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Growth Mindset in the Classroom

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As adults, we’ve had plenty of practice overcoming setbacks and meeting challenges head on, finding the teachable moment in failure and the silver linings among high expectations. And even with all these years of experience, sometimes it’s still hard to recognize that failure is always an opportunity to learn. 

But how to teach these survival skills to schoolchildren? While students are no strangers to challenges, they are deep in learning mode about how to deal with less-than-ideal outcomes and the stress that comes from self-doubt. 

The term “growth mindset” has become familiar to educators in the past several years, since it was researched and described by Professor Carol Dweck. While the concept has many layers, we can think of it as simply the idea that you can do better and get better at something if you keep working at it. Sounds simple, but for many people, this takes practice. 

And school is a great place to practice it! Consider the example of two fifth graders presented with the same tough math problem. Both children get the wrong answer on their first try. One child sits back and waits for the teacher to offer some solutions. The other child tries approaching the problem in a different way. She looks in her math book to find similar problems. She keeps putting pencil to paper in an attempt to solve the difficult problem.

The first child is showing fixed mindset and the second child is showing a growth mindset. The second child knows that if they keep working at it, they’ll figure out the problem. And even if they don’t? Nothing is lost in the effort.

The kids who keep working at math problems today will be the adults who keep working at global problems tomorrow. And the world needs people who feel convinced that they can do better, get better, apply better solutions to tough problems. Otherwise, nothing improves.

Quite often, the thing stopping a child from exploring a growth mindset is the fear of looking stupid. After all, when you fail at something, it doesn’t feel very good, and if you fail in front of other people it feels even worse. Why try? Why not maintain your record of success? Why not bask in the glow? Why risk losing that good feeling of accomplishment?

Because, of course, we get stagnant and stop developing as learners! And many kids actually know this by the time they get to school. After all, they’ve spent a few years trying (and failing and trying more) to build towers of blocks as tall as the house. They’ve tried (and failed and tried more) to kick the ball into the soccer goal. They’ve tried (and failed and tried more) to follow a 20-page booklet of Lego instructions. Kids try and fail and try harder all the time. We just need to make sure they’re doing it in the classroom as well.

Of course, trying and having to try again and again changes as we get older. Once we have peers serving as witnesses and judges, it can be especially hard. No one wants to feel stupid, and the odds of this happening increase exponentially in school.

But as parents and educators, we can help! We are the front line in creating a school culture of growth, open minds, open hearts, and vision directed toward the goal of learning. here are some basic tips to get started establishing a growth mindset. 

  • Replace the word “fail” with the word “learn.”
  • Allow the process to go beyond the time set aside for a certain lesson.
  • Encourage support among peers.
  • Use the word “yet:” “I don’t know how to do long division yet.”
  • Be honest about your own opportunities for learning as an adult—it’s perfectly fine to answer a question with “I don’t know—let’s find out!”
  • Share stories of your own failures and the ways you learned from them.
  • Have conversations about the kinds of emotions that can get in the way of a growth mindset—frustration, anger, disappointment, and more.
  • Talk about peer pressure and bullying and about how people can change.
  • Don’t focus on images such as being good at math or being an above average reader. Instead, focus on the actions people take to get good at something—the hard work and extended effort.
  • Discuss the concept of learning how to learn instead of mastering a skill.
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