How Can a Growth Mindset Impact School Culture?

Beth Crastnopol, Director of Professional Development Initiatives, Gateways

How to embed a growth mindset

Imagine school communities that focus on abilities rather than limitations. Imagine that mistakes are viewed as opportunities. Imagine that teachers see all students as learners and believe that intelligence is fluid.  These are examples of a “growth mindset,” and at Gateways, we assert that this ability awareness is one of the most powerful tools we can employ in our classrooms and organizations.

What is a Growth mindset?  

Stanford University psychologist and researcher Dr. Carol Dweck identifies two sets of beliefs that individuals have about intelligence. As she writes in Education Week, “They may have a fixed mindset in which they believe that intelligence is a static trait. Some students are smart and some are not, and that’s that.  Or they may have a growth mindset, in which they believe that intelligence can be developed by various means.” 

Carol Dweck’s decades of research show that mindset has a significant impact on how we learn and perform and how we think about success and failure. One of her early experiments identified student who demonstrated an attitude of helplessness when approaching math problems that they could not solve. Half of these students were trained to see their mistakes as a result of insufficient effort; the other half received no such training. Among the trained students, they learned to persist as they faced failure, while the control group continued to demonstrate an attitude of helplessness. Over the years, Dweck refined her studies and learned that the most powerful impact came when learners were able to accept mistakes and target their efforts with productive strategies.  For example, students who demonstrate a growth mindset are much more likely to examine errors, see those errors as opportunities, and then plan strategies for success.

What does this look like in our schools? In practice, it means that each student’s journey may look very different because viewing each student through the lens of a growth mindset means looking at what they can do. One student may need a specialized reading approach to master Hebrew while another may need a computer to act as their voice if speech is challenging. Some students learn best in a small group, with specialized instruction. Others can participate with their typical peers if classroom instruction is differentiated to meet their needs.

In our day schools, congregational schools, and preschools, teachers are learning to incorporate a growth mindset into their classroom culture. I was recently at a local day school’s leadership meeting, where the contrast between fixed and growth mindset was on full display. In the midst of a conversation where teachers were expressing frustration with students who were struggling to learn Hebrew, one lamented, “We have a few students who are not able to read fluently in English and will probably never be fluent readers. How can we expect them to learn Hebrew?” Another teacher responded by describing a child who fit that profile, but was finding success with a Hebrew tutor who was using a multisensory teaching technique similar to the methodology used to teach the student English reading. This comment redirected the conversation through a growth mindset lens, and the team began to consider what strategies they could employ to build on student ability.

Perhaps the most important moments where growth mindset comes into play are when students make mistakes. How can educators handle those moments? Schools with a growth mindset culture see mistakes as opportunities and target praise toward effective effort. That is, instead of responding to mistakes by simply pointing out the right answer, teachers can use language like, “I see that you worked hard on this problem and learned that the strategy you used led to an incorrect answer. What other strategy could you try?”

Ultimately, it is our duty as professionals to take on the challenge and responsibility of discovering and utilizing strategies that create a learning pathway for each student. And we can achieve this if we adopt a growth mindset about ourselves and our work. We may not reach every student at first (or even after multiple attempts), but if we believe that we can grow as educators, then we will eventually reach a place where we can help all of our students achieve success in the classroom and beyond.

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Tagged under: growth mindset, Jewish education, Center for Professional Learning, special education