The teacher begins to describe a new task. Students with a growth mindset lean forward, the gears of their thinking beginning to click. If you could take all the neurological activity coursing through their brains in those moments and translate that energy flow into words, it would sound like this: “Hmm, interesting. I have some ideas about this already. I clearly don’t know it all yet, but there are a couple of ways I can get started. I’m not sure how all my work will turn out, but no matter what, I’ll be better off for trying.” Students with a growth mindset have an implicit understanding that effort is the engine of growing smarter.
Students with a fixed mindset hear the teacher initiate a new task and their brains send them very different messages: “Oh no, what if I can’t do this? I’m not as smart as those other kids who seem to know how to do the work even before the teacher finishes with the instructions. I just have to get through this, one way or another, without looking like a fool. Another day, another chance to be a failure.” Students with a fixed mindset have a belief that they are born with a limited (fixed) amount of intelligence, and nothing they do will change that. Even as they learn new things, they believe that nothing changes how their brains work.
The last 30 years of brain science has shown us what educators with growth mindsets have understood all along: intelligence is far more complex than test scores; the human brain is like a muscle that gets stronger and more capable when it is exercised; every child can develop not just skills but a greater capacity to learn. This is important and great news.
Unfortunately, some of the practices of schooling push many vulnerable students into having a fixed mindset. As early as second grade, veteran educator Mark Jacobson found that many of his students had already decided that they were “not smart.” They had begun to hide from him their ideas and confusion—it was safer to nod and agree and “look smart” than risk making an error (see his excellent article, “Afraid of Looking Dumb.” Ed Leadership; September 2013). The focus on report card grading and test scores from an early age inevitably lead those little children to conclude that the numbers next to their names are statements about their intelligence; after all, their teachers and parents make such a fuss over the numbers—the adults seem so impressed by the high numbers next to some children’s names, and so concerned for, and even shamed by, the low number next to other students.
Fortunately, there are two powerful methods that, when practiced and repeated consistently by adults, can actually re-write the internal scripts that fixed mindset students hear in their heads:
- Teach students about their brains. In her ground-breaking book, “Mindset” Carol Dweck found that students who were given basic lessons on how their brains grew throughout life did measurably better academically than students who had only been told that they were “smart,” or who had already decided that they were “not smart.” Our understanding of the brain has challenged any clear definition of “smart”—all of us, especially school-aged children, are getting smarter every time we engage in a task. When teachers consistently say phrases like, “I see a lot of people at work who are getting smarter right now” and “Your brain is going to get a lot of exercise in the next 15 minutes” we focus on what is most in people’s control: their capacity to try. More than the allure of a better grade, the knowledge that our brains just keep growing promotes effort and self-worth.
For elementary and pre-adolescent students, Jim Grant’s “Grit To Go” has simple drawings and stories about how brains grow through effort. For adolescents, reach for “Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices That Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life” by Poliner and Benson, which includes short excerpts on the latest scientific evidence of brain development. For those adults seeking both a concise, easy to comprehend overview of neuro-science and the impact of culture on our brains, there’s nothing better than Zaretta Hammond’s “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.”
- Give growth mindset feedback throughout the day to every child. While an occasional “Good job” makes students feel warm, that praise alone doesn’t tell students what they did well to deserve that recognition, and doesn’t address the specific effort they put into the work. Effort is what we want them to repeat—growth mindset feedback focuses on recognizing, appreciating, analyzing, and coaching students on strategies that sustain their effort. The attached tool offers a number of options for giving such feedback, both for students who are struggling on a task and for those who are moving forward.
These approaches can help students develop autonomy, be risk-takers, and engage deeply in the work. For instance, students may ask you for help getting started or continuing on a task. After you have provided assistance, and before you walk away, make sure the students have an effort plan in mind. The fact that they may be able to parrot back what you said is not always enough; fixed mindset students are likely to nod, as if they understood, and rarely have the gumption to say, “No, I still don’t understand how I am supposed to go about this task.” So we provide them with the script, by saying, “Tell me what your next move will be when I walk away. What experiments do you want to try?” Experiments can be in all subjects: “I’m going experiment using the blocks again to count the perimeter;” “I’ll experiment with three different possible topic sentences and see which might be best;” “I am getting on-line and finding a clearer map of South America.”
When we hear such effort goals from students, we can reinforce their growth mindset by responding, “I hear your options. Your brain is going to get well exercised doing that work. Call me over after you’ve done some of your experiments. I’ll be fascinated by what your brain is figuring out.” Our scripts that recognize effort become their scripts. Our words become woven into the neural pathways of their brains.
Even in the midst of an educational culture that is often highly focused on test scores and grades, we can make a difference in how students think about themselves as learners, as people. When we consistently talk about how brains grow, and highlight and affirm the ways students make effort, we can change the words that students think to themselves, from a fixed mindset of “I’ll be lucky to get this right” into “When I try, I get smarter.”