Transform Student Learning: Growth Mindset for Classroom

Applying a growth mindset for classroom teaching has the power to completely change the way your students learn.

Students who have an understanding of how they can use a growth mindset in the classroom are more resilient and creative problem solvers. Because of this, these students understand what it means to be successful, and what they need to do to achieve their goals.

If you are a teacher, it goes without saying that you want your students to be independent, creative, problem-solvers and thinkers. If you are a parent, you will feel the same way for your children. Parents and teachers both want to see children learn to use a growth mindset to connect the dots between hard work and results.

A few years ago, while working at a world renown international boarding school, I served as a member of the Positive Education Committee. This committee was made up of educators that were tasked with researching ways that a growth mindset for classroom teaching could be applied to improve student learning. In my research on growth mindset, Carol Dweck’s Mindset provided deep insight into how I could use this powerful tool to transform my classroom.

In this post, I will share the strategies I uncovered in my research that I applied in my own teaching practice. Most importantly though, I will share actual, real-world practical applications that transformed the way I ran my classroom and the way my students viewed learning.

1. Change the Way You Talk About Marks

The single most powerful application of a growth mindset for classroom teaching involves changing the way you communicate about marks with both your students and their parents.

Throughout my career as a teacher, I have had the opportunity to speak about marks with parents from all over the world. Some of these parents were wealthy professionals that were so successful they were making more money per month than I was making that year! I am talking about the 0.01%-ers of the world.

I very quickly learned during these conversations that many of these parents held onto one belief very, very strongly. They had either chosen our school for the high quality education, or for the promise of high marks. I learned that people are usually interested in a high quality education because they believe it leads to high marks.

So really, to these people, it was about the marks. And boy, oh boy, did they have strong beliefs about the value of high marks!

Marks as Achievement (Fixed Mindset)

Many people believe that a mark can summarize how good you are at something. If you are really good at something, you get to go to a really good school. If you keep getting good marks at that school, you are told that you are so good that you can have a really good job. That really good job will give you lots of money. Which is good.

This is essentially the thinking that a lot of the parents had at this prestigious boarding school. The problem with this thinking is that it is incredibly damaging to student learning!

Here’s why.

When students view marks as an achievement, they internalize their results and attach them to their self worth. They ‘become the mark’, so to speak. Students who score high become the ‘smart kids’ and students who score low become the ‘not smart kids’. From there, schools stream students in a way that essentially determines the path they will take for the rest of their lives.

Now when parents get involved, this is even worse! Especially parents who are paying a lot of money for their children to go to a ‘good school’. There is this idea that high marks can be bought and do not need to be earned. This, of course, goes against the entire idea of the growth mindset definition! A growth mindset believes that success is earned through hard work and dedication. It is not bought, and it almost never comes to us easily.

Now imagine explaining the growth mindset definition to a parent whose only goal is to get their child a high grade so that they can get into Yale. After having this conversation repeatedly, I can tell you that it is about as easy as lifting a brick house.

People with a fixed mindset believe that a mark can define your ability. They do not believe that it is possible to change your skill set, and they do not always see the connection between authentic learning and high marks. It is hard to convince fixed mindset people that learning to love learning and practicing is worth the effort on the road to success.

Rather than seeing a low mark as information to improve, the fixed mindset believes that the mark somehow defines them (or their child) as a person. This often leads to a very defensive and confrontational reaction when the marks aren’t high!

Grades as a Communication Tool (Growth Mindset)

We know that people with a fixed mindset tend to believe that grades have the power to define us. By comparison, growth mindset individuals believe that grades are a communication tool. Rather than communicating ‘how smart you are’, grades communicate information to students about about what they understand so that they can improve.

When students receive low grades, they tend to internalize them. Students who fail start to identify with their grades and believe they are ‘bad at’ certain subjects. To fix this, it is important that teachers use marks to start a conversation. Students need to understand that a low grade simply tells them which areas they can improve in.

Now this brings me to one of the most important responsibilities a teacher has: providing detailed feedback. If you give a student a failing grade, but don’t explain why they failed, they have no choice but to internalize the message of ‘I am a failure’.

By contrast, provide specific feedback that points out the places where the student went wrong. Provide them with a similar exercise that they can use to put that feedback into action. Show them the value of grades as feedback. Make sure that they understand that there is more to the grade then just how high or low it is. Teach them how to ‘level up’ from a low level to a higher level by using your feedback.

Having these conversations with students and parents requires you to have a good understanding of a growth mindset definition. Explain to them how valuable it is to learn and grow from grades. The feedback that comes with the grade is always more important that the value of the grade.

2. Use a Growth Mindset to Normalize Mistakes in the Classroom

When you think back to your teachers, how often did they make mistakes? When they did, do you remember the entire class making a really big deal of it? That’s because teachers are often seen first and foremost as a source of knowledge. Teachers are subject experts in their respective fields. They shouldn’t make mistakes… right?

One of the reasons I burnt out as a teacher was that I am a natural perfectionist. I have a really, really hard time when things don’t go my way and when I make mistakes. I had to work really hard to prepare my lessons so that I knew exactly what was going to happen and to make sure that nothing ever went wrong.

This can be dangerous in a classroom setting. If I wasn’t able to make mistakes, what would that teach my students? Would this promote a culture in my classroom that is intolerant of mistake making? Will everyone be afraid to raise their hand?

Make Mistakes And Be Excited When You Do

To fix this, I learned to apply a growth mindset for classroom mistakes. I worked hard to make struggling, failure, and mistakes become normal and accepted as part of my classroom culture. This meant that I had to show my students that it is okay to make mistakes. The best way to do this is to show them.

If you make a mistake, own it! Make a really, really big deal out of it. And I don’t mean in a sarcastic or dramatic way. Call attention to the mistake. Show how knowing that you made a mistake helps you improve your understanding of the problem. Go on a tangent about what would happen if you would have continued with the mistake. Turn the mistake into a seriously teachable moment that your students won’t forget!

I have thrown entire lesson plans in the garbage because I’ve made a mistake in my solution and spent the entire class having the students help me fix it. My students learned more about perseverance and resilience from that exercise then they would have if I had just stood there and solved the problem without making a mistake.

There is great power in mistake making. Making a mistake is not a reflection on your intelligence or your students’ intelligence. Rather, the way you react to your mistakes is what counts. Choose to model curiosity in the face of error. Demonstrate just how powerful it can be to fully understand a mistake.

For better or for worse, teachers are a source of knowledge. After all, you need to have at least some understanding of a complex topic if you are going to explain it. However, modelling a growth mindset for classroom mistakes shows students that real, authentic mistake making is much more powerful then just being knowledgable.

3. Use a Growth Mindset for Classroom Praise

Use a growth mindset for classroom interactions to change the way you have conversations with students.

We all know the value of positively reinforcing good behavior such as getting the correct answer. However, if we aren’t careful, the way we award praise can send the wrong message to our classes.

Every classroom has above average students. There are also many average students, and a few below average students. The above average students tend to be the ones who are willing to share deep insight into class discussions. When these students share, it is natural for us to want to praise them for their astute observations and their keen intellect. However, if we consider a growth mindset for classroom interactions, this needs to change.

There are many takeaways about growth mindset Carol Dweck has shared that revolutionized my thinking. One of the most important ones is about the way I give praise to students (and my own children). Rather than praising intelligence and natural ability, a growth mindset for classroom interactions praises perseverance and practice.

Saying things like ‘you are so smart!’ or ‘I am very impressed by how much you know!’ sends the message to students that intelligence is a fixed trait. It removes all of the effort that goes into getting to the point where a person knows so much.

The Research

In Carol Dweck’s Mindset, she shares the results of a study where one group of students is praised for their ability, while another is praised for their effort. Consider the following two comments:

  • Praising ability: “Wow you got all of these problems correct. You are so smart!”
  • Praising effort: Wow you got all of these problems correct. You must have worked really hard!”

Dweck’s team found that praising intelligence resulted in students that were less willing to take on a second, more challenging problem. However, praising students for effort resulted in a willingness to attempt a second, more challenging problem.

So what does this mean? It means that by showing children the value of effort, we do not make them think that they have some ‘special gift’ that makes them smart. Rather, we show them that hard work is what leads to success.

4. Encourage Failure

Wait… encourage failure? As in, help your students fail? Isn’t that the opposite of what you are supposed to do?

Now, I’m not talking about encouraging your students to give up and fail the class. What I mean is to show students how they can use a growth mindset in the classroom to change the way they see failure.

Failure as Feedback

Much like making mistakes, or getting a low mark, failure tends to have a negative reputation in the classroom. We often see failure as a way of being told that we aren’t good at something.

However, applying a growth mindset for classroom teaching shows students that failure, just like marks, is feedback. Failure is feedback on what we can do to improve for next time. A person with a growth mindset knows that there will always be another chance after failing. Growth mindsets believe that we come back stronger after we learn lessons from failing. We master the challenge after failing repeatedly and learning each time.

Don’t Be Afraid of Students Who Fail

Early in my teaching career, I remember being afraid of students who had failed. I had this fear that their failure would somehow be my failure. My fear was that I had not done a good enough job teaching them and that I was responsible for their lack of success. I was terrified that angry parents would come at me with torches and pitchforks and blame me. Dramatic, I know!

As I grew in my profession, I came to understand that this was a misguided fear. I learned how to work with students who do not succeed. I learned how to talk to these students about their failures. Some students had become so used to failing grades that they had internalized the message that they ‘aren’t good at math’.

It turns out, all it takes is just convincing failing students that failure is feedback that tells them how to improve.

The tricky part is when a student is so used to failing that they lose all motivation to improve. These types of students are so discouraged by constantly failing that they don’t even care about their feedback. The fixed mindset has such a hold on these students that they believe the marks they receive are commentary on their ability and their self-worth.

In order to reach these students, I gave them something they weren’t used to getting: positive attention from their math teacher. As bad as it sounds, I have found that many teachers shy away from failing students. They require more work, and the job is quite taxing as it is without taking on a student is struggling.

Instead of accepting the labels failing students have attached to them, be more deliberate with showing these students that they are valued in the classroom. This is as easy as getting to know them better and greeting them with a smile as they enter the classroom. Get to know their interests and show them that, while your subject might not be their strong suit, they have other skills and passions that are valuable. This helps them see you as a kind person that is there to help. It helps them see that with a bit more effort and practice, they can start to learn from their failures to improve.

5. Use Growth Mindset Quotes

Many growth mindset thinkers are quoted with incredibly powerful words that enhance the way you apply a growth mindset for classroom teaching. There are also many growth mindset quotes for kids specifically that make growth a relatable topic for children.

Consider exploring a list of quotes for growth mindset. Choose your favorites to use frequently throughout your lessons. You can use growth mindset quotes in any way you wish!

Consider these ideas:

Growth Mindset Classroom Printable Posters
  • Print and place a personalized quote on each student’s desk to read when they enter the classroom. This will set a growth mindset tone for your lesson that will set each student up for success.
  • Integrate your favorite quotes into your lessons by using them often. For example, if a student refers to how smart someone else is, consider quoting Einstein: “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
  • Use minimalist definition posters to remind students of the key terms they should remember when developing a growth mindset.
mindset definitions poster bundle
Hang these 8 mindset definition posters in your classroom to remind students of the key language to use when building a growth mindset!

What Will Your Classroom Look Like?

If you choose to apply and model a growth mindset for classroom teaching, your students will catch on and it will transform the way they learn and live.

Teachers have so much power to transform. Not only do teachers have the ability to influence what students learn, but they also have the ability to influence how they learn.

Without realizing it, we may choose to apply fixed mindset principles by teaching children that marks define their ability. Alternatively, we can intentionally introduce them to a growth mindset and the power to see mistakes, struggle, and failure as feedback and growth opportunities. We can keep talking about how important intelligence is, or we can start recognizing the power of effort.

Teachers are more than just a source of knowledge. Teachers have the power to shape the way students perceive events in and out of their classrooms. Take the opportunity to introduce a growth mindset into the classroom and watch your students transform into open-minded problem solvers that embrace challenge with open arms.

If you are interested in hearing more about my experience with growth mindset for classroom and school applications, check out this video.

Don’t forget to share this post with your friends and family on social media! If you know a teacher who is looking to learn more about growth mindset, this post could be just what they need!

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