Two weeks ago Teach for America asked me to write a commentary on growth mindset research. You can find the article here. Below is the full version of the article:
A growth mindset for the growth mindset and what it should mean for Teach for America
Growth mindset research illuminates a common trait among successful and motivated learners, but the recommended classroom strategies are underdeveloped. But that’s where we, Teach for America corps members and alumni, come in. Our job should be to take this profound scientific understanding and let it flourish in our classrooms. The researcher reveals the most promising programs and psychological processes affecting our students, and great teachers turn that science into art.
Students with a growth mindset believe intelligence is malleable and increases with hard work. Students with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is predetermined and immobile. What’s interesting is not who is right, but who does better. Students with a growth mindset outperform the other group in academic achievement, academic risk-taking, and resiliency in the face of setbacks. Why? For a similar reason you dress up before a first date or fold in a game of poker. If you think greater effort will have a greater effect, then you step up. If you think success is beyond your control, you do less.
The importance of the research is undeniable. If students believe intelligence can increase, then classroom efforts and challenges are not markers of ineptitude but the cognitive weight-lifting that lead to even greater ability. Growth mindset leads to motivation, which leads to greater academic growth. (For more about the relationship between intelligence and motivation, check out “Stop Praising Kids for Being Smart.”) However, I am less impressed with the recommended classroom strategies stemming from this literature.
Psychologists at Stanford University demonstrate strong gains in GPA when college students read letters from other students about rocky starts to later successful college semesters. Carol Dweck has an online program called Brainology that illustrate the pliable nature of intelligence. I’m not dismissing the results of these strategies, but I am asking us to entertain a very likely and probable consideration: If these brief interventions demonstrate lasting changes, imagine what happens when teachers and school leaders develop classroom and school systems meant to nurture a growth mindset for an entire year? Surely the latter will have even greater results than the former!
Even the psychologists will tell you that what allows them to become confident in the results of their research is the same reason they are not in a position to create comprehensive educational programs. Researchers seek out large sample sizes so they can be confident that their findings reflect natural processes that affect the entire nation, not a particular classroom, school, or subset of student. To study a wide and diverse array of subjects, the researchers need to design interventions that can be quickly and easily administered (often by graduate students). Psychologists do not have the position those in education do, which is continued exposure to the exact same student population for an academic year.How then can educators and those who work with educators leverage their position to take growth mindset to the next level?
How then can educators and those who work with educators leverage their position to take growth mindset to the next level?
(1) Promote self-efficacy, the psychological term for when a person feels that success is within their reach. For some classrooms that could mean trackers for objective mastery but for others it could be filling in a weekly bar graph for all quiz grades. Rigor is good but only if self-efficacy is not lost in the process. Self-efficacy is the foundation for a growth mindset.
(2) Expose students to different topics to cultivate interest. Both you and I may believe our trombone skills can improve with dedication, but you may opt to spend your Thursday evening playing volleyball and I might try out a new waffle recipe. We have different interests. Students may find reading, writing, and even math problems more interesting if they compare America and Norway’s prisons, examine the effects of stereotype threat, and create FBI profiles of criminals. The content is equally as important as the skill our lessons teach.
(3) Create relevancy by connecting learning to long-term aspirations. Students need to see their academic goals aligned to their future goals. Poetry may be a great way to build compassion and perspective, but our students who want to be social workers, nonprofit founders, and journalists may need their teachers to help make that connection. (For a greater discussion of the many influences on student motivation, check out my blog post here.) Believing your intelligence improves with effort is an important part of the student success equation, but there are other important parts, and its up to us, as Teach for America corps members and alumni, to find the best ways to promote them all.
Growth mindset is only a piece of the puzzle that motivates humans. When we enlisted in Teach for America, I doubt very few of us were solely interested in student academic achievement – we wanted students to become addicted to the self-satisfaction that comes from reaching ambitious goals; we wanted student identity-development and learning to be so interconnected that to promote one necessarily meant to promote the other. As an organization and a community dedicated toward educational equity, let’s recognize the importance of the growth mindset research yet take its implementation to ambitious, unseen heights.