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Four Important Strategies for Applying a Growth Mindset Approach

One of my friends is a family therapist and we often talk about the roles that children are given as they age. When I was growing up, I was often labeled as “sweet” and “shy,” neither of which accurately described me. As a result, I started to think that I might not be someone of substance. It took me some time (and a lot of work) to believe that I had valuable contributions to make to the world around me. Children might not be able to explain fixed mindset and how it affects their development, but we know that academic success in our classes is heightened by students’ awareness that intelligence is not a pre-determined and immovable force. Sure, kids might not be able to do certain things yet, but how we demonstrate our belief in their growing ability through the way we teach is vitally important. How do we carry out instruction with a growth mindset approach? Here are four ways to not only make students aware of what a growth mindset is, but to also ensure that we reinforce the approach through our teaching practice.

Never Give Up

As a writer, I face a lot of rejection. It is so easy to become discouraged, particularly when our own self-talk might be the harshest voice we hear. When we think about kids, they are much more likely to give up if the adults in their lives do not frame persistence as a natural step to achieving a goal. When we teach, the absolute quality of looking at learning in terms of success or failure reinforces a fixed mindset. For that reason, our goals should be framed as a process, not a product. When we share expectations for assignments with students, applying a growth mindset approach goes beyond using the term “not yet” on a rubric. Instead, creating clear steps to success along with a troubleshooting guide reinforces the idea that learning is a journey. For example, suppose students are asked to create a timeline to correlate with a historical event. We can provide a clear list of criteria for success, but we can also give everyone a “what if” guide to getting stuck. If two events on the timeline occurred simultaneously, for instance, we can share a possible solution or two. In other words, our message is that reaching a goal happens in stages, that everyone gets stuck, and that how we work through these challenges and stick with difficulty is more important than the end result.

Use Everything

After all these years in education, I am so lucky to have friends in a variety of teaching specialties to consult when I have questions. The question is, how often do I ask for help, and how often do I try and figure things out alone? How many of us have amazing resources (material or human) at our disposal that we opt not to take advantage of? Being resourceful is a necessity for anyone who wants to actualize a growth mindset. Sometimes, we accidentally give our students the impression that getting help from outside sources is not desirable. For example, we might ask them not to use the internet to look something up, or not to discuss a question with a friend. However, it might be worthwhile to consider letting students use whatever they have at their disposal to learn. When kids have permission to seek out information and assistance, they learn the value of pursuing success not just continuously, but collaboratively. The next time we see a student seek help, giving them validation for their actions will go a long way toward helping them achieve a growth mindset.

Substance, Not Speed

How much does speed matter? In all kinds of competitions, the contestant who completes a challenge before everyone else might not produce the best results. We often think that the quickest person finishes first, but that is a misconception. Instead, prioritizing patience might be a better way to go. Consider students during a test-taking scenario. The ones who finish before others might know the material best, but they might also have given up, or perhaps they are too careless because they just want to get it over with. On the other hand, students who go over their answers, review what they have done, and use all the time provided usually show more success. Why? Because they know, as their speedier peers may not, that each extra minute we give to a task can help to ensure its successful completion. The same holds true in all kinds of situations. If we ask the class a question, the first student to shoot a hand into the air and respond might have the most obvious answer, whereas the student who takes more time to give a more profound response shows more depth of thought. For that reason, a growth mindset approach to teaching involves praising the process of taking our time to get things right.

Learn from Mistakes

I used to bake really ugly cookies. They would look fine before going into the oven, but then they would all go flat as pancakes. After researching the problem, I learned that cookie dough often needs to be chilled so that the butter doesn’t melt too quickly and ruin the cookie’s shape. Since then, my cookies nearly always turn out well. Mistakes are such a godsend. How else are we supposed to learn? Communicating the importance of wrong answers is a vital element of our teaching practice. Aside from the obvious benefits of making students less fearful about their missteps, celebrating errors reinforces the idea that meaningful learning is a journey full of twists and turns. If we grade an assignment and see a mistake pop up over and over again, it is worthwhile to highlight the occurrence in a positive way. For example, if I notice that a lot of my students are confusing “it’s” with “its,” it can become a fun teachable moment if students work in groups to create funny sentences with both. By working together, a lot of academic risk is alleviated in getting something wrong, and we can emphasize how glad we are that we had this time to clear up confusion. By embracing mistakes, students will feel far more confident about a learning pathway that gets a little bumpy.

It can be difficult to translate theory to practice, particularly with very real people and needs who constantly command our attention. While we might understand what growth mindset is and even explain it to our students explicitly, we also need to make sure that our words are borne out through actions. When we validate the process of learning rather than an end point, we help students to understand that learning outcomes happen gradually, and often recursively, as part of a gradual approach to ultimate achievement.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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