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What is a growth mindset (and why does it matter in education?)

Morgan HugoboomJuly 20, 2022

What is a growth mindset (and why does it matter in education?)

Did you know that intelligence might not be a static, innate quality that we have (or don’t have) when born? Did you know that we might be able to grow our intelligence and abilities over time? 

We’re talking about a growth mindset.

A growth mindset is a belief that intelligence and abilities can be acquired just like any other skill. This way of reframing intelligence is proving to be an important tool for both inside and out of the classroom. Individuals with a growth mindset are more likely to push themselves and seek improvement opportunities. Students with teachers who cultivate a growth mindset even report higher rates of motivation and academic performance.

Here is everything you need to know about this empowering methodology — and why you need a growth mindset in your classroom.

What is a growth mindset?

A growth mindset is a belief that intelligence, skills, and abilities can be developed and improved upon over time. In this method of thinking, challenges are opportunities for growth and failures are important steps towards self-improvement. With a growth mindset, the process is just as important as the outcome because the process is where the person learns.

Difference between growth mindset and fixed mindset

Fixed mindset

People with a fixed mindset believe that talent, intelligence, and abilities are all innate. For example, those with a fixed mindset believe that some people are smart, others are not, and these basic qualities won’t ever change. 

Since they view intelligence and success as integral to a person’s core, individuals with a fixed mindset are less likely to seek out challenges that might fail. This risk aversion results in less individual growth, limited resiliency, and staying within behaviors that affirm (rather than challenge) intelligence.

Someone with a fixed mindset might:

  • Believe that intelligence is inherent and cannot be changed or improved upon
  • Believe that failure reflects a lack of intelligence or ability
  • Avoid challenges for fear of failure
  • Often pursue opportunities that reinforce their intelligence
  • Be less likely to receive negative feedback
  • Have difficulty enacting changes after receiving constructive criticism
  • Be more likely to give up when posed with a problem
  • See the success of others as a threat to their own success

Growth mindset

Individuals with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and ability can be learned, acquired, and improved through dedication. Failure is seen as a natural part of the learning process and challenges are opportunities to learn a new skill.

First identified by Stanford University professor and psychologist Carol Dweck, the growth mindset supports the idea that individuals can build their brains just like any other muscle in the body.

Research into brain plasticity and neural development already supports the idea of building our brains. Initial research shows that the brain isn’t a static organ that is unable to grow over time and effort. Instead, we can help our brains build new pathways through various experiences. 

Because they see intelligence as a skill that can be learned, people with a growth mindset are more likely to take risks. Setbacks are viewed as a natural part of this learning and challenges are further opportunities for growth. 

Someone with a growth mindset: 

  • Believes that intelligence can be learned and developed through experience
  • Believes that failure is a natural occurrence and is a chance to learn from mistakes
  • Is more likely to seek challenges as opportunities to learn or improve
  • Focuses on effort, learning, and process (not on success or accolades)
  • Is better able to receive negative feedback
  • Is more likely to be resilient in face of challenges or problems
  • Views success of others as inspiration for what is possible

Why is a growth mindset so important?

A growth mindset is important because it builds resilience, improves self-confidence, and empowers people to seek continuous improvement. 

Individuals are more likely to believe in free will because their intelligence or abilities are not innately limiting. To people with a growth mindset, these qualities can be honed through dedicated efforts.

Each step in the process is important in its own right. Failure is reframed as a chance to review mistakes and learn from them. By experiencing problems and learning from them, individuals also learn important critical thinking skills.

Incorporating a growth mindset in education

Why does a growth mindset matter in the classroom?

Fostering a growth mindset in the classroom is important because it empowers students, reinforces soft skills like resilience, and has been shown to address racial achievement gaps. 

In a study of 150 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professors and over 15,000 students, researchers found that racial achievement gaps were twice as high for courses taught by fixed mindset professors versus their growth mindset counterparts. A faculty member’s mindset predicted student success more than any other characteristic in the study, including age, gender, and teaching experience. Students under faculty members with a growth mindset also reported higher rates of motivation.

When students understand that intelligence and ability are not predetermined, they are free to push the boundaries of their expectations. A growth mindset fosters a love of learning for the sake of learning — not for the accolades. 

How can teachers foster a growth mindset in the classroom?

Incorporating a growth mindset into the classroom can be done with a series of small, simple changes. There is no equipment or additional training required.

Instead, educators can use these approaches to reframe intelligence and unlock student potential.

6 tips for incorporating a growth mindset in the classroom

  1. Avoid praising intelligence

Don’t say, “Great job, you’re so smart!” Instead, say, “I can tell that you’ve been working hard on this problem!”

  1. Celebrate the effort (not just the outcome)

Emphasize the work that went into a project or task, not just the result.

  1. Treat the brain as a muscle

Explain to students that a problem will help them build their minds. For younger students, you can even say, “The feeling that you have right now when you’re working through a hard problem is the feeling of your brain learning more!” Help them understand the reason behind any struggles they experience while working through a problem.

  1. Embrace challenges and highlight mistakes

Help challenges and errors become a normal part of a process for students by discussing them and explaining their significance. 

  1. Utilize cooperative activities in the classroom

Cooperation reduces emphasis on individual success and focuses on the importance of seeking assistance, critical thinking skills, and finding other avenues for a solution. 

  1. Set goals

Creating incremental goals helps students understand and break down goals that at first seem to be unattainable or overwhelming.

A growth mindset is a free tool with real results

A growth mindset requires no special equipment or cost to implement, but it pays dividends when adopted in the classroom.

When implementing a growth mindset for the first time, pay attention and remember to follow the same principles that you will be teaching. Understand that setbacks will happen and are a natural part of the learning process. Build incremental growth and celebrate the process as much as the end goal. 

Fostering this new understanding of intelligence is sure to give you more engaged, motivated, confident, and resilient students. 

Photo credit: Google Education

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