You Can’t Teach Growth Mindset With Posters

Students who never read my comments and only focus on the grade; kids who lie about test scores and essay grades; people who are terrified to make a mistake; students who don’t want to try anything new and give up right away when they are challenged at all.

A modern phenomena? Something that you can’t avoid?

Nope, these are all cases of what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset.

When I first learned about Dweck’s theory of growth mindset and fixed mindset, it explained just about every problem that I had faced with unmotivated students. While people with a fixed mindset focus on the result, are afraid to take on challenges for fear of looking bad, and don't learn from feedback or mistakes, those with a growth mindset love to get feedback, know that through perseverance they can overcome challenges, and eventually out perform their fixed mindset peers.

It seems that everyone knows about growth mindset these days—and yet it also seems that many people know just enough to know that it is important without really knowing how to teach it to their students.

They might hang posters with phrases like “Mistakes make my brain grow,” or they might give students some inspirational quotes as writing prompts, or use some of the language when praising kids. This is all helpful, but it isn’t enough to truly teach students to adopt the growth mindset.

As Carol Dweck herself said in “Carol Dweck Revisits the 'Growth Mindset’” published in Education Week on September 15, 2015, “the path to a growth mindset is a journey, not a proclamation.”

So how can we stay on that journey when teaching growth mindset to our students?

Give students as deep and full of an understanding as you can of the concept. It’s important to teach students as much as you can about why you are telling them that they can grow their brains. Get them to understand the science behind it by explaining the way neurons work and the way that the brain develops. This handout was created by Brainology, an interactive program started by Carol Dweck, and it was used in her studies to help students understand how they can grow their brains. If you are teaching older students, they might enjoy some of the informative Ted Talks on the subject, in which Eduardo Briceno gives a fascinating explanation of “The Power of Belief: Mindset and Success” is one of my favorites. If you have younger students, there are some great picture books out there like Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, Stretch It, Shape It by JoAnn Deak Ph.D.which get into the science of the brain and how we get smarted by trying new things.

Show them examples of the growth mindset in action. Telling them that they can do anything they set their mind to is all well and great, but teaching them about people who have found great success because of their growth mindset will show them that the impossible is sometimes possible. Famous figures such as Bethany Hamilton, Michael Jordan, Jack Andraka, Thomas Edison, JK Rowling, Malala Yousafz, Josh Waitzkin, and Albert Einstein all failed at some time in their lives, and then through hard work and perseverance accomplished so much. As Dweck said in "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids" published in Scientific America, it is important to tell kids these stories.

Make sure that you are giving them opportunities to be challenged on a daily basis. If you tell your students that mistakes challenges all help them to grow and learn, but you aren't giving them a chance to ever fail, you’re not really helping them to learn the power of a growth mindset. Give them challenging work. Make sure that the work that you give them is often a little bit above what you think they can do. Consider whether or not you have been dumbing down your expectations—and if your students have been lowering theirs as a result.

Teach them multiple ways to find success, and then let them go that path on their own. Another common misconception of the growth mindset is that it is about just really trying hard. Instead, students need to learn multiple strategies to overcome hurdles they face. So give them a few ways to solve a problem and then encourage them to find their own. Give them time and space to try them out—to get frustrated and work through that frustration and figure out how to get where they need to go.

Let them see how you make mistakes and learn from them by trying something new whenever you can. You might try to teach growth mindset and fall flat on your face. But at least you’re showing them that you are willing to give it a try. If you never try something new, if you depend on the same trusty lesson plans year after year because you know they work, how can you show your students that it is okay to fail?

Try some new methods to teach your students a growth mindset, reflect on the mistakes you make, and learn from that experience. You can grow your brain too, you know!

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.