Growth Mindset in Action

A Q&A with a 3rd grade teacher

If you work in education, there is a pretty good chance you have heard the term “growth mindset.” Popularized by Dr. Carol Dweck in her 2006 book, ‘Mindset,’ growth mindset initiatives have since spread to classrooms, schools, and districts across the country.

A growth mindset is simply the belief that intelligence can be developed. A growth mindset is often contrasted with a fixed mindset, or the belief that intelligence is innate and unchangeable. Decades of research show a powerful link between growth mindset and academic achievement. Research also shows that mindsets can be shifted, and when they are, students do better in school.

Mindsets are shaped by both the subtle and explicit messages we receive from our environments, which means we can have a growth mindset in one context and a fixed mindset in another. For example, research by Dr. Kathy Liu Sun has found that students are more likely to have a growth mindset in math classrooms where they are encouraged to explain their thinking, take risks, make mistakes, and persevere through challenges. On the other hand, students are more likely to develop a fixed mindset in classrooms where they are praised for speed and accuracy, not asked to explain their thinking or given time to struggle through confusion, and when they are only given one chance to submit work for a grade.

Despite this exciting research pointing to specific growth mindset classroom practices, the question still remains —

What does a growth mindset classroom actually look like?

To answer this question, we teamed up with the Teaching Channel to film two outstanding teachers. The video above shows elementary school teacher Maricela Montoy-Wilson encouraging her students to persist through challenges using a growth mindset framework.

Maricela has had a strong focus on growth mindset for over seven years, so we reached out to hear more about her process for creating a growth mindset classroom culture.

Q1: What are you doing in the video?

A1: In this video, you see me posing a challenging task to my students and encouraging them to make their process visible, so we can all learn how to tackle hurdles and mistakes. It’s important for students to experience challenges, as well as understand strategies to overcome them that make them stronger as mathematicians and problem solvers. This footage was filmed in the middle of a second grade year.

Q2: How long did it take you to develop a culture like that?

A2: I try to start the year strong in developing a growth mindset in my students. It is incredibly important that they understand that their intelligence is malleable. This helps foster their ability to persist in the face of challenge, embrace a challenge, and learn from it, because challenges can otherwise be very daunting and defeating.

I first start by introducing growth mindset explicitly for a couple of weeks in direct mini-lessons (~15 min/day). The first week consists of teaching students scientifically about the brain — its parts and their various functions. The second week consists of talking more about those functions with respect to learning, and drawing analogies to a muscle. For example, explaining that the brain is like a muscle, that needs exercise. Just like we don’t go to the gym to lift a pencil (no, no, our muscles would never grow that way — it’s too easy!), we don’t do easy things to strengthen our brain.

We talk specifically about what would “feed” the brain — reading, challenging math problems, sustained “workouts.” This sets a strong foundation for concepts like productive struggle, feedback, and persistence, which I think fold into all content areas. I support this work by praising the process, normalizing struggle, and posing a challenge with enthusiasm.

Q3: How did you first start bringing growth mindset strategies into your classroom?

A3: As educators, we always try to improve our practice. While I knew growth mindset was a personal passion of mine, it took time for me to understand what it meant for me individually, and how to then imbue the passion to my students. In contemplating where to start, I encourage educators to be introspective with where they are in developing their growth mindset. When you understand and really embody a growth mindset, it’s much easier to let it permeate your day to day.

Q4: What are the most important strategies/lessons you teach students at the beginning of the school year?

A4: In terms of discourse, I start the year heavily focusing on active listening. We explicitly talk about what active listening looks like, sounds like, and feels like, as well as its importance, and connect it to both culture building for our classroom agreements, as well as an integral component to learning. It’s important that students learn right away that active listening will help them learn the most from their classmates, who I often refer to as teammates, colleagues, or teachers. They must understand what an incredible asset it is to have each other as resources who they can look to for assistance and feedback. I visually track students’ listening skills: eye contact, speaker voice, and complete sentences.

I then fold in strategies to encourage students to seek their classmates as resources. While they speak, I narrate that others are responding through hand signals: agreeing, part agreeing, disagreeing, connecting, adding on. I signal to the speaker that when they are done speaking, they look to one another to hand off the conversation. This helps them understand the purpose of them speaking to build on our collective understanding. It also serves facilitate more student-to-student discourse, with the teacher as guide, as opposed to teacher-student-teacher-student.

I give them sentence frames to ask each other for feedback, clarification, pressing their comprehension, all with the ultimate goal of truly understanding one another in order to reach deeper learning.

Q5: What is the most challenging aspect of implementing growth mindset strategies in the classroom?

A5: I think the language piece is one of the most central components to growth mindset, and one of the most difficult to change. We all have great intentions that sometimes have unintended consequences. Specifically, we tend to praise outcomes and fixed qualities, instead of the process.

To start, try just pausing to listen to your thoughts before you say them aloud. Self-assess: do you praise the process or the outcome? What inadvertent messages might your praise be sending to your students?

“You are SO curious!”

“You’re such an explorer!”

“You are working so hard!”

“You are so focused!”

“You’re so observant/perceptive!”

Q6: If you could give a piece of advice to teachers who might be new to growth mindset practices and strategies, what would you say?

A6: What excited you about growth mindset? Consider helping your students connect in a similar way. Also, be patient with yourself! Just like anything new, this will take sustained effort, purposeful practice, and reflection.

Q7: If you could give advice to more experienced teachers who are relatively familiar with growth mindset, what would you say?

A7: I would encourage teachers to consider the ways that messaging and feedback focused on growth mindset would augment and bolster their teaching. I would challenge teachers against falling into the “either content or SEL (social emotional learning)” trap, and consider ways that SEL instruction can be the how of rigorous instruction. Consider the following statements: In order to teach reading, I will teach students to tackle challenging texts, climb the hurdle of tricky words, and self-monitor to ensure they understand. This might take multiple reads, so I will need to strengthen my readers’ stamina, persistence and optimism! I will strengthen problem solvers in math by teaching them perseverance and flexible thinking.

To learn more about the videos we made with Teaching Channel, visit their blog. You can also find the videos on the Mindset Kit.


Maricela Montoy-Wilson is a third grade teacher, 2–3 Master and Lead teacher, an America Achieves Fellow, and a PERTS Fellow. She has loved mentoring teacher candidates for the past three years from the Stanford Teacher Education Program, of which she is an alumna. Maricela is currently a Mentor Teacher for the Aspire Teacher Residency Program. She has been teaching at East Palo Alto Charter School, an Aspire Public School, for seven years. Maricela is passionate about fostering strong mindsets in her scholars, and creating a strong classroom community, rich with academic discourse, inquiry, and student-led solutions. Follow her blog at maricmw.tumblr.com

PERTS is an applied research center at Stanford University. We partner with schools, colleges, and other organizations to improve student motivation and achievement on a large scale.

Want to learn more? For more information about growth mindset and ideas to help students cultivate a growth mindset, check out the PERTS Mindset Kit — A set of free online resources that introduces learning mindsets, describes why they are so important, and details what educators and parents can do to help students develop them. All of the materials are based on rigorous research and expertise from teachers who have successfully developed learning mindsets in their own classrooms.

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