Growth Mindset for Teachers: Educating Your Students

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Mindset" by Carol Dweck. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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You know that your students need to have a growth mindset. But do you know how to instill a growth mindset in your students? And what about your own? How does your mindset as a teacher affect your students? A growth mindset for teachers is imperative for student achievement and mental health.

We’ll cover the theory behind Carol Dweck’s growth mindset for teachers and discuss ways to inculcate a growth mindset in your students and yourself. Learn why teachers’ mindsets matter.

Achievement in School

Achievement in school starts with mindset. As we’ll see, this starts with growth mindset for teachers. Researchers measured students’ mindsets as they transitioned to junior high school, which is a particularly challenging time for adolescents, then followed them for two years. 

The students started out with similar grades but after the transition with its new challenges, the grades of fixed-mindset students declined, while those of growth-oriented students improved. 

The fixed-mindset students tried to rationalize their poor grades with explanations such as “I’m no good at math” or they blamed the teacher. They viewed the change to junior high as threatening because it could expose them as failures. They protected themselves from failure by not trying (the low-effort syndrome), as the young Juilliard violinist did by not taking her violin to class. 

In contrast, the growth-minded students faced the tougher environment by doubling down and working harder. They welcomed the opportunity to learn what they like and might achieve. This is influenced by the growth mindset for teachers.

(Aside: A famous example of doubling down is the experience of George Danzig, a math graduate student at Berkeley. Once, he arrived late as his math class was ending and hurriedly copied two problems from the blackboard that he assumed were the assignment. They were quite difficult and it took him days of effort to solve them. It turns out that they weren’t intended to be homework problems, but were two famous problems no one had ever solved.)

Achievement in College

The transition to college is another crisis point in young people’s development. They go from being top students in their high school to having to prove themselves among top students from many high schools.

Anxiety is especially high in the pre-med classes. In the study of pre-med students facing the gateway chemistry course, there were big differences in how students with each mindset approached the course and in their achievement.

Everyone studied, but the two groups studied differently. The students with fixed mindsets studied the way many students have learned to study: they re-read the text and their notes and memorized as much as they could. They believed they’d done everything possible — maybe they just weren’t good at chemistry. But instead of memorizing the material, the growth-minded students looked for themes and principles across lectures. They worked to understand their mistakes — they wanted to learn, not just to excel on a test.

As a result, the growth-oriented students got higher grades than the fixed-minded students. The more difficult the material became, the harder they worked, motivating themselves and staying positive. Again, this is influenced by the growth mindset for teachers.

Mindset Versus Ability

Mindset clearly can have a huge impact on learning and achievement. 

Ability is also a factor. All children aren’t created equal — some have greater ability and become prodigies by building on their ability, seeking challenges and pursuing a love of learning. However, everyone has interests that can grow into abilities if nurtured. As noted previously, no one really knows anyone else’s potential. While abilities vary, your mindset determines where you go with them.

There are many examples of great academic achievement by children with few resources, who were thought to have dead-ended until a growth-minded teacher showed them that they could learn. For example, as recounted in the movie Stand and Deliver, teacher Jaime Escalante taught advanced calculus to inner-city Hispanic high school students in Los Angeles. Teacher mindset matters.

Other teachers had concluded they couldn’t learn, while Escalante asked himself how they could learn and how he could teach them. His students ultimately excelled and more of them took advanced placement tests than did students from elite science high schools. Escalante’s experience raises the question of how much is lost when we underestimate students’ potential. This is why the growth mindset for teachers is crucial.

Researcher Benjamin Bloom, who studied outstanding achievers, concluded that almost all people can learn under the right conditions, including support, commitment, and motivation.

Teachers’ Mindsets Matter

A German research study showed that teachers with different mindsets get different results. Fixed-mindset teachers thought abilities were set in stone. They believed they knew their students’ intelligence and potential. In their classrooms, students ended the school year in the same ability group they started in.

In contrast, teachers with a growth mindset believed all students could improve. Their students all improved no matter which ability group they started in. As the year progressed, group differences disappeared. This shows how critical growth mindsets for teachers is.

Teaching from a fixed mindset hinders student achievement and puts teachers in the role of judging students, rather than of allies helping them to learn and succeed.

Growth Mindset for Teachers

Along with growth-oriented parents, children need growth-minded teachers and coaches to help them learn to develop and succeed. Famous teachers Marva Collins and Rafe Esquith taught from a growth mindset. They believed in the growth of ability and intellect, and they loved both learning and fostering development and learning in their students. They created a nurturing environment in which they emphasized standards and hard work. This is the growth mindset for teachers.

Hard Work

One example of the growth mindset for teachers is Marva Collins. Marva Collins taught Chicago children who had reached a dead end. For instance, one boy had attended thirteen schools in four years and another had been kicked out of a mental health center. On her first day, Collins told the students: ‘Welcome to success. But success is not coming to you, you must come to it.” 

Her students worked all day with only a short lunch break. They wrote every day and, as their skills grew, they tackled increasingly difficult material. When 60 Minutes did a program on the school, the children expressed pride in working hard. One student told reporter Mike Wallace that he liked the hard work “because it makes your brain bigger.”

Similarly, Rafe Esquith taught Los Angeles second graders form high-crime areas. Many had family members with drug, alcohol, and emotional problems, so the children didn’t get much support at home. To emphasize the value of effort, Esquith regularly reminded them of how much they’d learned and how difficult concepts had gotten easier with practice. He told them he wasn’t any smarter than they were, but knew more because he worked at learning. His motto was, “There are no shortcuts.”

Standards and Nurturing

Collins set extremely high standards. 

For instance, three- and four-year-olds used a vocabulary book for high school students; seven-year-olds read The Wall Street Journal. However, she also created an atmosphere of love and concern. She also told the children she would love them even when they didn’t love themselves.

A caring, nonjudgmental learning environment is important for performance. Researchers who studied 102 high-achieving musicians, artists, athletes, and mathematicians found that their first teachers were warm, accepting, and committed to teaching them. This is an example of the growth mindset for teachers.

Like Collins, Esquith maintained an atmosphere of affection and personal commitment to his students, while setting high standards. He decried what he viewed as slipping standards in many schools, noting that educators don’t help children when they gloss over deficiencies — they consign them to continued failure and a lifetime of low-wage jobs. His fifth grade reading assignments included: Of Mice and Men, Native Son, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, A Separate Peace, and To Kill a Mockingbird. He required his sixth graders to pass an algebra final that eighth and ninth graders in most schools would struggle with.

Besides setting high standards, growth-minded teachers show students how to meet them. Collins didn’t just tell her students to read Shakespeare’s MacBeth. She and her students read and talked about each line together. Esquith spent considerable time planning passages for each student to read in class, so that a shy child would succeed and a more advanced student would be challenged. He met with students before and after school and even on vacation. His goal was for students to be able to learn and think on their own.

Growth Mindset for Teachers: Educating Your Students

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  • The difference between a growth and a fixed mindset
  • How a fixed mindset keeps you back throughout your life: education, relationships, and career
  • The 7 key ways to build a growth mindset for yourself

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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