Why should a teacher care about Mindsets?

This post acts as an introduction to the webpage betterteaching.ie/mindsets and is also the first link on that page.

Why will this post help to make me be a better teacher in my classroom?
Students of low academic ability often have a low opinion of themselves and believe that they will remain academically weak no matter how hard they try. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To counter this, students need to develop a Growth rather than a Fixed Mindset. But it is important for students of all abilities. Developing a Growth Mindset is only likely to happen if teachers are aware of the issue and are prepared to work to encourage change.

Nobody rises to low expectations
Calvin Lloyd

One of the more generous things we can do for another person: believe in their capacity to change.

Teachers’ beliefs and commitments are the greatest influence on student achievement over which we can have some control.
John Hattie

Recent scientific evidence demonstrates both the incredible potential of the brain to grow and change and the powerful impact of growth mindset messages upon students’ attainment. Schooling practices, however, particularly in England, are based upon notions of fixed ability thinking which limits students’ attainment and increases inequality.


What is a Fixed Mindset?
People with a Fixed Mindset tend to believe that intelligence, personality and character are all carved in stone; potential is determined at birth.

What is a Growth Mindset?
People (including students and teachers) who have a Growth Mindset tend to believe that intelligence, personality and character can be developed and that a person’s true potential is unknown and unknowable.
Those with a Fixed Mindset tend to allow failure (or success) to dictate who they are, while those with a Growth Mindset tend to see setbacks as opportunities to grow and improve themselves. These people fully appreciate that to reach their potential takes practice and perseverance.
We have a choice as to which view we adopt for ourselves and it’s never too late to change.

As teachers we are constantly communicating messages to students about their ability and learning, whether we realise it or not. If we (consciously or subconsciously) subscribe to the Fixed Mindset view then we are imparting a message to our students that they are limited in what they can achieve and how much they can improve. If however we believe in a Growth Mindset we are much more likely to push our students and they in turn may be more likely to respond positively.

Put simply, if you focus on praising the student for an impressive result rather than instead praising the effort put in, you are – bizarre though it may seem – encouraging a Fixed Mindset. And that’s not good.


How to go from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset
There is a lot of online information on Fixed versus Growth mindsets but not so much on how to go from one to the other. The following pointers are worth bearing in mind if you do want to go down this road:

1. A Growth Mindset is not something you can develop overnight; it is an attitude you cultivate over an extended period of time.

2. The first step in changing is to recognise that you have a fixed mindset

3. You then need to accept that it is possible to change; you do have a choice

4. Finally, ask yourself how would someone with a growth mindset respond to the challenge at hand.

Much of the research on Mindset Theory comes from Carol Dweck; here is her advice on how a whole school approach might work

First, the students learn about the brain and all the wonderful things it does. How it’s involved in everything they do and everything they care about. Then they learn that they can grow their brains. Every time they stretch out of their comfort zone, do hard things, stick to hard things, their brains form stronger and stronger connections and over time their abilities can grow. And then we show them how they can apply it to their schoolwork.

Implications for STEM subjects
The Fixed Mindset view seems to be more of a challenge to girls than boys. It’s not that girls necessarily subscribe to it more than boys; but boys with a Fixed Mindset are more likely to assume that they are naturally good at these subjects while girls with a Fixed Mindset are more likely to assume that they’re not. The end result is that girls are more likely to avoid these subjects when it comes time to making a choice. I wonder if all those organisations who want to promote girls doing STEM subjects are aware of this, and if not how would it shape their programs?

Implications for Teachers as professionals
This post focuses on recognising Fixed or Growth Mindsets in our students, and encouraging them to go from one to the other.
But what about if we have a Fixed Mindset in relation to our own teaching ability? How could we recognise it, what consequences might it have and how could we change?
For another day perhaps, but if you’re interested in finding our more about it now I suggest you read some of the related blogposts on the Mindsets page of betterteaching.ie

Alternatively check out this YouTube link to a keynote lecture given by Carol Dweck in 2012. It’s 46 minutes long but it may just change how you interact with your students from now on. Unless, of course, you subscribe to a Fixed Mindset in relation to your own teaching. But if that was the case you probably wouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

Posts related to this are
Fail Better
Praise the effort, not the student (still in draft form)

Finally, below is a link to a Word document I put together to help students identify what mindset they subscribe to. It may or may not be fit for purpose, but if nothing else it will hopefully help to raise awareness of the issue with the students themselves.


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