Professional Development Opinion

Developing a Growth Mindset in Our Students

By Starr Sackstein — May 06, 2019 3 min read
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“You’re so smart! You’ve got this.”

“You’re so talented.”

“You’re such a good writer.”

“You are NOT a math student.”

Often the messages students hear from families and teachers praise or criticize their innate abilities, and so they grow to believe they are one way or another, developing into a fixed mindset.

For example, if a student hears over and over that they are gifted in math, they will be inclined to think so. Then when they encounter a struggle at any level, they may judge themselves and/or give up easily believing that math is supposed to be easy for them.

Or on the converse side, the student doesn’t experience much success in a subject and therefore feels that math just isn’t for them.

My son was always a strong math student. In fact, school came very easily to him during his elementary years. Teachers spoke of him as gifted, and he is. But with that designation came complications I didn’t expect.

Being defined by these labels, he didn’t feel like he had to try hard, and if he did and wasn’t successful, he blamed everyone else.

I’ve seen other students like this, too, who by the time they get to be seniors in high school don’t even bother trying anymore because they are somehow above the possible struggle.

If we want students to develop a growth mindset, how we talk to them about their learning matters. How we demonstrate our own learning process matters, too.

So here are some ways we can help students develop a growth mindset:

  • Make all learning about the process. We can do this by not grading work and not building competition into learning. Students need to learn the intrinsic satisfaction of growing throughout the process, which comes with growing pains. Learning will not always be easy, and students need to know that the challenge is a positive sign of stretching, not a mechanism for giving up.
  • De-emphasize fear in making mistakes by being transparent about mistakes you make. If we can make mistakes in front of our teams and/or our students, they will see that mistakes are a positive and necessary part of the experience. We can’t be afraid to admit our foibles; instead, we should spin it to focus on the growth from the mistake. We grow more when we mess up than when we repeatedly succeed.
  • Promote positive risk-taking. If we aren’t afraid to make mistakes, we are more likely to take calculated risks. These steps allow us to push forward and innovate. Being a positive deviant, a person who breaks the rules to do the right thing, promotes a belief that we are responsible for the greater good. This is our highest calling, and sometimes that requires us to make hard decisions and take big risks.
  • Help students work through dangerous beliefs in perfectionism. Perfectionism is a disease. Living with it has been a lifelong battle of acceptance and challenge. My own harsh criticisms and expectations of myself have robbed me of my ability to truly enjoy situations in my life. The students and teachers we interact with should be encouraged to love everything about themselves, especially their imperfections. This is what makes us human.
  • Consider carefully the words you use when providing feedback to students. How we speak to students promotes an unconscious agenda, and words matter. Try to validate their learning and growth without making it about your acceptance. We want students to know that our feedback is there to promote their learning and positive understanding of their own learning process.
  • Talk to students about the concept of “yet.” Too often students feel stupid if they are unable to obtain proficiency or mastery of a concept or skill within the arbitrary timeline we’ve created for them. It is our responsibility to help them know that just because they haven’t been able to achieve something yet, that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t achieve their goals with more practice and time.

As we continue to build the leaders of the future, we must ensure their own belief in their abilities. This is the only way we can ensure their successful futures and ours.

How can we nurture growth mindsets in all of the people we work with? Please share

*Picture was made with pablo.com

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