What is a Growth Mindset?

Mindset refers to a person’s set of attitudes and the way that they think. A Growth Mindset is the belief that our attributes are malleable, and that through effort and learning they can be improved.

A Growth Mindset isn’t something that is developed overnight, but rather it is developed over time. Many factors contribute to someone’s mindset – these include previous experiences, the environment and the culture they are in, and their motivation to improve.

A Growth Mindset does not equate to the belief that anyone can do anything. Instead, it is the belief that anyone can get better

Growth Mindset is not just about telling students to try harder or that it is just the taking part that matters. Other misconceptions we have seen include believing it is a quick fix, it is the only thing that matters or that praise should be given just to boost self-esteem. Rather, it is a theory about how people view themselves and how they can improve. Having a Growth Mindset provides a firm platform for future learning to take place.

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The differences between fixed and Growth Mindsets

Growth Mindset is the idea that through the right strategies we can improve our abilities. Those with a fixed mindset believe that you either have those abilities naturally or you don’t. Those with a fixed mindset may view doing badly at a subject or in a test as ‘proof’ that they aren’t clever enough to do well at that subject. As a result, they are more likely to dis-engage from the task, which then leads to them not doing well. In this respect, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those with a Growth Mindset are more likely to focus on their processes and behaviours after a setback and reflect on what they could do differently next time. This enhances motivation and by placing an emphasis on learning, is more likely to lead to future improvements.

Those with a fixed mindset want to prove themselves. Those with a Growth Mindset are more concerned with improving themselves

On the other hand, fixed mindset is the idea that our attributes are set in stone and largely unchangeable. This means that when those with a fixed mindset fail at a certain subject, they attribute this to the subject “not being their thing”. Having a fixed mindset can also limit learning, as it causes individuals to avoid using new strategies: they fear looking stupid and see failure as a judgment of their abilities and indeed of who they are.

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What’s the science behind the Growth Mindset theory?

Growth Mindset was born out of decades worth of research initially based on motivation. One of the seminal studies in this field found that those who had been praised for their natural ability and intelligence did worse in subsequent tasks, enjoyed the tasks less and were more likely to give up quickly compared to those who had been praised for their effort and processes.

Other research from neuroscience has expanded our understanding of how malleable our brain and our abilities actually are. Our brains are constantly re-wiring and re-shaping as a direct result of our experiences. Cells in the brain known as neurons are connected to thousands of other neurons, and as we practice activities this network grows, and existing connections can be strengthened.

The brain being malleable doesn’t mean we can all get to the same destination – but where you start doesn’t have to be where you finish

Research supports the concept of the brain being malleable; London Taxi drivers have to pass a test known as ‘The Knowledge’, which takes many years of studying as it requires them to be able to navigate over 320 different routes throughout the capital. When researchers studied the brains of taxi drivers they found that the part of their brain largely responsible for spatial awareness grew significantly as they completed their studying. Similar results have also been found in other areas, specifically in young musicians.

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The benefits of having a Growth Mindset

Evidence suggests that a Growth Mindset is associated with responding better to setbacks, seeking out higher quality feedback and increased resilience. Some, though certainly not all, research has found that it is linked to getting better grades as well (this appears especially true for struggling students).

A Growth Mindset does not guarantee success – but believing you can get better, and knowing how to, makes a great foundation for self-improvement

Having a Growth Mindset also helps improve mental health and general wellbeing. Recent research has shown that a focus on having a Growth Mindset can help how stressed students deal with pressure as well as reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression

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Growth Mindset in schools

Growth Mindset is arguably one of the most popular psychological theories in education. A recent survey found that 98% of teachers believed that if their students had a Growth Mindset it would lead to improvements in learning. However, the survey also demonstrated the need to educate teachers on strategies to develop this, as only 20% of teachers believed they were good at fostering a Growth Mindset and 85% wanted more training and practical strategies.

Research has shown that the type of praise teachers give students can have an impact on their mindset and motivation. To develop a Growth Mindset, teachers could concentrate on giving their students praise that concentrates on their strategy (i.e. “you must have worked really hard at that”) rather than on their abilities (for example: “you are so clever”).

Praise can be a double edged sword. Used wisely it can boost motivation, mindset and resilience. Done badly, it can do more harm than good

Developing a Growth Mindset in schools is beneficial as it creates students who are gritty, seek out better feedback, persist for longer and cope better with transitions. This is because students with a Growth Mindset recognise that failure is not something to be ashamed of and often provides opportunities to learn and improve.

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How to develop a Growth Mindset in your classroom

There are a number of strategies that teachers can implement in order to promote and encourage students to develop a Growth Mindset. Some may be more applicable than others, so it often requires a bit of trial and error and a lot of patience to figure out what works best in your classroom.

The key is to develop a culture and environment where students have high expectations, get quality feedback, and are motivated to improve

Growth Mindset and Questioning

If teachers are able to get students to ask themselves questions such as “What would I do differently next time?”, this may help develop a Growth Mindset. Questions like this are great as they stop students from dwelling on the past by giving them a sense of control over their situation, whilst also facilitating the opportunity to identify and focus on what they need to improve in the future.

Growth Mindset and Praise

The type of praise that students are given by their teachers can have differing impacts on their mindset. In one particular study students were given either process or person praise when solving a problem. They then had to solve a more difficult problem, which they were told they were unsuccessful at. The researchers found that the students who had been given process praise e.g. “you did really well; you must have tried hard” showed higher levels of resilience and effort when attempting to solve the difficult problem and did not attribute their failure to a lack of ability.

On the other hand, students who had been given person praise e.g. “you are so clever” displayed a fixed mindset and were less resilient, blamed their failure on a lack of ability and did not try new strategies for fear of looking stupid. Therefore, if teachers want to develop a Growth Mindset in their students, process praise should be used.

Growth Mindset and Failure

Students have a tendency to see failure and success as black and white and it is this kind of thinking that puts them under excessive stress and pressure. Creating a supportive environment where students think of failure as part of the learning process can help develop a Growth Mindset and reduce pessimism, increase self-esteem and encourage students to tackle challenging tasks. This is because it’s not failure that students fear, but the perceived negative consequences that follow and its potential to damage their self-image.

Growth Mindset and Feedback

Mindset is just the belief that one can get better. Feedback provides the direction and indeed the tools for doing so. The danger is that if people are only looking for praise, then when they receive negative feedback, they often take this personally and get defensive. Teachers therefore need to encourage students not to see feedback as a reflection of their abilities but instead as an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in order to make improvements.

Growth Mindset and Revision

It is a real challenge to motivate students who have put lots of effort into their revision but fail to achieve when it comes to the exam. For such students, fostering a Growth Mindset is challenging as simply telling them to work harder would not be beneficial. Instead, it may be that these students need to be taught more effective revision strategies. For them it may not be about working harder, it’s helping them work smarter.

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Growth mindset strategies

Developing a Growth Mindset is one way in which teachers can help their students reach their full potential and flourish. This is easier said than done, as one-off strategies tend not to work long term; but if it part of a long-term vision and in an environment that both challenges and supports students can be very valuable. To get the ball rolling, a good starter activity can help get the conversations flowing and act as a call to action.

Growth Mindset strategies work best if they are subtle and stealthy. If they are part of a long term strategy and culture they are far more likely to work.

Famous Failures

Dispelling the myth that ‘successful’ people have always been successful can open up a good conversation about how to react to setbacks. One such example is the author J.K Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book (The Philosopher’s Stone) was rejected by 12 publishers before finally being accepted and reaching sales of 400 million copies. By having the students reflect on someone they admire and have them research what setbacks they had to overcome is a good way to enhance their motivation to improve.

Letter Writing

A second strategy that teachers could use which is based on good research is to encourage their class to write letters to younger students about having a Growth Mindset and how this could or has helped them achieve at school. Writing this letter will not only help the older students, but will also help the younger ones as well.

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Applying Growth Mindset to different subjects

Developing a Growth Mindset can be very useful as it can lead to higher attainment across all subjects. This is because Growth Mindset does not focus on what students learn but instead their attitudes towards learning.

However, Growth Mindset strategies are more likely to work if the are incorporated into their subject, as having a Growth Mindset in Maths may look very different to having one in English. If students are given strategies in the context in which they are applicable, then they are more likely to practice them and better understand the positive impact they have.

Developing a Growth Mindset towards English or towards Maths may look very different – imbed the belief that students can improve across all subjects

Growth Mindset and Maths

Maths is often a subject that many students struggle with, which can lead to a fixed mindset, where students come to believe that they are not a ‘maths person’. Evidence suggests that teachers who demonstrate multiple strategies to teach a maths concept are more likely to have students who develop a Growth Mindset. This may be because knowing multiple strategies means that if students fail at their first attempt, they are more likely to persist, as they have other methods they can use that may be effective.

Growth Mindset and English

In order to encourage a Growth Mindset, teachers should consider the type of feedback they give to students on their essays. Many students fail to look past the grade they are given which leads to key feedback being missed. Getting the balance between reporting on someone’s current level and how they can improve is tricky as their is not much wiggle room, but done effectively can have a profound impact on the learner.

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Is it easy to develop a growth mindset?

Developing a growth mindset isn’t easy, however it is achievable with time and effort. Students can start developing a growth mindset by recognising that by working hard and learning from their mistakes they can get better.

How do you develop a growth mindset?

A growth mindset can be developed by monitoring and evaluating your performances to identify how you can improve next time. Another way in which you can develop a growth mindset is by talking to yourself in a positive way. For example, instead of saying “I can’t do it”, say “I can’t do it yet”.

How can I help my child develop a growth mindset?

Research has shown that parents can help their child develop a growth mindset by praising their efforts rather than praising their existing talents. Other research suggests that viewing their setbacks as learning opportunities increases your child’s belief that they can improve.

How can I develop growth mindset in the classroom?

Growth mindset can be developed in the classroom by providing students with a range of different strategies that help improve the way they work and their ability to cope with pressure. These include having high expectations, providing high quality feedback, introducing tasks that stretch them and by reducing their fear of failure.

Does developing a growth mindset in students help improve grades?

Some research suggests that there may be a link between growth mindset and grades, especially for struggling students. One study which looked at over 160,000 students found that students who have a growth mindset consistently outperform those who do not, an effect which remained consistent across different socioeconomic groups. However, it is worth noting that other studies have failed to find a similar link. Growth mindset can also improve grades by removing stereotype threats where students believe that only a select group will achieve in a certain subject.

What is the difference between a fixed mindset and growth mindset?

With a growth mindset, we believe our abilities can be improved through effort and learning whereas with a fixed mindset we believe our attributes are fixed and largely set in stone. Those with a fixed mindset often limit their learning by avoiding new situations and see failure as a judgement of their abilities.

Further Reading

If you want to learn more about Growth Mindset and how to develop one in your students, you may be interested in our Growth Mindset Teacher CPD workshops, available both in-person and live online.

For self-access, in-house CPD on Growth Mindset and many more topic areas, check out the Teacher CPD Academy. There, teachers can learn through Interactive Courses, a wealth of Reading Resources, Expert Insight interviews with renowned researchers and educators and more.

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