Teaching a ‘growth mindset’

Students who believe they can develop their intelligence over time — what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” — work harder and learn more than classmates who think intelligence is inborn and fixed.  Dweck and colleague Lisa Blackwell talk about Classroom Strategies to Foster a Growth Mindset with Larry Ferlazzo on Education Week Teacher.

Teachers should set high expectations and tell students they have the ability to succeed, say Dweck and Blackwell.

Let your students know that you value challenge-seeking, learning, and effort above perfect performance, and that the amount of progress they make individually is more important than how they compare to others. Make it clear that mistakes are to be expected and that we can all learn from them.

. . . When you introduce a new topic or assignment, tell students they should expect to find some things confusing and to make initial errors. Ask kids to share their “best” mistake of the week with you, and what they learned from it and do the same yourself.

Useful feedback focuses on “the things students can control, like their effort, challenge-seeking, persistence, and good strategies — not on their personal traits or abilities,” they say. Praising students for being smart can be counter-productive.

Neuroscience research shows the brains develop through effort and learning, they say. Tell students they about the “malleable mind.”

Let students know that when they are practicing hard things their brains are forming new connections and making them smarter. Instead of feeling dumb when they struggle, they will learn to “feel” those connections growing.

Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, founded Mindset Works with Blackwell, a former school leadership coach and the principal designer of Brainology.

Ferlazzo’s list of resources on developing a growth mindset is here.

The growth mindset reminds me of research by psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler.  Peg Tyre summarizes in Don’t trash-talk math:  “In countries that produce a lot of math whizzes, parents and teachers believed math ability is like a muscle you strengthen with good instruction and practice. In the USA, where kids don’t do that well, parents think of math ability as a talent, not a skill.” Chinese parents see a bad grade as evidence their child didn’t work hard enough, while American parents let their kids get away with saying, “I’m just not good at math.”

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  1. As long as it’s true that children are performing well under what they could do with the absolutely best teachers/curriculum, which is likely true for most children most of the time (as it is for most adults most of the time, I suspect), belief in malleable intelligence is probably a plus. But near the limit for each child, it is simply cruel to tell them they can do better. Do special-ed teachers routinely tell their students they’re just as capable as anyone else? When they know it isn’t true?

    • I agree with LindaS but will put things more strongly. Dweck should stop misleading people. Studying math, or history, or science does *not* make you smarter. It will not increase your score on an IQ test. It makes you more knowledgeable about those subjects, which is a worthy aim in itself.

  2. I am all for emphasizing the “you will do better and learn more if you work hard” message, but the message that ALL can be proficient or meet any meaningful standard is a lie; not only for spec ed but for many others. Half of the students are below average and schools vary wildly with respect to the percentages of kids at various places on the bell curve.

  3. Bostonian says:

    Dweck’s work is often cited as if it were gospel, but some of her findings have been challenged.

    From “Carol Dweck’s Attitude” in The Chronicle of Higher Education http://chronicle.com/article/Carol-Dwecks-Attitude/65405/

    “But some other studies of college students have failed to support Dweck’s model. In a 2003 study of 93 students at University College London, scholars did not find any relationship between students’ academic performance and their beliefs about the nature of intelligence. A similar result has come out of research at Temple University, where two scholars are leading a large National Science Foundation-supported study of student performance in introductory biology and chemistry courses. In the first two semesters of that study, the scholars have found no connection between students’ theories of intelligence and their grades.”

  4. It’s funny how this has changed over the years; partly due to societal changes and partly due to educational changes.

    When I was in first grade, in a class of 31 students, every single kid in class could stand up and read from the Dick and Jane books aloud to the class. Not a one was left behind. We were told that was the plan and it played out over the year (there were no disabled kids in that class, however).

    The big changes, I think have to do with the fact that even in the lower middle class neighborhood the school was in, every parent constantly told their kids about the importance of getting a good education (this didn’t stop at first grade, either, for me it went until college graduation) and they worked with their kids: lots of us showed up being able to write our own names, count and read simple words. Also, our teachers knew (and I don’t remember considering it cruel, but perhaps some would today) that having us stand up and read in front of the class was a very powerful incentive to work hard and figure it out. Not only an incentive, but a powerful feeling of accomplishment when you nailed it.

    Of course, it was a Golden Age for kids:


    Times change, times change.

  5. In many/most of the high-performing countries, math curriculum and instruction is better than it is here – and I suspect that ES teachers have stronger math backgrounds. Their curriculum is properly sequenced, explicitly taught and practiced to mastery. Singapore Math does that – and thank heaven, my g’kids school has chosen it to replace Everyday Math! The director of the local Kumon program admitted he would have to change his marketing.

  6. This is true, but only to a certain degree. You can increase your IQ from 100 to 110 with hard work, or from 120 to 130, or from 80 to 90, but you’ll never take someone that’s an 80 and turn them into a 120, no matter how hard or how long they work hard and try…

  7. i’d like to point out that adults in the United States are very quick to announce their inability or dislike to do math, but hardly anyone would admit the same about the inability to read. i think that negative attitude towards math is planted in children’s minds at a young age and gives them an out for not doing well in math. furthermore, the attitude that math “doesn’t make sense” or “isn’t my thing” etc. is perfectly acceptable — why not push for numeracy along with literacy?

  8. Larry Ferlazzo says:

    Thanks for sharing the Education Week post and the link to my blog!


  9. lightly seasoned says:

    I think the most accurate part of her research is when she looked at gifted students or students who have been told they are smart their whole lives. If they happen to have a Type-Aish personality, they really DO fear that making a mistake or not finding something easy makes them dumb. I see this every year with my advanced students. Suddenly taking a very challenging class as a junior or senior has sent some of them to the psych ward for a week. I’ve experimented with her ideas with my remedial students (IQ in the very low 80s), and they do achieve better because working harder does actually lead to reading improvement — as opposed to excuse making “I’m just dumb” and mentally checking out.

    • Wouldn’t it be nice if they could have had challenging classes all the way through k-12?

      • GoogleMaster says:

        Like, like, like.

        The fear of making a mistake follows you into the workplace after graduation, too.

        • J.D. Salinger says:

          But still doesn’t prevent them from delighting to point out mistakes in the comment sections of blogs.

  10. “Students who believe they can develop their intelligence over time — what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” — work harder and learn more than classmates who think intelligence is inborn and fixed.”

    Teachers can set high expectations and push without resorting to this. Hard work leads to success and success breeds confidence. That has value no matter what level you are at. Developing a “growth mindset” is an indirect process at best, and their ideas to encourage it don’t directly do the job. They just keep placing the onus on the child. This is a modern educational meme; that engagement and motivation will solve everything; that you can somehow start with confidence and then success will follow. They have it backwards. Also, Kids don’t need people using statistical IQ data as an excuse for low individual expectations.

    The second of three things I’ve always wanted for my son is to learn the value of hard work. It’s not to find some way to develop a growth mindset.