How To Develop A Growth Mindset

What is a Growth Mindset?

Do you think you’re born with a certain level of intelligence that you can’t change much or do you think it’s something you can work on to develop and grow?

Many students think that their level of intelligence is fixed, that they can’t do much to change it. This can lead them to feeling that they just aren’t smart enough to succeed, especially when courses get more challenging. The truth is that no matter who you are, with effort and effective strategies you can develop your level of intelligence.

According to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, how we think about our brains actually affects how well we learn. Dweck says that people generally think with one of two different mindsets: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence is fixed at birth and they can’t do much to change it. People with a growth mindset believe that their talents, abilities, and intelligence can be developed in different ways.

You may feel like you have a fixed mindset in some ways and a growth mindset in others. For example, you may think with a fixed mindset that you’re just not a math person, but you may adopt a growth mindset with writing, music, sports or another discipline.

In fact, scientists who study the brain have found that the brain is like a muscle; it changes and grows in response to what we do. The harder we work using helpful strategies and the more challenges we face, the stronger and smarter the brain becomes. This is because the brain is made up of cells called neurons, which are connected to each other. As we learn, the number of connections between our neurons also grows. As we continue to exercise our brain, the connections between our neurons grow as well. These new and stronger connections help to make us smarter. Scientists call this neuroplasticity.

Research shows that students who adopt a growth mindset, who believe that their brains can grow and develop through effort and challenges, actually do better in school. For these students, the goal is not to prove what they already know but rather to learn and grow. Students with a growth mindset do make mistakes not as proof that they aren’t smart enough, but as opportunities to become smarter.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset for the Classroom

Classroom life has taught us many things. One thing for certain is that troubles and obstacles are unavoidable, and pure talent alone won’t always get you over those obstacles. Continually working hard and trying will.

The good news is that a growth mindset can be instilled in your classroom and help students at any grade level or any subject succeed.

growth mindset

As mentioned above, there are two different types of mindsets: the first is a fixed mindset and the second is a growth mindset. A fixed mindset person will view feedback as criticism. That person is not open to any ideas contrary to their own.

Growth mindset individuals not only accept feedback from others, but they also learn from the feedback. The feedback will actually lead to a positive change in personal growth.

With a fixed mindset, when the going gets tough these people simply walk away from the situation. These are the individuals that easily quit the first chance they get. A growth mindset individual will look for solutions to a problem before they even consider quitting. They never give in and they just won’t quit.

Life is full of challenges, and a fixed mindset person simply looks to avoid those challenges. A growth mindset person fearlessly faces any challenge that is presented. They see challenges as opportunity to grow as a person and to improve themselves.

At the end of the day, a fixed mindset individual will blame their lack of success on others; they’re going to point the finger at somebody else. On the other hand, a growth mindset individual is going to look for any way to become successful; they keep their ear to the ground and their eyes open, because they know if they work hard, eventually that hard work is going to pay off.

How do we Incorporate a Growth Mindset into the Classroom?

Growth mindset classrooms accentuate student strengths. For example, some students are great public speakers, so why not allow them to present their work as an assessment. As a growth mindset teacher, provide your students with different opportunities for success. When students believe in themselves, they will begin to study more and achieve more. When the student performs well on tests, point out their effort not just their intelligence.

Teachers need to promote a growth mindset attitude. Find stories and biographies that advance a growth mindset agenda and point out instances of growth mindset found in different characters, in different people.

A growth mindset should be encouraging. Report progress to students in terms of growth charts. Our goal is to get students to believe in themselves, which will lead to them working harder.

A growth mindset should be reflected in your classroom. The classroom should be a place of inspiration for all students. The classroom should have actual examples of student growth, such as student writing portfolios etc. On the whiteboard the teacher should write inspirational quotes aligned to the idea that hard work will ultimately lead to great success.

Implementing a growth mindset is a real challenge. Not all students will buy in. You are going to have to really sell this idea to your students, so decorate your classroom the best you can.

growth mindset

How to Teach Growth Mindset in 5 Steps

When it comes to really maximizing student potential and catapulting them to a whole new level of success and performance, research is showing that one of the most important foundations comes from a student’s mindset. In particular, the most powerful mindsets are ones that are labeled as growth mindsets, meaning that a student believes that talent and potential are not things that one is born with, but are things that can be grown and developed over time.

Research is also pointing out that one of the most effective and efficient ways to teach students how to adopt a growth mindset is to show them that the brain is malleable. This means that it changes and grows according to how we decide to use it.

Here are five key points that you can teach students, showing them how this works, how the brain is malleable, so that they can realize they have more control than they think they do:

  1. The first time any thought occurs in our mind, it’s like two cells in the brain talking to each other. So, the first time we have a thought, these cells communicate or send an electrochemical pulse to each other.
  2. As soon as cells talk to each other the first time, there’s a much greater chance that they’re going to talk or send a signal to each other another time. It’s like at this point they know that each other exists and so they can now communicate more easily. So, once we have a thought one time, it’s much more likely that we could have that again, and so the pulses can happen more quickly and easily.
  3. Once thoughts have occurred enough time in the brain, the brain actually considers this a high priority pathway. It considers that, since this thought is happening, it must be important according to that person’s environment, and therefore should be placed at a high priority position. The way the brain does that is by coding a pathway; that helps the signal go faster and faster. So, once cells have talked enough times and sent that signal enough times, the brain will now coat the pathway in between these cells.
  4. Getting the cells to talk to each other enough times so that these pathways are created, means that our brain doesn’t have to use so much energy in trying to get these signals across. So, the cells that fire together, wire together. This is really important for learning. This is also where a lot of our challenges happen, because this is also where beliefs get formed. Starting from when we are young, we are in environments that may lead us to have certain thoughts about ourselves. And because we’re in the same environment with the same people generally speaking, we’re getting similar feedback constantly. This will lead us to have similar thoughts over and over again about ourselves. Also, because the brain will put any thought that’s happening a lot as a high priority pathway, it does this also with beliefs; and no matter whether it’s a negative or positive belief, if we’re having it enough times, it will be considered high priority pathway. So, the messages we’re receiving from our environment will lead us to have certain pathways, which is how beliefs about anything get formed: beliefs about intelligence, our talent or even our self-worth.
  5. What’s really important for students to know is that, just as the brain can prioritize certain pathways, it also will give less priority to some if it sees that cells in a different area of the brain are being activated a lot. In other words, it will lower priority of a pathway when it’s not being used as much. So, if we want to minimize a negative thought, we need to have other thoughts that activate other parts of the brain much more often, and so that the brain will consider those higher priority and it will lower the priority of the other thoughts. The only way to really do this is to do it on purpose, because when we have pathways that are prioritized, that tends to be a default. So, we need to learn to intentionally start choosing thoughts that are growth-oriented and expansive and allow us to dream big and set high goals for ourselves.

When students understand this process, they can learn that they need to make some of their self-talk and their self- beliefs lower priority, meaning they don’t repeat them as often. And the best way to do that is to choose intentional thoughts about ourselves that are positive and growth-oriented. Have those thoughts and do that intentionally as often as possible in order for the brain to consider that new pathway a high priority.

Three Great Examples of Teaching a Growth Mindset

  • Gratitude journals. A gratitude journal is a diary of things for which one is grateful. Gratitude journals are used by people who wish to focus their attention on the positive things in their lives, and they are one of the most powerful things students can do.
  • Visualization, the practice of imagining what you want to achieve in the future as if it were true today. Students visualize things they want to create, how they want to succeed, and how they want to feel.
  • Power thoughts or mantras. Repeat it and start the day with that, and repeat those things as often as possible to get the brain to start working on high-priority pathways that feel good and allow students to succeed.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Teachers

The brain’s capacity averages around 70,000 thoughts per day. Pretty much every second of our waking lives our inner voice is saying something, and sometimes it can sound a little harsh. Around 80% of the things we typically say to ourselves are negative. This can take a toll on us as well as those we work with. That’s why a growth mindset is so important.

Part of cultivating a growth mindset is learning a new way of thinking. It’s about focusing and reflecting on your learning journey, not just the success or failure of the outcome.

By contrast, a fixed mindset sees all intelligence as well-fixed; you either get it or you don’t, you’re either intelligent and capable or you’re not. If that’s your point of view, then you’re going to avoid failure at all costs, because that would mean you’re less skilled or less intelligent. But with a growth mindset, even when you fail at something, you see that as a chance to learn, a chance to grow. That’s true for students and it’s true for teachers too.

The good news is that you can develop a growth mindset. You’ve taken the first step by learning about some of the science that shows you can grow your brain. The next step is to consider your mindset. If you have some areas in which you think you aren’t smart, challenge yourself to learn and grow. Because, if you learn to develop your mindset, you’ll persist longer with problems, you’ll take on harder challenges, and stretch your mental muscle more. You won’t be as affected by setbacks, and in the end you’ll learn more. The effects of changing your mindset can stick with you for years if you train your brain to think in a new way.

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Anita Lindquist is the Head of Curriculum in a Secondary School in Stockholm. She is an advocate for excellence in public education and passionate about learning and teaching methodologies.


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