Schools and teachers across the world have embraced Carol Dweck’s theory of growth mindset in the hope of helping students to fulfil their potential. Popular strategies include tweaking the way teachers give feedback, encouraging self-reflection through questioning and, crucially, praising processes instead of natural ability.
But many educators feel they could be doing more. A recent survey found that 98% of teachers believe that if their students have a growth mindset it will lead to improved student learning, but only 20% of them believe they are good at fostering a growth mindset and 85% want more training and practical strategies.
Thankfully, a growing body of research is giving us better insight into how to best foster a growth mindset – here are some techniques you may not have used yet.
Explore multiple strategies
Let’s try a quick experiment. Can you separate these six animals into two groups of three? The animals are dog, budgie, shark, bear, goldfish and fox. You could separate them into pets v non-pets (dog, budgie and goldfish v shark, bear and fox), fur v non-fur (dog, bear and fox v budgie, shark and goldfish), or four legs v those without four legs (dog, bear and fox v goldfish, shark and budgie). There are multiple ways to get to the required outcome.
Showing that there are multiple strategies to work out an answer helps to develop growth mindset – this was the finding from a research paper that looked at teaching strategies in a maths class. Researchers found that if students are only taught to work out a problem in one way and are unsuccessful with that strategy, they may take this as evidence that they lack ability for the whole subject. If you teach using multiple strategies, however, they are more likely to persist if the first strategy doesn’t work for them.
Some research suggests that growth mindset strategies should be used stealthily, because students may behave differently if they are aware that they are undergoing an intervention. This is known as the Hawthorne effect.
These researchers state that “stealthy approaches don’t feel controlling and don’t stigmatise students as in need of help, which could do more harm than good”. Stealthy interventions could include getting the students to create the guidance themselves, for example by writing to younger students to explain how the brain can grow.
A paper published last year found “no clear link” between a parent’s mindset and their child’s. What did make a difference, however, was how parents reacted to setbacks.
The researchers noted that “it may be that parents, like children, have mindsets that shape their own goals and behaviours, but that these beliefs are relevant to shaping children’s beliefs only if they lead to practices that children pick up on”. It is hard to accurately guess someone’s beliefs; actions can be more easily interpreted.
They note that an intervention targeting parents’ mindsets could be used to teach them how failure can be beneficial, and how to react to their children’s setbacks in a way that encourages motivation and learning.
Look at your own mindset
A research paper posed the question to teachers: one of your students gets a low mark in their exam (65%) – what do you think of this student’s ability and how would you respond? Those with a fixed mindset took this as evidence that the student did not have a talent for maths and were more likely to respond with a “comfort focus” (along the lines of “It’s OK, not everyone is good at maths”).
Teachers with a growth mindset believed it was too early to make a judgment on the child’s maths ability and were more likely to offer “strategy focus”, which included tips on how to get better and tackle challenging questions.
Students who received comfort strategy reported being less motivated than those who had received the strategy approach, and when asked how they thought they would do on their next exam, comfort-focused students estimated about the same level (65%) whereas the strategy-focused students estimated significantly higher (80%).
This research suggests that teachers mindsets and beliefs influence their teaching strategies, which in turn influences student motivation and self-expectation. So don’t just consider ways to help your students think differently, but explore your own thought processes too.