Seven Ways to Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset

It’s not about “grit” or accountability or high-stakes environments

About six weeks ago, my son asked if he could start a cubing club for anyone interested in solving Rubix cubes together. (Heads-up: cubers can get really sensitive about calling it a Rubix cube because that’s almost never the brand they use.)

He planned it all out. They would meet on Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m. at a local grocery store that has an eating area upstairs. He gathered his friends’ cell phone numbers and reminded them on multiple days. Finally, Tuesday night rolled around.

Nobody showed up.

So, he asked them if a different time would work. He reminded them again. His friends seemed excited about it. The second Tuesday rolled around.

Nobody showed up.

For two more Tuesdays, he sat alone with his mom, trying his hardest not to be crushed by disappointment. He brainstormed possibilities for why this event was failing. Maybe they needed to do a virtual hangout. Maybe they should go earlier. Maybe the parents should get to know each other.

Finally, on the fifth Tuesday, one person showed up. Together, they solved cubes and talked about strategies and algorithms. Last night, the same kid showed up again. They had a blast and three more kids have said they will show up next week.

This whole process has been painful to watch. I so badly want to shelter my son from rejection. I want to keep him from pain. I don’t want him to fail. But ultimately, regardless of whether or not this cubing club takes off, this whole experience has actually made him bolder and more confident. But more importantly, he’s developing a growth mindset.

Never heard of a growth mindset? Here’s the basic premise. If you like these sketch animation videos, please feel free to click the “like” button and subscribe to the channel.

Developing a Growth Mindset

For all the talk of “grit” and “high standards” and “letting kids fail,” I find it interesting that a growth mindset is rarely the result of a high-pressure, high standards, accountability-driven environment. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. There’s a certain slack necessary for developing a growth mindset.

As I think about my son’s experience and the growth mindset I see in others, I notice certain trends:

  1. Allow for the Freedom to Fail: Imagine what would have happened if we told our son, “we’re going to hold you accountable for your attendance.” We would have shut down his cubing club after two weeks and given him an F. This would have led to a fixed mindset where he says, “maybe I don’t have friends” or “maybe I’m not a leader” or “maybe I shouldn’t plan events.” But that’s not how it worked. He continued to try and to make tiny tweaks and to treat each failure as a chance to refine what he was doing. He viewed the failure as a chance to learn rather than an indictment on his identity.
  2. Provide a Safe Environment: When I look at places that cultivate a growth mindset, there is often a transparency and vulnerability present. These are places with mutual trust and often deep collaboration. It’s why perseverance is such a strong feature at Pixar. It’s built into the company culture.
  3. Tap Into Intrinsic Motivation: My son loves cubing. He and his friends are planning to go to cubing competitions. They are filming videos. They look up new algorithms. He’s driven intrinsically to keep going. I think this is a key component that often gets overlooked when people talk about both the growth mindset and the idea of grit. It is really hard to develop perseverance in an area that you simply have no interest in.
  4. Respect Student Agency: People are able to develop a growth mindset when they have a greater sense of agency. When they have a general sense of control and their able to engage in self-reflection, they grow more confident and they can view mistakes as learning experiences and obstacles as problems to solve.
  5. Give Honest Feedback: I have worked with the same cohort for nearly a year and a half now and I’ve noticed a trend. The ones who have grown the most are the ones who are willing to take creative risks. They’re not afraid of mistakes. But not only that, they are the teacher candidates who openly solicit feedback. They want to know what’s working and what’s failing. They are constantly refining their craft because they believe that they will improve.
  6. Value Effort Over Results: Carol Dweck often talks about the importance of praising effort over praising ability. While I think that’s true, I’ve noticed another trend. People are more likely to develop a growth mindset when they value the effort and the process over the success or failure of the final product. And it makes sense. You often can’t control the results but you can control the effort you put into it.
  7. Find an Encouraging Community: There’s this myth out there of the resilient lone ranger sticking with it despite negative feedback. Or maybe it’s less like The Lone Ranger and more like Rudy. But when you study people with a growth mindset, you’ll notice that there is often a community (or at least a series of relationships) where they are affirmed in who they are. It’s a side of the growth mindset conversation that’s often ignored, but it’s the idea that people need to be affirmed and encouraged and challenged within a community. One of the dangers I see in the last point (valuing effort over results) is that people will say, “Don’t tell a child that they are an artist. Praise their effort in doing art.” But I think it’s a little more nuanced. Sometimes you need a community to affirm who you are and what you are doing. And often you need a nurturing environment that can provide the skills you need to succeed.

The bottom line is you can’t simply switch from a fixed to a growth mindset by just thinking differently. It requires work and action and it is often connected to culture and context. But those are all things that we, as teachers, can cultivate in our classrooms. When that happens, students take more creative risks and they produce better creative work.

Listen as a Podcast

This post is also available on my Creative Classroom podcast. If you’re someone who enjoys listening to podcasts on the way to work, this might be a great way to “read” my blog. (Note: if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to leave a review on iTunes or Google Play).

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