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Why Teacher Mindsets Matter When It Comes to Racial Inequality

By Ask a Psychologist Contributor — June 24, 2020 3 min read

Today’s guest bloggers are Jamie M. Carroll, the associate project director for the National Mindset Innovation Network, and David Yeager, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. This is the first piece in a series on growth mindset.

How can I support a growth mindset for underrepresented minority students when the system doesn’t treat them like they can all learn?

If you ask most educators, “Do you think every student can learn?,” the answer is a resounding “YES.” But Black and Latinx students don’t always know this. The American education system has often told students of color, directly or indirectly, that they shouldn’t be in the same school as white students, in the same classroom with white students, and in the same college with white students. This de facto segregation has promoted racial and ethnic stereotypes that students of color have lower potential. Students might wonder how much their teachers believe these stereotypes, even in part.

An authentic growth-mindset culture can help. Most teachers know that a growth mindset is the belief that intelligence is not fixed. But this complex idea has sometimes been reduced to a slogan (“just try harder!”) or a single lecture. That is not what we are talking about. Instead, we are talking about growth-mindset cultures, which include consistent words, deeds, and values that directly and unequivocally convey the message that all students can grow their knowledge and skills.

The psychologist Claude Steele argued that if teachers think that intelligence can be developed and grown, then students do not need to be as concerned about confirming the stereotype that members of their group have lower levels of intelligence. The growth-mindset culture robs stereotypes of their power, at least in that classroom. Students can then feel safer to take intellectual risks (asking for help, seeking harder content), and learn more.

In a recent SXSW EDU keynote, psychologist Mary Murphy showed that Black and Latinx students in courses taught by professors with a fixed mindset (the belief that intelligence cannot change) were less engaged, performed worse, and were less interested in pursuing STEM careers than white or Asian students. But when faculty had a growth mindset, these inequities were narrowed by half or more.

This is important in part because it means that white teachers can create equitable, anti-racist classrooms when they commit to authentic growth-mindset cultures. One vivid example comes from Uri Treisman, a mathematician at the University of Texas at Austin who is a MacArthur Fellow and was recently featured in the book The Years That Matter Most by Paul Tough. Triesman teaches a legendary calculus class that leads many students of color to pursue STEM majors.

From day one, Treisman contradicts the stereotype that only some students will have a hard time in calculus. He says things like, “Everybody in this class will struggle,” and “No matter who you are, questions are going to be flying at you that you can’t answer. If you don’t understand that [struggle is a pathway to learning], you’ll think it means, ‘Oh [no], I don’t belong here.” He challenges all of his students through intensely rigorous material but does not ignore differences in their background, confidence, and skills. He gets to know each student’s struggles and fears, then works with them, at all hours, to help them overcome these obstacles. Students who get answers wrong on tests have the chance to earn back points and still end up at the top of the class. And his teaching assistants are often former students who can serve as role models to show that, yes, you can do this.

As a teacher, you can’t just tell your students of color to “have a growth mindset” and ignore the messages they are getting from an unequal world. But you can build your own classroom cultures so that equity is a fact, not an aspiration. You can convey that all students are capable of excellence—and then do anything and everything to help get them there.


The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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