting on a very high-achieving child who had always been told that he was intelligent, a parent in a New York Times article, stated of their child:

“Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t."

Is this a division that we want to foster for our children: of things they can and cannot do? Yet it is one that ability praise engenders and something nearly every parent, teacher and tutor is guilty of, ourselves included.

Returning to Dweck’s experiment, the children were finally asked to write a letter to their peers, telling them how they felt about the tests and informing the recipient of their test scores. 40% of those praised for their intelligence on the initial test (the fixed mindset group) lied about their test scores.

Dweck concluded:

“In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful, especially if you’re talented, so they lied them away. What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.”

We would argue that the most alarming aspect is the rejection of learning and this is applicable to every age group. The same experiment was conducted with four year old children, who were asked to complete a jigsaw puzzle. Again, split into two groups, half were praised as intelligent upon completion, the other as hardworking. When given the option of redoing the same jigsaw or moving on to a tougher puzzle, those who were deemed hardworking were bemused at why you would want to do the same puzzle again - how could you improve yourself doing this? Whereas the children who had been encouraged to develop a fixed-mindset broadly chose the easy option, to prove themselves a success once more.

Seeing intelligence as fixed, focuses us all on the importance of each point in time, ignoring the true goal of improvement. A group of Columbia University students were asked by Dweck and her team to answer questions and receive feedback whilst their brain patterns were studied. The research found that, unlike those who had tested positive for a growth mindset, fixed mindset respondents were even unable able to focus on answers to questions they already knew they had got wrong. So strong was the importance of success and failure, once told they were incorrect, the right answer was no longer important to them, only the fact that they had failed.

We hope you share with us in seeing how vital developing a growth mindset in your pupils and children is. Being, as one commentator writes, stuck ‘in the binary trap of success and failure’ turns the steady incline of improvement into a series of troughs of self-assessment. Having a growth mindset is vital to opening children’s minds to their own abilities.

As Dweck herself writes:

‘Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations - they see themselves as learning.’

Seeking affirmation of intelligence is not the same as seeking accumulation of abilities. If teacher, tutors and parents can recognise the difference and praise according to effort, not ability, our children will be far more engaged learners and continue to accumulate.

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