Carol Dweck on Nurturing Students’ Growth Mindsets Through Protest and Pandemic

By Arianna Prothero — September 15, 2020 3 min read
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A growth mindset—the belief that intelligence can be developed, which in turn boosts academic achievement—has revolutionized teaching for many educators.

With the pandemic warping the school year and ongoing protests over issues of racial justice and police violence, how can this idea be applied to the challenges schools and students are facing today?

Growth mindsets are an important tool for battling racial bias in the classroom, said Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychology professor who developed the concept. Her theory maintains that students who believe that intelligence is fluid and can be shaped through learning tend to have higher academic achievement than those who believe intelligence is essentially fixed at birth—that they just aren’t as “smart” as their peers.

Teachers’ Role in Mindset

But the onus shouldn’t be put solely on students to flip their mindset from fixed to growth.

Teachers must also hold a growth mindset in regard to their students’ abilities and create a culture within their classrooms where stereotypes are left at the door and every student is seen as having enormous potential to learn and contribute to the classroom and society, said Dweck in a live discussion this week hosted by educator, author, and Education Week opinion blogger Peter DeWitt.

Ongoing research, said Dweck, is showing that training teachers to examine their own fixed mindsets can affect equity: Students from all racial backgrounds, whose teachers have been trained in developing their own growth mindsets, report feeling more included in their classes.

Developing a growth mindset in students—and raising their academic achievement—depends on having a teacher who sees their abilities as malleable.

“It’s not that you give kids a growth mindset and then turn them loose,” said Dweck. “We have to create cultures that support them in using the growth mindset for growth of competence.”

Additional research of college students in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields found that Black, Latino, and Native American students earned significantly higher grades when their professors had a growth mindset regarding students’ abilities. Professors with fixed mindsets about their students’ potential saw larger gaps in grades between their white and Asian students and those who are Black, Latino, and Native American.

“It’s especially important not to use false growth mindset practices that put the onus on the student,” said Dweck.

Saying things like “just try hard,” or “you can do anything,” ignores the realities of the world, she said.

Tackling social justice issues is not just a hobby for many students—it’s also an important part of helping them thrive, said Dweck. She has found through her research that students, in particular teenagers, are deeply concerned with issues such as equality and climate change.

“Let’s show them how much we need them to do that and how much we depend on them and how we’ll support in getting them there. They want respect, autonomy, and responsibility,” she said. “Again, maybe our most important role is getting them ready to take on the mantle of rebuilding the world, not as it was but rebuilding it as something better.”

Parents and Mindset Thinking

With so many students learning from home full-time and part-time this year, it’s important for parents to also have growth mindsets.

“Parents can understand what kids are going through, understand how hard it is to stay engaged. Put the focus on the learning and improvement,” said Dweck. “This, I feel, is so important: Get the kids to understand that there is a world out there that desperately needs their contributions in the future. Looking around, we can get depressed ... but we should also be determined and let our young people know what a crucial role they have to play in rebuilding this world.”

Parents have an important role in helping their children stay in the learning game, said Dweck.

While the pandemic has created many challenges for educators, Dweck said there have been some positive outcomes. For example, she has heard from several teachers that students who normally never sought extra help in class are eagerly taking advantage of virtual office hours.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.