The incredible research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues on the power of mindset in learning has become pervasive in education. The concept of growth mindset shows that contrary to popular belief, people aren’t born smart. Instead, we become smart as a result of hard work, productive effort, and feedback.
The idea is quickly gaining traction. In a recent national survey, 97 percent of teachers agreed that all students can and should have a growth mindset, and that same number said fostering a growth mindset is an important part of a teacher’s job. Yet only 50 percent said they have adequate solutions and strategies to shift mindset.
This is why growth mindset is not working in schools—at least, not yet. Shifting mindset requires students to build new skills, specifically to understand and get better at the process of learning.
Currently, we try to foster a growth mindset largely through lessons and supportive language. Students learn that the brain is like a muscle, and it gets stronger the harder we work it. Teachers often use phrases such as: “ You haven’t gotten it...yet.” and “Keep practicing and you’ll get better.”
While these strategies are a good starting point, they don’t attack the gap in skills. Students need to connect their hard work with growth. We can’t just tell them the link is there; they must track it themselves to believe it. They need to learn how to evaluate their own effort, set ambitious, but achievable goals, and come up with alternative learning strategies when they struggle—rather than simply “try harder.”
Not all learning strategies are created equal
A 5th grader named Jonathan illustrates this point perfectly. Every week, his class learned 15 new words and took a vocabulary quiz on Friday. And every week, he failed the quiz. I asked him how he was learning the words. He said that he copied the definitions from the dictionary, just like everyone else. But since English was his second language, he often didn't understand the definitions themselves.
“Ah, ok. This learning strategy isn’t working for you,” I told him. “Let’s come up with another one.” He was incredulous. He figured the problem was with him, not with his learning strategy. His experience validated fixed mindset even further: “I’m working really hard and I’m still not getting it. I guess I’m just not smart enough.” He didn’t have the skills to identify the flaw in the copying-the-dictionary strategy, and he didn’t know how to come up with another way to learn the words.
Today, we often rely on teachers to develop and adjust learning strategies in the classroom. Instead, we should help students do this for themselves. We must teach them evaluation, reflection and self-advocacy skills and give them opportunities to practice and get better. That is what will make them growth-oriented, lifelong learners.
Jonathan and I brainstormed together, and he came up with two new ways to learn his vocabulary: one, by asking peers to explain the definitions in their own words; and two, by finding the words in a sentence to get contextual clues. Once he tries these strategies, he’ll need to reflect on each to see how they are working. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
Practice, practice, practice.
I recently left my district role to figure out a way for students to build and practice these critical mindset skills. I observe students as they set goals, track their own performance, and reflect on their learning strategies. As expected, they aren’t very good at it at first. But with feedback and guidance, they get better. Over time, armed with the necessary skills, I hope they will be able to truly exercise a growth mindset as they pursue their dreams.