Teachers have long battled with how to get their students to become more resilient and improve their mindset.
One popular theory, pioneered by Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, is the idea of growth mindset. Dweck explains that some students believe ability is malleable and can be improved (a growth mindset), while others think it is set in stone, probably decided at birth (a fixed mindset). Evidence suggests that those with a growth mindset seek out feedback on how to get better, persist with work for longer and cope better with change – all attitudes teachers want to develop in their young charges.
How can teachers encourage a growth mindset?
When working with young people, choosing which behaviours to praise can have a profound impact. In one study, children aged one- to three-years-old who were praised for their effort were far more likely to develop a growth mindset five years later (pdf). This is because praising effort provides a template for young children to follow, whereas praising ability doesn’t give them any guide on how to behave next time.
As well as thinking of the feedback you offer your class, there are certain questions you can ask to get them thinking about their own mindset:
- Is the effort today worth the reward tomorrow?
Get students to spend a few minutes writing down how doing well at school can help them achieve future goals. Combine this with teaching them that their ability can be improved, and you have a powerful combination.
This gets students to place more meaning and value on what they are learning, as well as increasing their belief that they can get better. It leads to students putting more effort and attention into their studies.
A recent study into this approach showed a significant improvement in student grades (pdf). Interestingly, it found the students who benefited the most were the ones who were at risk of dropping out of school.
- Do you feel threatened by successful people?
Some students see tests as a chance to explore how much they’ve learned. Others use it as a chance to compare themselves with their classmates. Psychologists have found that constantly comparing yourself with others can have a negative impact on your confidence, motivation, self-management and academic performance.
Instead of feeling threatened by other people’s success, a more healthy approach is to want to learn from them. How do they do what they do? What is their mindset like? Ask students to choose someone they admire – for example Larry Page, chief executive of Google, Michael Jordan or JK Rowling – and encourage them to research their mindset.
This can be a simple weekend project. Ask students to research what obstacles they have had to overcome or their opinion on working hard to maximise their talent. On Monday morning, have your students present their findings in class.
- Do you spend more time questioning the feedback you get or taking action?
Some people spend more time questioning the feedback they are given, instead of responding to it. This is because what they really want is praise so when they get negative feedback they feel personally attacked. But learning how to improve from your mistakes is an important life skill and is central to developing a successful mindset.
This doesn’t mean teachers should adopt a Simon Cowell approach of brutal honesty; however, guiding students towards being comfortable with receiving feedback and giving them the confidence to act on it will serve them well. This is often best done in private, on an individual basis, as it will remove the fear that some students have of being publicly judged.
- You’ve had a setback. What would you do differently next time?
This question avoids any judgement on a student’s ability. It can also stop them from dwelling on the past because it allows them to have a sense of control over the situation.
Psychologists use the term “metacognition” to describe being aware and in control of your own thought process. Asking what you would do differently is a great example of this; it helps students to analyse and reflect on their thought process. Developing metacognitive skills has been found to be one of the most effective ways to help students improve their grades.
This is an effective strategy as it helps students improve how they plan, monitor and analyse their thoughts and behaviours. Students who have strong metacognition often have a growth mindset and high levels of resilience.
Many other questions exist that will help students develop both their metacognition and mindset. These include: who can I ask for help? What could I have done better?
A final thought
The growing research on growth mindset is an exciting development in education. But we are still working out what is the best way to help students. Facilitating a growth mindset is not straight forward, but, done correctly, it could help students improve how they learn, feel and behave.
We've written more blogs on the subject, why not check out our page on growth mindset.
This article was first published on The Guardian website on 15.11.15. You can read it, alongside all of our other Guardian blogs here: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/bradley-busch