The concept of the ‘growth mindset’ has been sweeping through mainstream education in the US and the UK since psychologist Carol Dweck first presented her research on this seventeen years ago. It’s not without criticism, and you can read more about that here, but its basic principles have really taken hold. I’m going to use this post to look beyond the ‘growth mindset’ buzzword and explore how these ideas might be applicable in an ELT context. In particular, I want to consider how small changes could make a big impact to young learners.
Growth mindsets vs fixed mindsets
What’s ability and where does it come from? This idea lies at the heart of the mindset question.
Dweck sees this as a spectrum. At one end we have the ‘fixed mindset’ people. These are the folk who believe that, whatever you do, successes are the result of innate ability. At the other end of the spectrum there are people who think success comes from actions, such as learning and hard work. These are the people with ‘growth mindsets’.
Why is it important? How does it relate to students and learning?
The growth mindset concept has been seized upon as a way of thinking about student achievement, and ways that it might be improved.
In an environment where the ‘fixed mindset’ idea is dominant, students think of their intelligence and talents as permanent character traits. The perception is that innate ability, or lack of it, determines how well students do at school. Not very motivating! Fixed mindset people tend to dread failure, focussing on how bad it makes them look.
In an environment where the idea of the ‘growth mindset’ is cultivated, however, students believe that effort can develop their talents. Failure for these guys is seen as a learning opportunity.
In the language classroom, students’ attitude to risk-taking makes a noticeable difference to their competence. As we all know, this is especially true when it comes to speaking skills. So, lessening the fear of failure in a broader sense could have a direct impact on student performance in this area. For a classroom atmosphere to really promote growth, students of any subject need to feel out of their comfort zone, but never vulnerable. I’d suggest that this is a difficult balancing act that language teachers are quite familiar with. You can read more about failure and risk-taking in my post here.
Not too surprisingly, there is research to suggest that students with a growth mindset are more motivated to learn and exert effort. Dweck’s research with Year 7 maths students shows that learners with a growth mindset are far more likely to take on more challenging work and succeed at it than those with a fixed mindset, for example.
What changes can I make?
At this point, you’re either thinking:
“Well yes, but I can’t possibly make big changes.” (Hello there, fixed mindsets! I’m one of you, much of the time, so no judging here! But it’s probably good for us all to step back and realise that’s what’s going on.)
“Tell me more!”
Five changes for a new outlook
Let’s think about some simple ways to foster growth mindsets among children.
Change the narrative around success
Embracing failure needs to become part of daily life. The message we ought to be giving is that the most important thing is taking on the challenge, trying different strategies and working hard to see something through.
This runs counter to popular culture. When was the last time you saw a Facebook update where an adult admitted to a failure? Or even talked about what they’d learnt through a difficult process? In an age where our perception of reality is distorted by social media filled with carefully curated profiles giving only the positive spin on experience, it’s more important than ever that children and teens grow up with the idea that failures should be celebrated for their learning potential. In the words of James Morehead, parents around the dinner table and teachers in the classroom should perhaps be asking, ‘Who had a fabulous struggle today?!’
Embrace the power of the word ‘yet’. If a child says they can’t do something, correct them: they can’t do it yet. It’s a tiny change with an empowering message.
Teacher talk and the perils of praise
Praise is a tricky business. Despite our best intentions, Dweck claims that by praising a child for being clever, we may in fact be encouraging them to develop a fixed mindset, and, in the process, limiting their learning potential. You can read more on this here.
The G word is a particular hot potato. As parents and teachers, how often do we find ourselves saying ‘Good job!’ or ‘Good girl! You ate all your vegetables!’ or ‘Father Christmas is coming. Have you been good?’. Any kind of labelling is problematic, and calling a child ‘good’ is apparently no exception. Because once a child believes they are good enough, on some subconscious level they may stop trying to be brilliant.
Avoiding these pitfalls is easier said than done, of course. The recommended alternative is to praise the PROCESS not the RESULT. By praising children for their effort, we send a clear message about valuing the way they engaged with the task.
I know that I tie myself in knots trying to avoid saying the wrong thing. With a bit of practice, however, you can train yourself to use substitute phrases:
- I like the way you…
- I like that you didn’t give up!
- You listened really carefully to the instructions!
- The way you did blah blah blah was excellent!
(Though I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to say on the rare occasions when my pre-schooler eats his broccoli. Nothing, probably.)
Find ways to encourage intrinsic motivation. The idea goes: If a child is excited about reading a book they enjoy, then don’t praise them for it – they’d read it anyway! Rather, model inquisitive behaviour, by showing an interest and a desire to understand, and by asking questions. Sounds reasonable to me.
You can read more tips on giving praise here.
Build in time for reflection
Allowing time for meaningful reflection should be part of the shift to a growth mindset methodology. To be successful, reflection needs to be mindful, not formulaic.
Some ideas for questions to ask (in L1 if necessary):
- Was I resourceful?
- Did I collaborate well with my classmates?
- Did I learn something new?
- Did I accept failure and learn from it?
- What can I do differently next time?
There are also some great ideas for exploring the growth mindset idea with older ELT students in this article by Michelle Shin.
Engage the parents
To make a real change, parents need to buy into the process. Teachers can promote understanding among parents of how failure can be beneficial, and of how to react to their children’s setbacks in a way that encourages motivation and learning.
Look at your own mindset!
We talk a lot about students’ mindsets, but it’s equally applicable to adults in all walks of life, including… yes you guessed it… teachers, teacher trainers, school managers and materials writers. Research suggests that teachers who have fixed mindsets are less likely to believe in the talents of their students, and less likely to provide students with strategies for improvement.
As educators, it’s worth asking ourselves some uncomfortable questions about our own attitudes and what we model to students:
- How often do I get out of my own comfort zone?
- Do my students or colleagues see me challenging myself, too? For example, do they know if I’m learning a language, what I find difficult and what strategies I employ?
- How effectively do I reflect on my own struggles and successes?
- How often do I ask ‘What have I learnt?’ Do I record this anywhere (for example in a journal or blog)? Do I share it?
- Can I better support my colleagues in their growth, too? How?
I’m pretty sure we’d all say there’s always room for improvement, right?