A Season of Growth Mindset

While upside down in what must have been her hundredth attempt to stand on her hands for more than a few seconds, our first grader said, “You know, my teacher told me that every time we try to learn something, a new pathway grows in our brain.” How appropriate for a season of growth! As an educator, I could not be happier that the students of Room 114 have now become proponents of what scholar Carol Dweck identifies as a growth mindset.

For decades, Dweck and her research teams have explored the associations between an incremental theory of intelligence and behaviors essential to healthy, mastery-focused learning. Those who hold a growth mindset believe that intelligence is malleable and that knowledge and skills can be improved by effort. On the contrary, those who hold an entity theory of intelligence or fixed mindset believe that certain people have intelligence and others do not. Learners who have a growth mindset are more liable to choose challenging tasks, persist on those tasks, and develop skills more readily than those with a fixed mindset. Moreover, learners who hold a growth mindset usually attribute failure to a lack of effort or an incorrect strategy rather than seeing failure as an indictment of their own intelligence.

As Dweck’s work on mindsets has been covered in popular press in recent years, parents and teachers seem to be more aware of the implications of showering praise for ability on children. And yet, far too frequently we fall into old patterns of communication that we now know foster a fixed mindset in our children. “You did so well in that game! You are a natural lacrosse player.” “Wow, that is a great score on your math test. You are so good at math.” With the next stumble in lacrosse or math, those children are more likely to interpret the adversity as a sign that they may not be as good as they thought and are then more likely to give up.

Here is the great news: we can cultivate a growth mindset in our children and our students.

Be explicit. Just as our daughter’s teacher has done, tell your learner that the brain can learn and intelligence can grow. Multiple intervention studies of learners at different developmental stages have explored the effect of explicitly teaching students about an incremental theory of intelligence. Some of the studies simply explained the research supporting the idea that brains are malleable, others taught specific skills for evaluating different strategies. In each case, learners who are taught that the intelligence and skill can grow with practice approach tough challenges more willingly and with greater tenacity. In addition, they are inclined to see failure as a sign that they need to try a new strategy or apply more effort.

Praise wisely. As you work with your learner, notice when she or he is persisting or trying a different approach. Small, appropriate amounts of praise or even attention can reap the most benefits. “Wow, it looks like you really worked hard” or “That is an interesting way to start – tell me what your idea is” or “I like how you tried to solve that two different ways” are examples of growth mindset praise focused on effort or strategy. Effusive praise for skill or intelligence may reinforce a fixed mindset and result in your child attributing failure to being not smart.

Celebrate the Do-over. Thankfully, life offers a lot of opportunities for second chances. If the dishes do not get washed well, they need to be washed again. When I have what my kids have called an “epic carpool fail,” I get another chance the following week to deliver a group of lacrosse players on time. As parents, we can provide our children with do-overs for a variety of situations including chores, arguments, and transition times. Teachers have a unique opportunity to advance a growth mindset through the process of revision. Teachers who do this well set aside time for revision, offer specific comments for improvement while conveying the belief that the student is capable, and then value the revision effort.

I asked our daughter to tell me more about her teacher’s comments about growing new pathways in her brain. She explained, “We were working on the math Challenge of the Month and it was really hard. Our teacher told us we should try answering it in a new way, and every time we try something different, we make a new pathway. Sometimes things are hard at first and you just have to try some new ways until you can do it.” That may be my favorite example of spring growth.

Stephanie Rafanelli was a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

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