Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

The Myths and Facts Teachers Need to Know About Growth Mindset

How to create a culture of growth in schools
By Mary Murphy — October 19, 2022 4 min read
What do teachers need to know about growth mindset?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

What do teachers need to know about growth mindset?

Teachers are such an important influence when it comes to helping kids develop a growth mindset. I answered questions about this topic in a Tip of the Week for Character Lab:

Lots of people have heard the term “growth mindset.” What is it, and why is it so important?

Growth mindset is the belief that intelligence and other abilities are malleable and that we can improve them—through effort, seeking help, and trying new strategies. That’s distinguished from a fixed mindset, believing that you either have it or you don’t, that you’re a math person or an artsy person—or you’re not.

Where have you seen fixed and growth mindsets in your life? What have you learned from that?

When I started graduate school, I noticed the professors were really different. In one seminar, they focused on tearing down students’ presentations and ideas. Who was the smartest in the room? How could they find the fatal flaw, and who could find that the quickest?

The students were really influenced by this fixed-mindset idea, what I call a Culture of Genius. They wouldn’t be able to remember core aspects of their work or answer questions. They basically choked.

And then, there were other seminars where the faculty were still tough on students, but it was more from a culture of we’re going to help you learn how to make this presentation better. We’re going to identify the flaws and the mistakes so that we can improve it.

Students responded differently in this Culture of Growth, and they were motivated at the end of their presentations to go and make them better.

Is that what led you to study mindsets and cultural environments?

Yes. Also, I am Latina, and as a bicultural person, I’ve felt that different settings can call forth different parts of our identities. We can really feel our gender or racial or ethnic identity in some contexts, compared with others, because it seems more important.

We might be the only one of our kind in a place, so we feel as though we stand out more. And we don’t feel it as much in other contexts, like when we’re at home with our families, where we all belong to the same groups. Context influences our thoughts, our emotions, our motivation, our performance, and even the way that we interact with people.

What’s the most important thing teachers and parents should know about growth mindset?

The way we even subtly react to a kid’s mistakes and their performance can send messages beyond what we say.

There was a really beautiful study done by [psychologists] Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck in which parents brought their kids into a research lab, reported their own mindset beliefs, and then their kids were asked to try to solve unsolvable problems. And parents either helped them problem solve and shift strategies—“Try something new.” “Have you thought about this?” Or they just winced every time kids made a mistake. They made this “ick” face and were like, “Nope, that wasn’t it. Try again.”

What predicted kids’ responses were these more subtle behaviors and how they interacted with their kids as they were struggling—the winces, the anxiety that parents showed as children were struggling—not what parents believed in their heads.

How do we counteract these winces, then? What can we do instead?

Show examples of people who have done really well but for whom success didn’t come easily or quickly—the kinds of mistakes that they made, the teachers and mentors and family members who helped support them. It communicates the belief that struggle and mistakes are just normal opportunities for learning.

Also, I love the practice of My Favorite Mistake. At the dinner table, rather than say, “What did you do today?” ask “What was your favorite mistake today?” In the classroom, teachers can put their favorite mistake on the board when they hand back homework: “This was my favorite mistake that I saw people make.” That shifts the conversation so that making mistakes isn’t shameful. You celebrate them, learn from them, and talk about how to approach the problem the next time.

What are some myths about growth mindset we should be careful of?

One myth is what psychologists call a false growth mindset, which is misinterpreting it to be about sheer effort—that if you just try hard enough, you’re bound to improve. But if you do the same thing the same way a million times and don’t get better, you’ll think, maybe this isn’t for me.

A true growth mindset recognizes that there are many ways you can improve and develop. You can ask for help. You can try a different tactic. You can take a break and come back to it.

Another myth is easier to explain with a visual. If you look up “growth mindset” in Google images, you’ll see lots of examples with two heads. One is usually red—that’s the fixed mindset, filled with all the bad things associated with a fixed mindset. The other one’s green, with all the good things associated with a growth mindset.

This is problematic because it suggests that you either have one or the other when, in fact, mindset is a continuum. We all have the fixed and growth mindsets within us. And there are different situations that bring out each of them.

Some of us are triggered by critical feedback—say, when your kid comes home with a D on a test, you know they’re going to be in their fixed mindset. They’re going to be like, “I can’t do it.” Some of us are triggered into our fixed mindset by the success of others, where we feel like, “Oh, I could never do what she’s doing.”

When we create Cultures of Growth, we create norms in which we celebrate other people’s successes and learn from what they did so that we can be successful in our own right.

There are so many stereotypes about intelligence and ability, who has it and who doesn’t. There are many fewer about who can improve and develop.

Related Tags:

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.


School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Cellphone Headaches in Middle Schools: Why Policies Aren't Enough
Middle schoolers' developmental stage makes them uniquely vulnerable to the negative aspects of cellphones. Policies alone won't help.
6 min read
A student holds a cell phone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
A student holds a cellphone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Student Well-Being Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
Student Well-Being Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Download How to Spot and Combat Student Apathy: A Teacher Resource
A guide to help teachers recognize and address apathy in the classroom.
1 min read
Student reading at a desk with their head on their hand.