When people think about the factors that influence student achievement, a lot of things come to mind. These include a student’s socioeconomic status, the education level of the student’s parents, the student’s motivation, his or her attitude toward school, and of course, the student’s cognitive abilities. One factor that has recently become a matter of intense research and is beginning to become a major focus of educators across the world is popularly called “mindset” and was first popularized by the publication of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006) by the major researcher in the field, renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck’s research has shown that your students’ mindsets are one of the most important factors impacting their achievement. As such, this is one factor that master teachers don’t leave to chance.
First of all, for those of you who aren’t very familiar with the mindsets research conducted by Dweck and others, here’s a quick recap of the main findings. In her research, Dweck identified two basic “mindsets” that impact virtually everything we do (and not just in school). These two mindsets are (1) the fixed mindset and (2) the growth mindset.
People who have a fixed mindset hold a deep-seating belief that one’s qualities–cognitive ability and personality traits both–are carved in stone and are thus virtually unchangeable. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset have a deep-seated belief that the hand you’re dealt by genetics and your life situation is only a starting point and that your qualities are things you can cultivate through effort.
Why is this important for educators? Well, let’s say you have a student who has a fixed mindset and let’s further say that he has been praised throughout his life for his intelligence. Such a student becomes invested in this persona of himself as “smart.” Now, let’s say you assign a challenging class project, and the student’s work is not top-notch. Let’s say he scores a C or even a B. What will be his response?
Well, since in his mind, “smart” people make A’s, this occurrence creates some real cognitive dissonance. In such cases, a student with a fixed mindset often falls back on excuses. He might blame the assignment or teacher, saying the assignment was “dumb.” Or he may feign nonchalance and tell anyone who will listen that he just didn’t try. After all, if he really did try and he did not receive an A, that might call into question how smart he is. Rather than change his view of himself (his mindset), he looks for an excuse. Does this sound familiar? Sure! We’ve all had such students and heard such excuses. But, if a teacher is not aware of how these excuses are arising from the student’s fixed mindset, she will not be in a position to attack the problem at its source.
Even more damaging is the effect of such events when repeated over time. The student with a fixed mindset, when faced with repeated failure, will often generalize his excuses even more. Instead of one assignment being “dumb,” now the whole class, or even the whole subject matter field becomes “dumb.” Or he takes it out on a teacher. Instead of the teacher giving one “dumb” assignment, this often grows into “that teacher has it in for me.” Or even worse, the student may keep a fixed mindset but begin to believe that he is not smart, or at least not smart in certain subjects.
Now, let’s look at a student who has a growth mindset who finds herself in the same situation. She receives the challenging assignment, tries her best, and receives the same unsatisfactory score as the student with the fixed mindset discussed above. How does she react? Much differently! Rather than make excuses, she is much more likely to look at the event as feedback telling her that she needs to spend more time on such assignments, or work harder, or ask for feedback on her work prior to turning in the final project. In other words, since she sees herself as the kind of person who can change and get better (a growth mindset), she looks at the assignment as a growth opportunity.
We’ve all had these students before, too. And generally, they are a joy to have in class. They tend to enjoy challenges more, be more open to taking creative approaches to assignments, and they tend to grow over the course of time as students. What teacher wouldn’t like to have a whole classroom full of such students?
Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that every class is a mixed bag of students with fixed and growth mindsets, and if we want the best for all of our students, we have the obligation to help those students with fixed mindsets to change. And the good news is that change is possible. As Dweck has written, “You have a choice. Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.” (16)
But let’s not pretend that such change is easy. Earlier when I said that mindsets were “deep-seated,” I meant that most people are completely unaware that they hold a certain set of beliefs. These beliefs are usually implicit unless someone else calls the person’s attention to the fact. And in the case of students whose fixed mindsets are causing them to stagnate in their learning, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to be the one who makes the student’s mindset explicit and teaches the student a new way to think about him- or herself.
Approaches for Changing Fixed Mindsets
So, what can we do to help students with fixed mindsets to change? Let me start by making two disclaimers:
(1) there’s no room in this short article to cover all of the possible approaches you might take with a student, so I am just going to offer a few steps that you can do globally in your classroom to (hopefully) positively affect all of your fixed mindset students; and
(2) not all fixed mindsets are alike. When confronted with evidence of their limiting mindset, some students will be in denial. Others truly are cognitively gifted, and so they tend to breeze by in most classes without much effort. These students will be in for a rude awakening when more challenging work comes along (this may not happen until college) if they don’t adjust their mindset now. Another group of fixed mindset students is just the opposite of the just-skate-by group. These students are the workaholics who knock themselves out studying because they fear that they might not always come out on top. Such students aren’t learning for the joy of learning, they’re working for the grade–and they are likely candidates for burn-out if they don’t adjust their mindsets.
I suggest you read Dweck’s book for more how-to advice (beyond what I give below) for working with individual students who are resistant to change. And now, with those caveats in place, here are three suggestions to get you started adjusting the mindsets of those fixed-mindset students in your classes.
1. Watch Your Language
The first thing a teacher can do globally is to become more aware of and, if necessary, change, his or her language when talking to students. For example, one of the worst things teachers can do is to praise students for being “smart.” Calling students smart, or any synonym for smart, puts the emphasis on intelligence as a fixed quantity. When students do good work and you call them smart as a result, what happens when the same student doesn’t do good work? Is he now “not smart”?
The better approach is to use our language with students to focus on the problem-solving strategies they used to come up with the answer, or on the effort they put in to achieve the result. Saying things like, “That was a great strategy you used there” or “Great work! You really must have put in the effort on this paper” go a long way toward focusing students on things they can control.
2. Value and Reward Creativity
One of the biggest handicaps of the fixed mindset arises out of the need to be proven right or smart all the time. As a result, many fixed mindset students “play it safe” by trying to figure out exactly what the teacher wants and what he will reward with the coveted A. You can tell these students because they are the ones who are always asking you to explain in excruciating detail exactly what you want to be done on any assignment.
Students with a growth mindset, on the other hand, won’t nag you about exactly what you want. If they nag you about anything, they will nag you to open up the assignment a bit. They will ask you for more leeway to do something fun or creative.
If your goal is to move the fixed mindset students toward more of a focus on growth, one of the best things you can do is to offer more open-ended assignments or assignments with multiple options. Your growth mindset students will love it, and they will knock your socks off with their creative approaches. Many of them may have been waiting for just such an opportunity to spread their wings and try to do some things their own way.
On the other hand, the more you open assignments up, the more resistance you can expect from your hard-core fixed mindset students. You can explain to them that stretching themselves and taking hold of the opportunity to grow by expressing their creativity is good for them, but you can expect complaining and foot-dragging, anyway. In such situations, they are less sure about “what the teacher wants,” so they become anxious.
That leads to another point. If you do, indeed, make your assignments more open-ended or offer multiple options on assignments, you have to be willing to follow through and give students credit for creativity. Sometimes the more creative approaches may lead to work that may not be technical as sound as more traditional work, and in such a case you must make sure that points lost due to lack of technical merit are made up for by points awarded for creativity. This shows the fixed mindset of students that going out on a limb to stretch themselves will not backfire.
3. De-Value Grades and Value Reflection
Now, I know I’m getting into difficult territory here, but this must be said. One of the major contributors to the fixed mindset is the traditional grading system. When so much value is placed on a score, it is easy for the score to become the goal rather than the learning and growth you want your students to achieve as a result of their time with you.
So, if grades as traditionally done are one of the biggest sources of the problem, we need to do what we can to find a better system. Now, I know that many of you are locked into the traditional grading system and are not allowed to get too creative with it. However, if you are really going to establish a growth mindset for the students in your classroom, you need to do all you can to make growth the focus of your marking system. Here are a few ideas:
- Use a portfolio system and accumulate student work over the course of the school year. As each grading period approaches, go through the portfolios and look at improvement (or lack of same) over time. Make growth part of your scoring rubric for the overall grade for the marking period.
- Build reflection and goal-setting into your regular classroom procedure. The test or paper or project should NEVER be the last thing in a unit of study. The last thing should ALWAYS be to have students reflect on what they have learned (or not) and on the quality of the work they have done during the unit and set goals for improvement in the next unit.
- As much as possible, give initial grades on assignments like papers and projects, but leave the grade “in pencil” in your grading system for as long as possible. Treat the initial grade on the assignment as provisional, give students feedback, and allow them to circle back to previous projects when they have time to rework them in light of your feedback. Of course, there will always be a “drop-dead deadline” for all assignments to be done before the end of a grading period, but allow students to rework such assignments for an improved grade right up until that drop-dead deadline.
Such practices as these all send the message that what you really value in your class is that students do the best work they can, that they continue to work on improving their work overtime, and that they become reflective about their growth in the subject area. Installing such grading procedures in your classroom shows that you aren’t just paying lip service to such growth goals; you are actually rewarding growth behavior.
Focus on establishing such approaches early in the school year, especially the grading policies. This will allow you to really start looking at individual students in terms of mindset and having those one-on-one discussions with them about the impact of mindset and how they might go about making changes that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
Good luck, and happy teaching!