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The one about teacher mindset: Studies every teacher needs to know

The one about teacher mindset: Studies every teacher needs to know

4 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset
  • The science of learning

Why this study

How much does teacher mindset impact on how students see themselves? Do the beliefs and words that teachers say in passing and with good intentions have a significant impact?

With growth mindset being arguably the most popular psychological theory currently in education, these are important and pertinent questions.

Keen to answer these exact questions, Aneeta Rattan and Carol Dweck of Stanford University and Catherine Good of Baruch College ran a series of studies to investigate, which were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2012.

They asked people to imagine that a student received a poor mark in a maths exam (65%). The participants were then quizzed on their view on their student’s ability, how they would respond to that student, and what the consequences for their response would be. Their results make for some very interesting reading.

The one about teacher mindset: Studies every teacher needs to know

The main findings

#1 When compared to those with a growth mindset, teachers with a fixed mindset were over a third more likely to view the poor exam result as proof that the student lacked maths intelligence. 

#2 Teachers with a fixed mindset were more likely to endorse a comfort-focused approach to these students, with the intention of making the student feel better (i.e. “don’t worry, not everyone can be good at maths”).

#3 Teachers with a growth mindset were more likely to endorse a strategy-focused approach to these students. This included tangible ways they could improve, and being asked questions in class so that they could practice.

#4 Students who heard comfort-focused words from their teacher were actually disheartened, with these words confirming their perceived lack of ability. This reduced their motivation, with students predicting that they will get 65% on their next exam.

#5 Students who had heard strategy-focused words from their teacher had an increase in their motivation, with them predicting that will be able to use these strategies to get around 80% in their next exam.

Related research

There is not a wealth of other research explicitly on the impact that teacher mindset has on students.

One study found that teaching teachers about Growth Mindset had little impact on student performance. Another study found that if a parent has a fixed or growth mindset, also had little impact on their child’s. What mattered more was how the parents reacted to failures and setbacks. Someone’s mindset is not always visible to others. It is hard to accurately guess someone’s beliefs. What is easier to see are their actions.

It stands to reason that the same is probably true for teachers. Students may not be able to accurately infer their teacher’s mindset, but they can accurately assess their actions. The rollercoaster that is the school year is comprised of a series of highs and lows for students. How you react to their lows will impact their motivation and how they view themselves. It appears that having a growth mindset is important, as it guides your decisions and teaching philosophy, but in itself may not be enough. It is the doing that matters.

Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

Classroom implications

Having high expectations that all your students can achieve success and improve is central to good teaching. Despite having good intentions, the comfort focused approach of telling students that ‘not everyone can be good at maths’ appears to do more harm than good as it conveys a sense of low expectations and suggests that they will forever be stuck with their low abilities. This is a classic example of the gap and difference between what the teacher says and what the student hears.

Your mindset will shape your teaching practices, which in turn impact on how students seem themselves. If you want accelerate this process, there are some guidelines that may be helpful for teachers looking to develop a growth mindset classroom. These include focusing on strategy and providing a step-by-step guide. Nothing will make students feel better than mastering something they have previously been unable to do. In the short term, it is more painful than the typical comfort focused approaches, but in the long term is worth the reward.

Read more

A review by leading researchers suggests that growth mindset interventions should be so subtle and stealthy that students are unaware that they are receiving an intervention. Having high expectations and consistently focusing on strategy helps do this.

This study is from our book, “The Science of Learning: 99 studies that every teacher needs to know”.

Reference: Rattan et al, 2012, Journal of Experimental Psychology

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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