Teaching Growth Mindset in the 21st Century Classroom

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The term growth mindset is on fire in educational circles today. But how does one go about teaching growth mindset?

What does growth mindset actually mean?

The true definition of a growth mindset has been investigated for decades. With the original intent of researching how individuals responded to failure in mind, Dr. Carol Dweck was able to determine that there are two different mindsets, a fixed mindset, and a growth mindset. Each one of them directly influences how someone responds to failure and what his or her position will be moving forward.

A fixed mindset believes the mantra, “you get what you get and you don’t get upset”. Only those with a fixed mindset often are unable to cope with even small negative events in their lives and don’t see a way to grow from the experience.

A growth mindset would be more apt to adopt the mantra, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Those who have a growth mindset, have more of a mentality to put in the work and whatever situation is handed to them can be an opportunity for reflection and growth, and thus more success.

This then begs to ask the question of whether or not you can train a person to have a different mindset.

It is clear that having a growth mindset is more beneficial to all parties involved. Setbacks happen in life and having the proper mindset to move forward from those setbacks, seeing them as opportunities for growth, will make all the difference in future success.

Teaching Growth Mindset to Students

The first way to address this change in mindset is to discuss the elephant in the room of almost every classroom:

It’s okay to fail.

Every time I have ever said that to a student, the looks of shock I was met with always made me chuckle.

The main reason is that the idea of what failure looks like varies.

By teaching your students it is okay to fail does not mean you are condoning failure. Poor preparation and a lachrymose attitude towards responsibility do not equate to being “okay”.

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However, taking a risk and it not going as planned? Totally fine if you can learn from it moving forward.

If it means you will be able to do something better in the future because of the discomfort of the present, then it is worth it.

How do we teach that to our students who are often so afraid of failure…or afraid of even trying for fear that they may fail? (Spoiler alert…this is the underlying issue with many of our poor-performing students).

Growth mindset is probably one of the most important things we can teach our students. As teachers, it’s important that we don’t stay static in our thinking. As the profession demands more of us, our students are expected to take on increasing challenges. If we want them to be able to do this successfully, they need a growth mindset.

You’ve probably heard about growth mindset before, but you may not know how to teach it. Here are some activities you can use for teaching growth mindset in your classroom and building a growth mindset culture:

Explore data on student achievement and identify patterns.

It’s important to first identify how students’ past performance predicts their future performance. For example, if we notice that students who score between 70%-80% on quizzes and tests continue to score between 70%-80% on future assessments, then we should be able to conclude that this is their “growth limit,” and they can’t improve much beyond 80%. Once you identify students’ growth limits, your next step would be to explore the reasons why these students are not performing better than what you’ve described. This data will help you identify their mindset.

Teachers can easily monitor the level of effort each student puts into class activities by taking note of students’ level of participation in various tasks, including group work or projects that are scheduled during class time. You may also explore data from outside the classroom using tools such as surveys, self-reflection exercises, exit tickets, etc.

Effort is the biggest predictor of student success. One thing to keep in mind when analyzing students’ performance data is that growth mindset has an enormous impact on their determination and effort. Two similar students, one with a fixed mindset and the other with a growth mindset, can potentially demonstrate very different behaviors during class activities or assignments. For example, a student with a fixed mindset may not be interested in working towards mastery because they may feel as though they don’t have the capability to do well. A student with a growth mindset, on the other hand, will recognize that their performance can improve through practice and effort.

Identify students’ mindset.

As you work with your class, try to get a clear picture of each student’s mindset about learning new material and mastering tasks. Some students may have a fixed mindset. These students might think that they are either born smart or not, good at something or not, etc., and they believe their abilities can’t change very much, if at all. Other students might have a growth mindset and believe that their abilities can be developed through practice and hard work.

Some students might believe that putting effort into a task or subject is a sign of low ability, and therefore they feel like giving up as soon as the going gets tough. Or, some students might need to be taught how to persist when mastering challenging tasks. Still, other students may think that working hard won’t pay off; they might assume that they can always ask someone for help, or that they’ll learn the material eventually in school even if they don’t try to master it now. Every time you observe students who persist with a task, share their strategies with your class (and interview them about their strategies).

Have students keep track of their mindset over time. Students will begin to observe their own mindset about learning over time and keep track of changes they notice. In the process of identifying their mindset and observing any changes they see over time, students may also realize that it’s not just effort that can help them learn new things–they may discover that strategies like planning ahead for difficult tasks, asking for help when they need it, and focusing on their own learning process can make it easier to master new material. Students might also realize that if they want to improve in school, they have to be willing to put in the time and effort.

Identify the challenges students face as they pursue growth.

One of the most important parts of teaching a growth mindset is helping students understand why they sometimes struggle with material or feel discouraged when they don’t immediately succeed in mastering a new task. The role of the teacher is to teach students why certain activities will help them improve their learning abilities and how each student’s effort affects his or her learning. This is where the importance of providing feedback becomes clear.

The teacher can provide feedback to students by reflecting on what he or she has observed about the student’s learning process. The feedback should take into consideration how well each step towards mastery was completed and why that step was important for success.

By first identifying the ways that you have grown, you allow students to emulate your example rather than feeling as if they are starting from scratch. The goal of this reflection is to encourage students to see their potential and the value each member of a class brings.

Teaching Growth Mindset in the 21st Century Classroom

Help students learn from their mistakes and failures.

Use the data you’ve collected to help your students understand how they can make changes in their learning approaches and habits to improve their abilities and performance at tasks. These learning opportunities should also prompt students to reflect on and change the way they respond to difficult tasks, mistakes, and failures.

Students do not learn from mistakes. They learn from the feedback and analysis of their mistakes by a teacher. This is one of many important things that technology can do to improve education in ways that outperform (and outprice) traditional approaches.

This is what happens when education is left to those who choose to make a living from it. It’s as if you went to a doctor and asked him about the medical care he could provide for your dog, and he replied “I don’t treat dogs.” If there were no other doctors around who specialized in canine medicine, you’d be in trouble, wouldn’t you?

This is the situation educators are in. All too often they’re paid to do what they’ve been doing all along because “that’s just how schools operate.” And that leaves us with a system that was developed for factory workers and farmhands 150 years ago. It doesn’t work well for most students now, and it’s not even working very well for those who are hungry to learn.

What does work is the power of technology. Used correctly these tools can help us reach more students with better results at a lower cost than ever before in history. When educators use them they will be able to provide better and more individualized education.

Growth Mindset Through Goal Setting

I have always been big in having my students set goals for themselves. Since my very first year of teaching, I would have the students set a goal for the year that I would tuck away and then give back to them at the end of the term. Some hit their mark, some didn’t, but they were all excited to see what their “younger” selves had said.

This excitement is what helped me to develop my growth mindset through reflection year-long activity.

This activity not only allows students to set goals for themselves but also allows them to check in on their progress as the term moves forward. There’s an opportunity to regroup if their accomplishments have been subpar and also the opportunity to strive for more if they are doing well.

items in teaching growth mindset self-reflection activity

My favorite is working with the grade check contract. I have individual, private meetings with each student in the class, some who receive the grade check contract and others that receive the mid-term goal sheet.

You would be shocked at how many students own the situation when you can speak to them privately in a non-threatening environment. I call the students out at random so there is no sign as to which category they fall into (though they all sit in class and try to figure out what my strategy is!).

The students who fill out the grade check contract really do put a lot of thought into it and let their guard down when discussing the options with you.

grade check contract example

It’s seriously my favorite.

The best part is when it is the end of the term and I fulfill their requests. I usually have them all lined up on my whiteboard ledge before the students walk into class. Their eyes light up if they see their prize.

There is always at least one student who exclaims, “You actually got the stuff for us?!”, which brings itself a whole different level of questions….how many teachers in their lives haven’t followed through with a promise to them that this seems absolutely foreign?

If you want to really help your students set goals, have a solid growth mindset, and also have the ability to track their progress, I would highly suggest this activity. It is great for the students and you as well. You can check it out for your own use here.

Teaching Growth Mindset with the 4 Keys

Cracking the code of the best way of teaching growth mindset isn’t difficult, it just needs to ebb and flow with the students and where they are (physically, mentally, and emotionally). Being flexible is the key to making all of this work. The key is engagement. There are four keys to student engagement that I discuss in my video training challenge that releases twice per year. It is called “Finding Your Student Engagement Formula” and it walks you through those four keys and how to implement them in the classroom.

If you are interested in registering (it’s totally free), visit the Finding Your Student Engagement Formula Challenge registration page and you will be notified the next time the series is available.

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