A little over a decade ago, I read Mindset by Carol Dweck and it had a profound influence on my life. It affirmed something I knew as a teacher. Students show up to school with fixed and growth mindsets. As a teacher, I can do things that help promote a growth mindset. However, although I am a believer in having a growth mindset, I have noticed that sometimes students struggle because of something deeper: the need to be affirmed.
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What is a growth mindset?
Researcher and professor Carol Dweck uses the term “mindset” to describe the way people think about ability and talent. Dweck delineates between two different mindsets that exist on a continuum. The first is a fixed mindset, which suggests that your abilities are innate and unchangeable. The second is a growth mindset, which views it as something you can improve through practice.
In a fixed mindset, you view failure as permanent but with a growth mindset, you see failure as a chance to learn and pivot. Those with a fixed mindset are more likely to view critical feedback as a personal attack while those with a growth mindset will see it as a chance to improve, where they can develop new systems. With a fixed mindset, you’re more likely to choose easier tasks and put in minimal effort. After all, if talent is fixed, why bother improving? Why even try? But with a growth mindset, you’re more likely to embrace challenging tasks and work hard to improve. Those with a fixed mindset are likely to give up when they face an obstacle. Meanwhile, those with a growth mindset will view obstacles as a chance to experiment and solve problems.
In a fixed mindset, the focus is on measurable accomplishments. But with a growth mindset, the focus is more on a journey of continual improvement. With a fixed mindset, you’re less likely to take creative risks. But with a growth mindset, creative risks are simply a way to innovate and improve. Ultimately, your mindset influences everything from creative risk-taking to how you view feedback to whether or not you finish difficult tasks. In the end, it’s one of the greatest factors in determining whether or not you grow and improve in your abilities.
For the last decade, I’ve been reading up on the research on mindsets. Is it more generalized or context specific? How do mindsets relate to motivation, self-determination, self-concept, and self-efficacy? I tend to agree with the criticisms around potential blind spots (or at least underemphasized areas) in Dweck’s theories – especially the role of systemic injustice and racism. A growth mindset is necessary but so are resources and opportunity. Still, it’s an idea I shared with my middle school students, with my current college students, and with my own kids. I believe we can help students develop a growth mindset.
What Growth Mindset Sometimes Misses
Dweck’s research challenged my thinking. For one, it helped me get past my mental block of “I’m not a real artist.” I started sketching again and slowly integrated my drawings into my work. Eventually, I experimented with sketch videos. Don’t get me wrong. I had lots of failed experiments. But slowly, I embraced this side of my identity. Now, my sketches are in my books, blog posts, videos, resources, and keynote presentations. It’s not about my “brand.” It’s about my craft and my style.
But the idea of growth mindsets also shaped how I give and receive feedback. I read Dweck’s research on praising effort rather than ability. I started seeking out critical feedback on my craft because I had a newfound sense that mistakes were okay. Meanwhile, I started to focus on praising work ethic rather than talent. And it wasn’t just effort. I would praise creative risk-taking, collaboration, and other “soft skills” that had nothing to do with talent. I stuck to this approach . . .
But sometimes I didn’t.
Sometimes, I’d see a student struggling with self-confidence and I would say, “I wish you could see what I see. You are so much more skilled than you realize.”
This goes against the growth mindset research. And yet, it worked. I watched struggling students gain confidence after our little talks. Often, students struggled the most with a growth mindset when they had experienced shame. For example, I defined myself as “not a real artist” after a teacher rejected me for advanced art, saying, “This is more for real artists.” I’ve seen students define themselves as “bad readers” because of a time they had to read aloud in front of the class. Others had extreme math anxiety after the frequent failed math time tests only to internalize shame when talking to their classmates or parents.
In these moments, I’ve found that students often need an adult who will see something in them that they cannot see in themselves. I have no research to back this up. In fact, it seems to go against aspects of Dweck’s research. But sometimes students need feedback that has nothing to do with effort. Over the last few years, I’ve learned a distinction. Yes, we need to praise effort. But we also need to affirm identity and self-concept. Because ultimately if we want students to increase in self-efficacy, they need to believe they can do something and sometimes that requires affirmation from a trusted expert.
A Lesson from Baseball
My son, Micah, is a self-described nerd. He spends hours reading books, playing the French horn, and playing with Legos. He’d rather rewatch Stranger Things than sit through a televised sporting event. Like other kids, he enjoys staying up late on the weekends to play Fortnite.
So last year, when he decided to play baseball, it was a risk. He had defined himself as the slightly physically awkward nerd. His older brother was more likely to define himself as “the jock.” Still, he and his older brother asked if they could have hitting lessons. The first lesson was rocky. He struggled with the basic mechanics of hitting. But his hitting instructor was calm and gentle and was able to say things like, “You’re a fast learner. Just watch and see where you are in a year.”
Micah already had a bit of a growth mindset. But early on, he needed a batting instructor to essentially say, “I believe in you right now.”
Despite the moments of frustrations and the sense of going nowhere, he stuck with it. He and his brother practiced their swings in the backyard. Eventually, he turned a corner, then another corner, until subtly, he was a slugger. When he tried out for his team, his coaches were surprised he was brand new.
There was a learning curve for sure. For one, he still needed to learn the rules of the game.
One day, he asked me, “Dad, what is a force out?”
I responded with, “It’s when a guy is safe but a Jedi walks up to the umpire, waves his hand, and says, ‘No, the player was out,’ and the umpire reverses the call.” He laughed at the Force reference. He’s still a nerd (like me). Then he Googled the answer.
Micah started the season with a solid swing. And yet, his first few games were a struggle. He ground out to the pitcher and struck out several times. Although he had a growth mindset, he lacked confidence.
But his coach said something important for a full week, each day in practice. “Micah, you’re a better hitter than you realize. There’s nothing wrong with your swing. When he realizes how good you are, you’ll own the plate.” The next week, he had a walk and a strikeout. But the strikeout was different. He had fouled it hard and took an assertive stance.
Micah expected his coach to pull him and put in a sub but he remained in the lineup. On the next at-bat, he crushed it. We watched the ball sail past the outfielders and clear the fence as he sprinted around the bases beaming.
A few games later, the opposing team intentionally walked the player before him to get to him. He knew this was an insult but turned around and cranked out a double. This last weekend, he homered again.
Micah is a slugger. He knows it. Not in an arrogant way but with an “I got this” kind of confidence. However, before he believed it, he had a coach who believed it. A growth mindset was why he worked hard and never gave up. However, that wasn’t enough. It took an expert instructor early on to give him a sense that he could do it. Later, it took another coach to affirm his identity and help him reach his potential.
Chances are there was that one person who believed in you, who affirmed you, and who saw potential in you that you couldn’t see in yourself.
What does this mean for teachers?
There is no magic formula for affirming students. It is deeply contextual and deeply relational. However, here are a few things I’ve noticed from my own experience and from observing people around me.
- Make it specific. In my son’s case, he had two coaches who both said, “you have the potential to be a real power hitter.” They saw potential in the strength of his swing. They gave him a vision for where he might hit in the line-up. Kids can see through vague feel-good statements like, “you’ll be great at this someday.” They need to imagine something concrete.
- Affirm potential rather than talent. Dweck has been critical about praising talent because it makes people risk-averse and afraid of failing. We see this often with students in the Gifted program. But this is different. This is about seeing something you notice that they’re doing correctly now and saying, “If you build on that, you’ll be able to . . .” It’s about affirming something that’s already there. Maybe a student is sketching on the margins and you ask, “Have you considered making a comic book?”
- Be sincere. As a kid, I struggled with math. I had teachers who said, “Actually, you’re pretty good” or even “If you work harder, you’ll get faster and you’ll probably earn A’s.” I knew better. It wasn’t until years later that I learned about my dyscalculia. However, I had a statistics teacher who said, “Math may never be fast for you. It may never be easy. But you are excellent at analysis and I can see you thriving with quantitative research.” It was sincere and specific and it stuck.
- Create opportunities for students to see it themselves. Micah began to gain confidence when his coach affirmed him in practice. But what really gave him an extra boost was staying in the line-up for another at-bat. We, as teachers, need to create opportunities for students to practice in areas where we have affirmed them. This is why I love the Genius Hour concept. It’s a low-risk way to say, “Practice this and learn this. It’s okay if it’s not perfect.”
Ultimately, affirmation only goes so far. At some point, students need to internalize the belief that they can succeed. Part of this is self-concept. Another part is self-efficacy. Still, another part is a growth mindset. But as educators, we get the opportunity to speak truth into our students’ lives. We get to share what we can see that they can’t see through the haze of their self-doubt.