George Lucas Educational Foundation
A young teacher seeks advice from a more experienced colleague.
Growth Mindset

Teachers Need a Growth Mindset Too

Pushing our students to adopt a growth mindset is an easy call. Adopting one ourselves is harder.
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For a teacher, it’s pretty easy to focus on improving students—that’s our job, right? So when I learned about Carol Dweck’s theory of growth mindset, my first thought was about how I could get my students onboard with this idea.

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And then I realized that if I were to better my own craft, I would have to take on the challenge for myself as well.

I think that I succeed as a teacher because I’m willing to mess up often and mess up big. And yet, I also take any excuse to avoid pushing myself to grow. Having a growth mindset doesn’t just mean learning about the theory and leaving it at that. It’s a constant process. Sometimes it’s difficult, often it’s a little painful, but it’s always worth the effort.

Six Tips for Instilling a Growth Mindset in Yourself

  1. Focus on the hard stuff. I remember early on in my teaching career realizing that while I was doing a pretty good job getting students to read and discuss literature, I was not really teaching them writing. So I decided to schedule the block day in our week as a writing day. Ten years and thousands of pages of creative writing later, I still had not successfully taught my students to write a research paper, so I blocked out three full weeks in our schedule to work through the process from beginning to end. Rather than focus on what I know is humming along fine, I look for the weaknesses. Usually, these are the areas that don’t come naturally, or that I don’t like very much myself. (And I still sort of despise research papers.) But when I focus on the hard stuff, I am a providing a much better learning experience for my students.
  2. Try innovative solutions, and if they don’t work, try some more. I have tried some crazy things as a teacher. Some I realized were flops immediately, while some I pushed through for months before admitting that they weren’t working out. But some of those innovations have saved my sanity, and I would never have tried them if I had been afraid to fail. Again, I think the key here is to focus on the weaknesses, on the stuff that is not going well. It’s fun to tweak assignments that are already a hit, but when I focus on my most nagging problems, I make my biggest breakthroughs.
  3. Seek feedback wherever you can. Evaluations don’t have to come from administrators— they can come from fellow teachers or even the students. When I switched schools about 12 years ago, I was having an especially hard time dealing with some of my new students. So a colleague came in one day and wrote down everything that was said or done during an entire class. No comments, no suggestions, and no filter. It was brutal to be confronted with that reality, but it also gave me a lot of insight into what I was missing from the front of the room. Two years ago, when a group play project went really badly for some of my classes, I took a whole day to get student feedback on the event. Through reflection questions and some writing, I figured out what was going on behind that disastrous cooperative project.
  4. Know that you are always developing your skills. I often say that I consider myself to be a B+ teacher. Maybe I’ll be an A- teacher one day. Giving myself permission to be good now means that I don’t wait until I’m perfect to try something new.
  5. Reflect at the end of every day, especially the bad ones. I have learned a lot from my toughest students and my biggest lesson plan flops—but only because I reflect on what went wrong. If I were to write those students and lesson plans off as not my fault, I would never learn from experience. Sometimes one kid has a bad day, but the truth is that when the lesson goes badly for the entire class, it’s probably something that I did wrong.
  6. Notice the areas where you have a fixed mindset. It’s easy to think that there are some areas of teaching that I’m just not good at, but I know that’s an excuse I use when things get hard. Reflecting on my attitude and how it affects my willingness to grow is always useful. I can’t have a growth mindset about everything all the time, but I can notice when I’m talking myself out of trying something because I’m afraid.

There’s a catch to learning a lot about growth mindset. Once we learn just how much of our lack of growth is a product of our attitude, it’s not so easy to write things off as impossible anymore.

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Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

The idea of "growth mindset" is not new. During the 1990s, education researchers studied the common characteristics of teachers who had been identified as teachers of the year, or exemplary teachers. One of the characteristics they had in common was self-efficacy...the extent or strength of one's belief in one's own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. Carol Dweck "repackaged" this idea as growth mindset, and while I do believe that reframing ideas sometimes makes them available to more people, and clearly the new jargon has caught the attention of many people, it is NOT a new idea.

What I find hypocritical is the big push to "teach" students to have a growth mindset at the same time that education is mired in the fixed mindset dictated by scores on standardized tests. The current obsession with standards and standardized assessments, the validity of both of which have been seriously called into question, is the poster child for fixed mindset! Teachers need to ask themselves how they can justify "labeling" the ability of children based on a single test score--a test which does NOT in any meaningful way assess learning--and still claim to be promoting a "growth" mindset--or self-efficacy. When students have been herded into bins of winners and losers by a single "high-stakes" test, what point is there in telling them that they can be anything they want! Would you believe it?

Gertie Cole's picture

I read an article about student perceptions in North America vs. Asia. Seems students in the U.S. and Canada,when asked why a student was at the top of their class, responded "because they're smart/" In Japan, Korea, and China, the response was "because s/he works the hardest." Back in the '70s, they used to call that a "cop out." In America, our work ethic dates back before the Pilgrims, The Puritans. So, "Growth Mindset" is a great idea, we've been using it for centuries.

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

Ouch--this is so true. I try not to make a big deal about tests that I have to give--but I think that high school teachers have a little more leeway there as well.
Ironically, I also think that students who have more of a growth mindset do better on standardized tests in the long run.

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

I have also heard students calling others "try-hards" as an insult. It's perceived as cool not to have to work hard. That's something that needs to be changed.

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

I've been reading a great book called "A More Beautiful Question" by Warren Berger. There's a whole chapter about how formal education negatively influences the number of questions kids naturally ask for the first four or five years. Apparently, part of the "cliff"--the drop in questions once children enter schools--is due to the perception that asking questions means you "don't know the answers" and that's not "cool" either. And given the push to "transmit" more and more information, there isn't "time" to allow for students' questions--which is where learning really happens. How sad. Research also shows that, as the number of questions decreases, so does the learners' motivation in school. No surprise there.

Bravo to you for homeschooling. Somehow, we need to help parents understand that the "one-size-fits-all" standardized education mandated in public schools is NOT a way to insure equal access, but rather a way to keep sorting children into winner and loser bins...and maintain the social classes. I would love to see an "Opt Out" movement for the whole standards movement, not just testing. Learner-centered schools have been effectively teaching the "whole child" for decades...and research has clearly shown that the current system is the antithesis of authentic learning...but until we put some pressure on policy makers, only the wealthy (or those who have the option of homeschooling/unschooling) can access that type of self-directed education.

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