What Is the Growth Mindset and Does It Make a Difference in the Classroom?

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The Growth Mindset began making waves in the world of education and psychology in the 1970s. Since then, it’s taken schools by storm. The growth mindset or “effort effect” is an approach that turns the notion of “natural talent” on its head. But what is it? And is it actually effective?

A huge number of American researchers and educators support the growth mindset, each claiming academic success is made possible by this one secret: the right mindset. But despite this, British research shows mixed results and there is a lack of clarity surrounding the importance of the growth mindset in UK schools. So what exactly is the growth mindset, and should it be used in schools?

What Is the Growth Mindset?

The growth mindset is a theory — one of the most famous in modern psychology — that says how a child approaches learning can have a significant impact on their ability to understand materials, learn valuable lessons and solve real-world problems in the future.

Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, pioneered the growth mindset in the 1970s. The theory came about when Dweck and her colleagues examined their students’ learning behaviours and attitudes towards failure. 

Dweck theorised that some students had a “fixed mindset”, meaning they believed their intelligence, ability or talent was fixed and unchangeable. These students were quicker to give up when they came across a challenge and held themselves back from developing their academic abilities. 

Other students had what Dweck called a “growth mindset” — they believed their intelligence and abilities were a direct result of the effort they put into growing and developing their skills. Those with a growth mindset tend to strive for more ambitious goals, put more effort into their studies, and ultimately, they have higher performance levels. 

The science behind the growth mindset is to do with the neurons in the brain — every time students learn or consolidate knowledge, neurons in the brain form new or stronger connections. 

Why Should Teachers Adopt the Growth Mindset in Their Classrooms?

The fixed mindset can be extremely damaging to children’s academic progress. If they struggle with a subject, such as maths, they may believe they are inherently “bad at maths”. This attitude affects not only their confidence but also their ability to enjoy learning. For this reason, teaching the growth mindset should be an important priority for all schools. 

Teaching the growth mindset early on helps prevent the development of a clear-cut weak/able mindset, which can be especially damaging as children learn new concepts. By encouraging a growth mindset, children are more likely to be motivated to learn — they may put more effort into their studies, and aim for better results. 

Is It Possible to Shift Children’s Mindsets? 

Older children, teenagers and adults will have already developed a fixed or growth mindset, but that doesn’t mean their mindset can’t shift. While it’s easier to encourage younger children to adopt a growth mindset, it’s never too late for people to discover new habits and beliefs — children and adults can learn to swap out their fixed mindset.

Dweck worked with many students who had already learnt a fixed mindset, but she helped them to recondition their mindsets by encouraging the group to keep trying, even when they struggled or failed. In doing so, she helped students shed their fixed mindsets and adopt a more positive growth mindset. This difference was crucial; instead of students thinking their mistakes were due to a lack of ability or intelligence, Dweck taught them to put mistakes down to a lack of effort. And by teaching students they had control over their intelligence and academic success, Dweck helped those students to improve their grades and study habits. The results were staggering; in just two months, the children who learnt to develop a growth mindset outperformed those with a fixed mindset.

Is the Growth Mindset Effective in Schools?

Since Dweck published her study in 1975, additional research has proven the positive impact of a growth mindset. Children taught that a positive attitude towards learning, and a determination to succeed even in the face of failure, are much more engaged and confident. So many schools around the world and in the UK now teach children intelligence is a result of effort, not an innate ability. 

But research conducted only recently has raised questions about its effectiveness in UK schools. So why — when there are so many clear benefits to the growth mindset — are there doubts about its effectiveness in schools?

Outside of the classroom, social psychologists have questioned Dweck’s methods and findings, claiming them to be inaccurate. However, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) studied the effects of growth mindset workshops on primary children studying for their SATs and found the workshops had a positive impact on performance. Despite the positive results, though, the findings were dismissed as statistically insignificant. 

Dweck herself has cast concern over “misuse” of her theory, with teachers and parents mislabelling the growth mindset for very different beliefs and practices. In some instances, people are completely misinterpreting what the mindset actually is and how to cultivate it in children. Dweck explained the growth mindset isn’t just about telling people to try hard — it’s about encouraging people to put in the effort to fuel their own growth. It’s about motivating people to take control of their learning and gain a deeper understanding of topics. One example of growth mindset misuse is when teachers or parents praise effort that isn’t effective, rather than working with the child to explore more effective ways of learning. 

The key takeaway is that the growth mindset can be hugely beneficial in schools, but first, it needs to be taught properly. Misuse of the mindset is hindering effectiveness and preventing children from reaping the benefits of the effort effect. So schools wanting to teach the mindset and enhance children’s learning experiences need to ensure they fully understand the theory. 

Teaching the Growth Mindset

Teaching the growth mindset can help your pupils reach their full potential. But how can you go about teaching the growth mindset, without misusing the theory?

Use a Variety of Teaching Tactics

Using different teaching strategies and a variety of educational resources, you will expose children in your class to different styles of learning. This choice can help students identify ways of learning that they enjoy and so they may then be more motivated to put time and effort into classroom lessons and at-home learning.  

By tackling topics from all angles, using different contexts and materials to explain and demonstrate lessons, children are also more likely to gain a deeper understanding of subjects. 

Praise Effort over Intelligence

To encourage the right mindset, we need to step away from praising “natural aptitude” over hard work and effort. The growth mindset theory rests on the belief that any child, regardless of ability, can excel at school. Praising a child for putting in effort or working hard is much more encouraging than praising them for being “so clever”. While it’s important children receive recognition for their achievements, focusing on qualities such as intelligence can actually do more harm — as children themselves start to value talent over effort.

Avoid Praising Ineffective Effort 

If a child puts in a great deal of effort but doesn’t achieve good results, try to avoid just praising their effort. Telling a student they “did their best” or “just keep trying” can make them and their learning efforts feel incompetent. It may push them back towards a fixed mindset and the belief they’re just not good at a subject. 

Instead, try giving feedback that will help them alter their learning style. Offering constructive feedback can help a child discover more effective ways of learning, and in the long run, will help them achieve better results. 

See Mistakes as Learning Opportunities

It’s so easy and tempting to gloss over failure in the classroom. With the growth mindset, it might seem counterintuitive to focus on mistakes when we’re looking to encourage children to be positive. But making mistakes is a vital part of the learning process. 

In Dweck’s theory, failure is seen as a learning opportunity. This principle becomes much easier to apply when we identify what methods we’re using to teach in the classroom. The emphasis rests on helping children improve their strategy and working answers out, rather than simply telling students they “got the answer wrong”.

It All Starts with You — the Teacher

As a teacher, you’re in an incredible position to instil in children that effort and hard work is much more important — and leads to better success — than so-called talent. It’s crucial to give your pupils regular feedback and intervene, if necessary, to ensure they’re on the right path.

Make Use of Growth Mindset Displays and Posters

Growth mindset displays and posters act as small, but important encouragement for children. Given that children will often spend hours a day — if not their entire school day — in the same classroom, visual aids in the room can help challenge a fixed mindset. Consider using posters that offer a growth alternative to a fixed belief. Instead of children saying: “I am bad at maths”, they should be saying: “How can I improve?” or “I can learn this!” Not only can these posters work on a subconscious level, but teachers can refer to them if a child is displaying signs of being stuck in a fixed mindset.

Join Master the Curriculum and Develop a Growth Mindset in Your Classroom

Despite some resistance to Dweck’s theory, in our experience, the evidence is clear. The correct approach, support and encouragement can help every child excel in school.

At Master the Curriculum, we’ve seen the power of this approach — especially when it comes to teaching maths. We’ve worked with thousands of pupils and teachers to instil a passion for maths using the growth mindset. Maths as a subject was always tarnished with the idea that children either have a “natural talent” for it — or don’t. This idea is incredibly damaging, and teachers are in the prime position to stamp out this negative belief early on. We offer a variety of learning resources that can help you teach children the growth mindset. 

Ready to action the growth mindset in your school? Fostering a growth mindset gives children the tools they need to succeed not only in school but in life — and it all starts in our classrooms. Become a member of Master the Curriculum and gain access to free learning resources that can help you teach the growth mindset.

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