With 24 years of classroom teaching experience, Giselle Isbell, Athlos Academies director of Prepared Mind, understands the importance of growth mindset in education. In her early years of teaching, it was a fifth-grade student with a learning disability who first taught Isbell the power of a growth mindset. This student struggled greatly with fluency and comprehension, and school learning was hard, frustrating, and time-consuming for her.
“But she possessed optimism and the perseverance to complete any task,” Isbell said. “She absolutely believed in her effort, and with the right resources, she made huge gains.”
With hard work and a growth mindset, Isbell’s student grew up to complete a master’s degree and find success in a fulfilling professional career.
“I learned from her that with effort, practice, attentiveness, and meta-cognition you can achieve more than you think you are able,” she said. “If we help students discover the value of these habits and attitudes, they will see that productive struggle is part of the learning cycle and not a reason to feel inferior or disengaged.”
What is a Growth Mindset and Why Does It Matter?
Mindsets are established sets of personal beliefs and ways of thinking that influence our behavior and attitude toward ourselves and others. Believing you are either “good at math” or “bad at math” is an example of a mindset.
Carol Dweck, Stanford University professor of psychology and author of the book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” is a leading researcher in the field of achievement and success. Dweck’s research on mindset looks at growth mindset and fixed mindset and the impact of both on achievement and success.
Growth mindset is the belief that one’s intelligence can be grown or developed with persistence, effort, and a focus on learning. Individuals with a growth mindset believe they are capable of learning nearly anything if they work hard and accept failures and challenges as opportunities to grow.
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” Dweck wrote.
Alternatively, fixed mindset is the belief that a person has a predetermined amount of intelligence, skills, or talents.
“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort,” Dweck wrote.
So why is a growth mindset so important in learning?
A Growth Mindset and Student Success
Whether a student has a growth or fixed mindset has a direct impact on how he or she faces academic challenges.
A student with a growth mindset will accept challenges and persevere in order to succeed. This student will face learning and challenges with an “I have not mastered this ‘yet’” attitude.
A child with a fixed mindset may not engage with the process of learning, believing that any challenges they face are due to a lack of natural talent, skill, or intelligence. They will approach learning and challenges with an “I’m not good at this” attitude.
In her book, “Mathematical Mindsets,” Jo Boaler writes, “Yes, we have differences in our brains and cognitive processes, but it is important to recognize that people who accomplish much demonstrate tenacity and discipline. Their learning is a result of their hard work, not simply because of natural talent. Students with a fixed mindset think that if a task is too hard it must mean they do not have the natural talent to succeed. We must help students realize that errors, misconceptions, and questions, if analyzed constructively, help us deepen our knowledge and understanding.”
The Educator’s Role in Growth Mindset
When educators approach teaching and learning with a growth mindset, they enable their students to grow and become deeper learners. Teachers who have a growth mindset believe in the potential of each and every one of their students. They help each student grow as a learner by understanding that with effort and perseverance, all students can succeed.
Isbell pulls an example of the power of growth mindset in teaching from how many educators approach math teaching.
“In math, we traditionally provide students a strategy to solve a problem with no awareness or recognition of their own intuitive strategies for solving the problem,” Isbell said. “When we do this, we unknowingly tell the student, ‘your ideas do not really matter, just do it the way the teacher is telling you how to do it.’”
Approaching math teaching with a growth mindset, Isbell instead encouraged her students to find their own strategies to solve a problem. By beginning each of her math lessons with an open-ended problem, Isbell’s students were given the opportunity to take risks, face the challenges of failure or frustration, and overcome by realizing failure opens doors to new opportunities and deeper learning.
“Yes, some strategies were more efficient than others, but everyone could be successful,” Isbell said. “As teachers, we have to think about what we are asking students to do, and then thoughtfully consider what we can do to help them find an entry point to the task.”
Speaking to Students: The Words We Say and How They Support, or Inhibit, Student Learning
When fostering a growth mindset in students, it’s important that educators acknowledge the process and effort a student is making rather than only acknowledging outcome and achievement. Dweck refers to this as “praising the process.”
Some specific words and phrases that support a fixed mindset include: “You’re so smart”; “Wrong answer”; and “You’re a natural at this.” Some words and phrases that support a growth mindset include: “You haven’t been able to solve this problem yet.”; “Great use of several strategies to solve that problem.”; and “Mistakes help you learn.”
When teachers praise students for intelligence alone, students often respond by not taking chances in their learning, limiting their growth. On the other hand, when students take pride in their effort and hard work over outcomes, they are more willing to make mistakes, accept challenges, and grow as learners.
“As an educator, I asked a lot of questions when students were struggling: ‘What is the challenge? What can you do? How will you solve it? What resources do you need? Who can help you?’ We have to help students develop strategies to help themselves,” Isbell said. “Yes, it takes time and patience to help a student process a situation. Yet, you come to understand that you are not just teaching a content area, you are teaching someone to be a learner and problem solver for life — a Prepared Mind!”