Seven Ways to Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset

About six weeks ago, my son asked if he could start a cubing club for anyone interested in solving Rubix cubes together. (Heads-up: cubers can get really sensitive about calling it a Rubix cube because that’s almost never the brand they use.)

He planned it all out. They would meet on Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m. at a local grocery store that has an eating area upstairs. He gathered his friends’ cell phone numbers and reminded them on multiple days. Finally, Tuesday night rolled around.

Nobody showed up.

So, he asked them if a different time would work. He reminded them again. His friends seemed excited about it. The second Tuesday rolled around.

Nobody showed up.

For two more Tuesdays, he sat alone with his mom, trying his hardest not to be crushed by disappointment. He brainstormed possibilities for why this event was failing. Maybe they needed to do a virtual hangout. Maybe they should go earlier. Maybe the parents should get to know each other.

Finally, on the fifth Tuesday, one person showed up. Together, they solved cubes and talked about strategies and algorithms. Last night, the same kid showed up again. They had a blast and three more kids have said they will show up next week.

This whole process has been painful to watch. I so badly want to shelter my son from rejection. I want to keep him from pain. I don’t want him to fail. But ultimately, regardless of whether or not this cubing club takes off, this whole experience has actually made him bolder and more confident. But more importantly, he’s developing a growth mindset.

Never heard of a growth mindset? Here’s the basic premise. If you like these sketch animation videos, please feel free to click the “like” button and subscribe to the channel.

Developing a Growth Mindset

For all the talk of “grit” and “high standards” and “letting kids fail,” I find it interesting that a growth mindset is rarely the result of a high-pressure, high standards, accountability-driven environment. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. There’s a certain slack necessary for developing a growth mindset.

As I think about my son’s experience and the growth mindset I see in others, I notice certain trends:

  1. Allow for the Freedom to Fail: Imagine what would have happened if we told our son, “we’re going to hold you accountable for your attendance.” We would have shut down his cubing club after two weeks and given him an F. This would have led to a fixed mindset where he says, “maybe I don’t have friends” or “maybe I’m not a leader” or “maybe I shouldn’t plan events.” But that’s not how it worked. He continued to try and to make tiny tweaks and to treat each failure as a chance to refine what he was doing. He viewed the failure as a chance to learn rather than an indictment on his identity.
  2. Provide a Safe Environment: When I look at places that cultivate a growth mindset, there is often a transparency and vulnerability present. These are places with mutual trust and often deep collaboration. It’s why perseverance is such a strong feature at Pixar. It’s built into the company culture.
  3. Tap Into Intrinsic Motivation: My son loves cubing. He and his friends are planning to go to cubing competitions. They are filming videos. They look up new algorithms. He’s driven intrinsically to keep going. I think this is a key component that often gets overlooked when people talk about both the growth mindset and the idea of grit. It is really hard to develop perseverance in an area that you simply have no interest in.
  4. Respect Student Agency: People are able to develop a growth mindset when they have a greater sense of agency. When they have a general sense of control and their able to engage in self-reflection, they grow more confident and they can view mistakes as learning experiences and obstacles as problems to solve.
  5. Give Honest Feedback: I have worked with the same cohort for nearly a year and a half now and I’ve noticed a trend. The ones who have grown the most are the ones who are willing to take creative risks. They’re not afraid of mistakes. But not only that, they are the teacher candidates who openly solicit feedback. They want to know what’s working and what’s failing. They are constantly refining their craft because they believe that they will improve.
  6. Value Effort Over Results: Carol Dweck often talks about the importance of praising effort over praising ability. While I think that’s true, I’ve noticed another trend. People are more likely to develop a growth mindset when they value the effort and the process over the success or failure of the final product. And it makes sense. You often can’t control the results but you can control the effort you put into it.
  7. Find an Encouraging Community: There’s this myth out there of the resilient lone ranger sticking with it despite negative feedback. Or maybe it’s less like The Lone Ranger and more like Rudy. But when you study people with a growth mindset, you’ll notice that there is often a community (or at least a series of relationships) where they are affirmed in who they are. It’s a side of the growth mindset conversation that’s often ignored, but it’s the idea that people need to be affirmed and encouraged and challenged within a community. One of the dangers I see in the last point (valuing effort over results) is that people will say, “Don’t tell a child that they are an artist. Praise their effort in doing art.” But I think it’s a little more nuanced. Sometimes you need a community to affirm who you are and what you are doing. And often you need a nurturing environment that can provide the skills you need to succeed.

The bottom line is you can’t simply switch from a fixed to a growth mindset by just thinking differently. It requires work and action and it is often connected to culture and context. But those are all things that we, as teachers, can cultivate in our classrooms. When that happens, students take more creative risks and they produce better creative work.

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This post is also available on my Creative Classroom podcast. If you’re someone who enjoys listening to podcasts on the way to work, this might be a great way to “read” my blog. (Note: if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to leave a review on iTunes or Google Play). You can also listen to it below:

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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9 responses

  1. This is probably the biggest challenge in the math classroom. So many kids have the idea that their math skills are fixed, and it can only be so good. The sad part is that it is often encouraged. So many kids say, “I’m just not a math person.” If you said I’m just not a reading person would that be acceptable? Many parents will tell me something like, “I was never really good at math either.” As if the concept of math, and the ability to do it, is somehow passed down through genes. I want all of my kids to have a growth mindset in my classroom. The biggest success is when a child makes a mistake, and then learns from it. Upon reading this blog and watching the video, I have a much better understanding of how to reach those ends. I especially appreciate providing a safe environment so they are not afraid to fail.

    1. It seems even more challenging in a math class, where math anxiety often propels a fixed mindset.

  2. […] here to read the story, here to listen, and check out John’s sketchy video on Growth Mindset below. Be sure to give […]

  3. This is probably the biggest challenge in the math classroom. So many kids have the idea that their math skills are fixed, and it can only be so good. The sad part is that it is often encouraged. So many kids say, “I’m just not a math person.” If you said I’m just not a reading person would that be acceptable? Many parents will tell me something like, “I was never really good at math either.” As if the concept of math, and the ability to do it, is somehow passed down through genes. I want all of my kids to have a growth mindset in my classroom. The biggest success is when a child makes a mistake, and then learns from it. Upon reading this blog and watching the video, I have a much better understanding of how to reach those ends. I especially appreciate providing a safe environment so they are not afraid to fail. One thing I do in my class that provides a safe environment to fail is receiving multiple responses. For example, if I were to ask what the capital of Texas is I would point to those raising their hands. The first person says “Dallas”. I do not say anything but “thank you”. I point to the next person, “Houston”. I say, “thank you”. “Austin”, “San Antonio”, “Waco”, “Fort Worth”, “Arlington”. I just keep saying “thank you” after every response. Finally I say, “If you said or thought Austin you are correct. This allows many voices to be heard, and it does not embarrass anyone who said anything besides Austin.

  4. Thank you for this great post. I plan on sharing this with my students in the near future. Each year, I start the school year with lessons and activities on growth mindset and malleable intelligence. After teaching it, however, I often leave the lessons behind. I want to remind students that they can practice and succeed and that the struggle is part of the learning experience and that it can be productive. It is a lesson that will be very timely, as it is often difficult for students and teachers to maintain focus and motivation during the last quarter of a long year.

    1. What are some structural ways that teachers can create a growth mindset in students?

  5. Targeting growth mindset has been a struggle for me as a physical education teacher. I find one of the main difficulties comes from the fact that PE is different from most other classes; in PE each students’ failures are done in front of many other students. If a students fails a math test or doesn’t do well on an essay they can check their grade online or check their score on their returned work in private…no one else has to know. In physical education most of our curriculum is practiced in the open and at any time any student could see any other fail. For students who do not practice a growth mindset this can become very tricky because they shy away from situations where they will fail and I have yet to address this problem to my satisfaction. Reading this article gave me a few new ideas, especially regarding providing an encouraging community. For example, I typically let students form their own groups because it gives them the opportunity to try new things around friends where they might be more comfortable. I also try my best to work on class culture as a whole, but I haven’t thought about creating smaller, more productive communities. I wonder if I would find more success in intentionally pairing kids who practice a growth mindset with kids who have a more closed mindset. This would give growth mindset kids a chance to support the other students, which will help their learning, as well as provide a safe place for the other students and an example of what growth mindset looks like. This could also help form new bonds within the groups.

    1. Great point. I also think there is a strong cultural belief that one’s athletic abilities are innate and fixed. So, that leads to even more of a fixed mindset.

  6. […] Check the rest of the post for some more thoughts. […]

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