Is it enough for teachers to have a growth mindset?

A first grade teacher gives her students goal-focused feedback to help them develop their writing skills.

New research suggests that what teachers actually do in the classroom is more important than their beliefs when it comes to helping students develop a growth mindset.

What is a growth mindset?

A growth mindset, the belief that intelligence can be significantly developed, is often contrasted with a fixed mindset, the belief that intelligence is a fixed trait that can’t change very much. Decades of research show a powerful link between growth mindset and achievement — when students have a growth mindset, they do better in school. (To learn more about growth mindset, see “Mindset Misconceptions: Trying Hard ≠ Growth Mindset”)

No one is born with a fixed or growth mindset — Our beliefs are shaped by the subtle and not so subtle messages we receive from our environment. These messages help us understand what is valued in a given context, which in turn can shape our goals and behaviors. They can lead us to focus solely on our performance, or they can help us focus on our growth and improvement. Importantly, our beliefs can change over time and can be different in different contexts and in different domains. For students — their beliefs are often shaped by school and classroom policies and practices.

While there has been a lot of research looking at the impact of mindsets on achievement, less is known about how teachers shape students’ mindsets. New research from Dr. Kathy Liu Sun, mathematics education researcher, takes a closer look at the relationship between teachers’ classroom practices and their students’ beliefs about math.

What does the research show?

Sun first surveyed 40 math teachers across six California middle schools and 3,400 of their students at the beginning and end of an academic school year. Based on the first survey, she then selected eight teachers to do a closer case study with over the course of the year, which included classroom observations, interviews, and an analysis of course materials.

Interestingly, Sun found no link between teachers’ mindsets and students’ mindsets. That is, teachers who endorsed a growth mindset were not more likely to have students with a growth mindset. Instead, it was teachers’ classroom practices that led to students having a fixed or growth mindset.

Specifically, teachers who endorsed multidimensional views of math (i.e. who were more likely to believe that there are multiple ways to solve math problems, and that math is a complex tangle of ideas, concepts, and methods) were more likely to have students with a growth mindset compared to teachers who had a one-dimensional view of math (i.e. who were more likely to believe that math involves mostly facts and procedures that have to be learned, and that there is usually only one way to solve a math problem).

Why does having a one-dimensional view of math lead to more fixed mindset thinking?

Teachers who endorsed a one-dimensional view of math were also more likely to do the following in their classroom:

  • Group students based on past achievement
  • Convey different expectations for different ability groups
  • Characterize low achieving students as incapable of offering help to others
  • Focus praise on accuracy and speed
  • Not ask students to explain their thinking or work through confusion or mistakes on their own
  • Only give students one chance to submit work for a grade
These practices can lead to a fixed mindset because they signal that math performance is static.

For example, sorting students and displaying different expectations for different ability groups (i.e. low performing students have lower expectations placed on them) sends the message that students are stuck where they are — they are either good at math, or bad at math — and there’s no room for significant improvement. Similarly, publicly praising students for their accuracy and speed, not asking them to explain their thinking, and only giving students one chance to submit work for a grade signals that performance is the ultimate goal instead of learning or productive struggle.

Why does having a multidimensional view of math lead to more growth mindset thinking?

Teachers who endorsed multidimensional views of math were more likely to engage in other practices that align with growth mindset messaging.

These teachers were more likely to:

  • Use mixed ability grouping
  • Create the norm that all can contribute
  • Promote conceptual thinking (not just rote memorization)
  • Focus praise and encouragement on process and strategy
  • Give math tasks that apply to multiple ability levels
  • Teach students that the brain strengthens in response to challenge
  • Help students see that mistakes are a normal and valuable part of learning
  • Ask students to explain their thinking and to try to work through confusion or mistakes on their own
  • Incorporate formative feedback
These practices signal that all students can be successful, despite prior ability, and they focus on students’ growth and learning instead of just the final grade.

For example, teachers in these classrooms made explicit attempts to group students based on how they might contribute to the group’s collective mastery of mathematics concepts, sending the message that the contribution of all students was valuable. Multiple methods of solving the same problem were also encouraged (e.g., “find 12 percent of the same number using different methods”), which legitimized different approaches to solving problems and meant that it wasn’t always the same students being publicly acknowledged for their work.

Feedback (praise) in these classrooms also tended to focus on the processes used, effort, and students’ ability to explain their thinking process, rather than on producing the correct answer or solving problems quickly. These teachers were also more likely to utilize formative assessments to help students understand what they had mastered and where to focus their efforts moving forward, and often allowed students to resubmit work or retake exams to improve scores, thus helping students focus on learning as a process.

What are the key takeaways?

An important takeaway from the study is that teachers’ mindsets and even their explicit use of growth mindset language were often not aligned with their actual classroom practices and did not lead to their students developing a growth mindset. In fact, teachers who explicitly endorsed a growth mindset often engaged in practices that implicitly contradicted this message and produced more fixed mindsets in their students.

The importance of students having a growth mindset has become increasingly irrefutable, which has led to a tidal wave of interest among educators wanting to know how best to bring it to their students. But research on what specific teaching practices support students in developing a growth mindset is still young. While it may seem disheartening to learn that many common practices like tracking are negatively impacting students’ belief in their abilities, this study also provides exciting insights and concrete steps teachers can take to design growth mindset promoting learning experiences.

Developing a growth mindset is a practice that we all — student and teacher alike — must learn to embrace as an ongoing process. The more we continue to explore and practice having a growth mindset, the more resilient we, and our students, can become, even when entering contexts that may send us fixed mindset messages.

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.