“I’m just not good at this. I’m stupid.”
How many teachers have heard a student say that before? There is a distinctive difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset in children. Every teacher has no doubt encountered a student with a “fixed mindset.” When a student is in such a state of mind, he believes that his intelligence and talents are “fixed,” or that they cannot be changed. He believes that what he was born with is what he will always have, leaving no opportunity for growth.
A fixed mindset can be dangerous to the student’s potential and self-worth. One of the biggest threats it poses is that the student may start to tell himself that he “just can’t learn it” and will provide a nice, long list of excuses as to why he’s failing—“I’m just not good at math,” or “This is too hard, anyways,” or “I’m tired, I just don’t feel like doing it” (which is what we say to ourselves every day when we walk into the classroom, right?). Deep down, though, he will be convinced that his intelligence doesn’t match up with his peers, and so, feeling inferior, he will shy away from learning.
The fixed mindset monster rears its ugly head the most when the student resigns to just “going through the motions” instead of constantly growing and developing his or her skills. And we, as teachers, know that when a student decides he’s “dumb” or “stupid,” it creates a domino effect and slows down the student’s learning pace. The more he believes that he cannot do it, the further he will fall behind and be in danger of never catching up.
So how do we create a “growth mindset” in the classroom? How do we work towards creating students who are eager to learn and achieve and conquer challenges? A growth mindset is when the student believes he can constantly improve his abilities with a little bit of hard work and a lot of dedication. It’s when the student understands that his intelligence and level of talent is fluid and can always be improved, no matter what. When students come to class with a growth mindset, they are quick learners, absorb material like sponges, and open to all challenges because challenges are an opportunity to prove how hard they’ve been working. It’s every teacher’s dream to have a class full of students with growth mindsets, so how can you accomplish such a feat?
One of the most important things to know is that a growth mindset can be taught. It’s not a genetic trait! Proven time and time again to be effective is intentional and specific praise. For example, if you have a student who is below grade level in math and is missing a lot of basic skills, he may feel “dumb” compared to his classmates. If you notice that the student is working on a math problem, stand by him and show your support. Even if there are a few computation errors, praise the student! Tell him that you can see how hard he is working and how much you appreciate that he’s taking his time. Instead of saying, “Good job! You’re so smart,” try saying, “I really love how hard you’re working on this problem, let’s take a look at it together!” Instead of praising his intelligence, praise his work ethic.
To encourage a growth mindset, it is important that students learn how to set goals for themselves. Make sure they are obtainable goals! If you have the time, meet with each child individually, maybe on a Friday, and talk about something that they did wonderfully during the week. Praise their efforts and let them shine! Then set a simple, reachable goal for next week and conference again. Let the students track their progress and show off what they’ve accomplished. If the student feels a sense of pride for his work, he will want to do something more challenging the next time to prove himself. Let it happen! It’s important to highlight successes rather than failures.
A growth mindset is one of the most important skills that we, as teachers, can hand off to our students. With a little bit of praise and a lot of patience, every student can reach his or her maximum potential!