Academic culture and a myriad of social factors can often lead children to think that intelligence is inherent. Statements such as “You’re born smart”, “Boys are naturally better at maths” or “Some children just have scientific brains” are not only negative but also very damaging to growing minds – even for those claimed to be blessed with a so-called “scientific brain”. And let’s face it, the STEM urgency that led to an educational rush to prepare children with a scientific aptitude for STEM careers didn’t help, either. At this point, it makes you wonder about the other students – the ones who were deemed not to have the scientific aptitude for STEM careers. What of them? Aren’t they worthy of pursuing STEM dreams, too?
Let’s start with the basics: every child, as a human being, is born intelligent. We all have different aptitudes for a number of different things. So it is pointless to differentiate children based on what we believe to be their “inherent intelligence”. The same goes for scientific aptitude. All children are born curious and with the need to find answers. (Why else do they put things in their mouths or stick fingers in electric sockets?) Going on this logic alone, every young person is worthy of following a STEM education and career. Granted, some children might exhibit a more open interest in STEM than others, but it is also true that every child has the capacity to develop an interest in science.
30 years ago, Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett put forward a theory that children’s learning behavior and beliefs had a lasting impact on their learning outcomes. She suggested that those with interests in performance get discouraged by hardship, while those interested only in learning seek out challenging tasks in order to learn more. Dweck’s paper also proposed that those with learning goals persisted despite failure and continued to have faith in their abilities, while those with performance goals were often easily discouraged upon encountering failure and doubted their abilities. Dweck coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe each of the aforementioned learning and intelligence beliefs, respectively.
What is a growth mindset, and why is it important?
Many students tend to give up when they encounter failure and hardship in studies because they believe that it means they are simply not good at the subject, or that they lack the level of intelligence necessary to excel at the subject. This is what is referred to as a fixed mindset. However, students can also have what is referred to as a growth mindset, which states that the brain is capable of overcoming the challenges it faces in new areas of learning. It is possible to develop a growth mindset, and doing so can help a student overcome the hurdles they face in learning and develop the necessary skills to persist. For example, a growth mindset in young girls who struggle with maths can help them recognize the fact that it certainly had nothing to do with their gender. Here, a growth mindset would help them persist in their efforts and try new learning techniques in order to improve their maths skills, rather than give up because they believe that they are genetically doomed to fail at the subject. Similarly, a child from an impoverished background can, with the help of a growth mindset, learn to take his or her individual difficulties in their stride in order to overcome those hurdles. The same concept applies for young people with learning or physical disabilities: a growth mindset works to instill confidence in a student regarding their ability to develop and learn.
Recently, there has been a surge in educators and parents using the growth mindset as a way to encourage performance in young people. While it’s heartening to see the sheer volume of educators keen on helping their children and students, many aren’t implementing it correctly. For most, a growth mindset seems to represent effort or praise. But effort means nothing if it’s merely being used to try out the same techniques that didn’t work for the student in the first place. Another misinterpreting of the growth mindset is that praising a young person for trying anyway will encourage them, when in fact it is often redundant. Praise in itself is positive, but not when it’s being used to cheer up a child who has encountered difficulties. Instead, the student needs to be encouraged to find different strategies that actually work, rather than aimlessly repeating efforts that didn’t work the first time and won’t work the second. In addition to this, simply believing in achieving something is just not enough. Educators and teachers must take into account the social and cultural factors that affect their students. A child cannot be expected to improve if they lack the educational infrastructure to help them do so.
How can a growth mindset be implemented successfully in the classroom?
Let them struggle. It’s a normal impulse for most teachers to step in and help a student who seems to be struggling. However, research now shows that allowing your students to struggle a bit might actually be beneficial for them. After all, nobody grows within their comfort zone. This is where the growth mindset comes in. Teachers and educators need to actively encourage students to take on challenges. The idea is to pull them out of their comfort zone but also make sure they don’t feel abandoned or vulnerable. It’s a fine balance to strike, but a rewarding one.
Failure is okay. Effort is a big part of the growth mindset but it’s not always going to result in success, and that’s completely fine. Praising a child for trying even if they failed is meant well, but what about improving the learning curve? It’s important to acknowledge the child’s efforts and make sure they understand where they are going wrong. Here, language is important. For example, if a child has done poorly in a test, despite their best efforts, telling them “Good job! You tried your best.” is confusing; in the long run, it can lead them to believe that you have low expectations for them. Instead, “I can see you’ve tried very hard. Let’s see how you can improve for next time to do even better,” can help a child recognize what they are doing wrong so that they can learn from their mistakes. It also conveys to them that learning is a continuous process and that there is a real opportunity for improvement. It’s equivalent to telling them: “I know you can do it, and it’s okay if you get stuck, but you need to try first. If you do get stuck, we’ll try a different way of looking at it.”
There is more than one way to learn. Learning isn’t just continuous, it’s also varied. Encourage and guide your students to learn in the way that suits them best: capitalize on their strengths and ask them to think outside the box. Not all children learn the same way; some are visual learners, while others are auditory learners. However, a rigid academic culture can put pressure on children and inadvertently cap their capabilities. Teachers can help counter this by using different teaching mediums such as educational films, quizzes, class activities to teach in class. Using a variety of different pedagogies can also help create a stimulating learning environment. For example, pedagogies such as the flipped classroom encourage students to approach and understand lessons on their own, with the end result of being able to draw their own conclusions.
Finally, it’s important to understand that a growth mindset isn’t just beneficial to children, it’s equally applicable to adults as well. Teachers have a huge responsibility on their shoulders along with mounting workloads. It’s important to extend the same kindness to yourself as you do to your students when they make mistakes. Developing a growth mindset isn’t always easy, so remember that you too will make errors. It’s just as important to learn from your own mistakes as it is for your students to learn from theirs.