How To Cultivate A Growth Mindset In Your Classroom

8 Ways To Help Students Cultivate A Growth Mindset In Your Classroom

contributed by Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers; updated by Terry Heick

As I (Marcus) walked into the classroom and saw the group of 25 students, my eyes were drawn to a student (who I knew had been retained for a grade) with a beaming smile at the back of the room.

He could scarcely keep himself in his seat behind his desk. He was dressed in a clean and worn T-shirt. With a nod of assent from his teacher, he bounded to the front of the room and gave me a high-five, saying, “Thank you so much for teaching my teacher to let me know that my brain changes and gets smarter and smarter the more I learn. It’s meant the world to me. And I love using those strategies my teacher taught me. They really work.”

This and a host of other pieces of feedback from teachers and students over the last 20 years have confirmed the importance of developing what we call a ‘mindset of practical optimism’ about the brain’s capacity to change as a result of learning.

It also reinforces the positive impact of metacognitive and cognitive strategies for increasing academic achievement. Our experience links well with the work we later discovered by Carol Dweck, which she describes as a ‘growth mindset.’ She describes a growth mindset as believing that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.

Our ‘BrainSMART Big Five’ approach includes five key factors for teachers and students to consider that can create a powerful synergy for improving engagement, motivation, and learning.

(Update: we have added items to the list and clarified the language in places. –Terry Heick)

Explain neuroplasticity

This comes from an understanding that learning changes the structure and function of the brain, which means that we may become functionally smarter.

This stands in stark opposition to the idea that learning ability and the brain are fixed. In our work, we have found that this greatly increases motivation, engagement, and learning. Similarly, in a study by Dweck, a group of students who were taught that learning changes the brain, together with study skills training, performed better than students who were simply taught study skills.

Offer effective learning strategies

Motivation and effort are important but may be insufficient to optimize learning. We need to work smarter and not just harder by using metacognition, which can be defined as ‘thinking about our thinking,’ but also by choosing and using effective cognitive strategies that help us to learn faster and more comprehensively.

Metacognition is the leading characteristic of successful students. We have found that students learn more effectively when they are taught how to ‘drive their brains’ and apply learning strategies. ‘Drive your brain’ is a metaphor that we developed as a means to effectively communicate to students that they can take charge of their own learning. In Dweck’s investigations of university students who were initially not performing well but had a growth mindset, the students used multiple strategies to learn more effectively and made significant gains.

See also 5 strategies for teaching students to use metacognition

Normalize ‘failure.’

Because learning through failure is natural.

Encourage them to ask for help when necessary

Eventually, we all reach a point where we cannot figure out a solution. This can be a good time to ask for help. People with a growth mindset are more concerned about growing knowledge and skills than trying to look smart by not asking questions.

Teachers we work with often model the process of asking for help from their students in classrooms, for example, and are open to asking for ideas from colleagues for making lessons more effective while sharing ideas.

Reward persistence

Learning anything at some point may get difficult. People with a growth mindset persist in the face of difficulties by trying different strategies, investing more time, or asking for more help, for example. We describe this as the cognitive asset of finishing power. In conversations with our graduates, we found that for many this cognitive asset was the most powerful.

Clarify that good things take time and effort

As mentioned earlier, achieving learning goals take hard work, time, and effort. Some people with a fixed mindset think that if learning is hard work, it means that they are not smart enough and give up. However, people with a growth mindset expect learning to be difficult at times and keep at it, working harder and smarter.

Praise persistence and growth over ‘mastery’

Dweck’s research suggests that praising students for being smart can be ineffective since it may promote a fixed mindset. The ideas shared above can provide a spectrum of ways to praise that can promote a growth mindset.

For example, we can praise students when they use strategies that include being metacognitive, asking good questions when they need help, persisting through difficulties, and investing the necessary effort to succeed.

Offer reflective questions that encourage a growth mindset

From time to time, many of us tune in to what we call radio FM, Fixed Mindset, in our minds.

We can think that, for example, a low grade is a result of a lack of ability in a subject. This is why being metacognitive about our mindsets is key. For example, imagine a student gets a C on a test. A fixed mindset response might be: “I am not smart in this subject.” A metacognitive growth mindset response might be: “I haven’t learned this yet.” “What strategies did I use to learn the material?

Did I spend enough time and effort studying this? Do I need additional help in understanding the key concepts?” And most importantly the TNT question: “What could I do differently The Next Time?” Imagine what would happen to learning in our schools and classrooms if this kind of thinking was consistently in place.

Further Reading About Growth Mindset

Dweck: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Wilson and Conyers: Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas

Donna Wilson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, professional developer, and author. Marcus Conyers is an author, professional developer, and doctoral researcher at the University of Westminster in London, England. Their latest book is Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas (ASCD, 2016). They are co-founders of BrainSMART, Inc., and the Center for Innovative Education and Prevention (CIEP).