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Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff

Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff

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An idea that is beginning to gain a lot of favour in educational circles at the moment is the notion of fixed versus growth mindsets, and how they might relate to students and learning. Based on the work of Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck, the idea of mindset is related to our understanding of where ability comes from. It has recently been seized upon by educators as a tool to explore our knowledge of student achievement, and ways that such achievement might be improved.

However, in my work, I have found that the notion of developing a growth mindset is as equally applicable to staff and teacher performance as it is to students. This article begins with a brief discussion about the difference between the two mindsets, what that means for education, and concludes with some ideas for how school leaders might seek to develop a growth mindset amongst their staff.

The New Psychology of Success (2000), Dweck developed a continuum upon which people can be placed, based upon their understandings about where ability comes from. For some people (at one end of said continuum), success (and failure) is based on innate ability (or the lack of it). Deck describes this as a fixed theory of intelligence, and argues that this gives rise to a ‘fixed mindset’. At the other end of the continuum are those people who believe success is based on a growth mindset. These individuals argue that success is based on learning, persistence and hard work. 

According to Dweck:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it (Morehead 2012).

The crucial point for individuals is that these mindsets have a large impact upon our understanding of success and failure. Fixed mindset people dread failure, feeling that it reflects badly upon themselves as individuals, while growth mindset people instead embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and improve their abilities.

Needless to say, this idea of mindsets has significant implications for education. One of the most important aspects relates to feedback. According to Dweck, when we give praise to students (which we, as teachers often do, in order to build self-esteem and encourage students) for how clever they are, we might actually be encouraging them to develop a fixed mindset - which might limit their learning potential. On the other hand, if we praise students for the hard work and the process that they’ve engaged in, then that helps to develop a growth potential.

We have to really send the right messages, that taking on a challenging task is what I admire. Sticking to something and trying many strategies, that’s what I admire. That struggling means you’re committed to something and are willing to work hard. Parents around the dinner table and teachers in the classroom should ask, ‘Who had a fabulous struggle today? (Morehead 2012)

This praise can have significant effects upon students: citing longtitudinal studies with Year 7 maths students, Dweck has shown how students with a growth mindset are far more likely to take on more challenging work and succeed at it than students with a fixed mindset - even if all other factors remain the same.

Dweck (and others) put this down to the development of self that takes place as different mindsets develop. With a fixed mindset, there are feelings of powerlessness and learned helplessness. This can lead to the development of a self-defeating identity, accompanied by toxic personal statements like ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m not clever enough.’

On the other hand, a growth mindset amongst students is likely to encourage them to develop feelings of empowerment - students begin to see how they might take action to positively influence their community and their own learning. 

Mindsets predict motivation and achievement amongst students according to some research, too:

Students with a growth mindset were more motivated to learn and exert effort, and outperformed those with a fixed mindset in math—a gap that continued to increase over the two-year period. Those with the two mindsets had entered 7th grade with similar past achievement, but because of their mindsets their math grades pulled apart during this challenging time. (Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck, 2007).

Crucially, Dweck’s research is applicable to all people, not just students. Therefore, school leaders could ask themselves what effect might developing a growth mindset amongst staff have upon learning in a school? Fortunately, a number of educators and teachers have already begun to explore what this might look like for teachers.


According to Jackie Gerstein, teachers, like the students they teach, can learn to develop a growth mindset, but this requires careful planning by school management. The most obvious way of applying a growth mindset to teacher professional development is through modelling. Gerstein has run a number of professional development courses that seek to instruct teachers in how to model a growth mindset amongst students and one of her key principles is encouraging teachers to see themselves as learners, and, just like students are all capable of learning and improving, so too are teachers (Gerstein 2014)

Create space for new ideas

A second principle requires that schools provide opportunities for teachers to try new things and make mistakes. This can seem daunting for teachers, but it is essential for developing a growth mindset - after all, one of the key principles of such a mindset is the willingness to try new approaches. As part of creating this space, it is important to begin with the learning in mind; that is, what will teachers and the school learn as part of the process, rather than whether the new idea is going to be a success or a failure.  

Build time for self-reflection

While creating space for new ideas is important, it is only part of the process of developing a growth mindset. Linked to it, and equally vital, is providing a chance for teachers to reflect upon their new ideas and consider what they learned from the process. Ideally, this reflection should focus less on whether the idea was a success or a failure, but rather on what the teacher learnt from the process.

Formative Feedback 

Teacher performance management processes can often be quite awkward and distressing experiences; however, by viewing the process as part of a growth mindset - that is, making it formative, rather than summative, and inviting participation of the teacher in the process, the feedback can be more meaningful and applicable to the teacher’s daily practice. 

Developing a Growth Mindset amongst students is not an immediate process; rather, it will take a concerted effort on behalf of teachers and the rest of the schooling community. Equally, encouraging teachers to see themselves in the same way will equally take a lengthy period of time; however, there are significant benefits to be had form leveraging these ideas.


Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78. 246-263.

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.

Gerstein, Jackie. "The Educator with a Growth Mindset: A Staff Workshop." User Generated Education. August 28, 2014. Accessed January 30, 2015.

Morehead, James. "Stanford University's Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and Education." OneDublinorg. June 19, 2012. Accessed January 30, 2015.

"The Science: Growth Mindset." Mindset Works. January 1, 2014. Accessed January 30, 2015.

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M. Anthony Hopkins's picture
M. Anthony Hopkins
Teacher Trainer, Curriculum Developer, Program Developer

This is a nice article. As said above, it may be a good idea to add "growth mindset" to a job requirement. Furthermore, to heighten the importance of such requirement, it should be deliberately discussed in an interview.
While growth mindset sounds like something new, let us understand that it is essentially project-based learning with student-centered pedagogy - modeling and messy work, student autonomy and self-reflection, and dialogical approach and formative feedback.
A possible approach for ensuring the effectiveness of employing growth mindset is with teacher assessment. This begs me to ask, how would a teacher use growth mindset as it applies to the pygmalion effect?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

A growth mindset is what got me my current teaching position. I attempted to teach a writing lesson to 2nd grade students for my interview lesson. Lets just say it didn't go well- partly because the school was not at a level of writing I was accustomed to for those grades. Plus- what was I thinking doing a writing lesson of all things? Anyway, after I got home I reflected on what I would do different next time with that group in an email to the principal. At this point I figured there was NO CHANCE I would get hired. Six months after I was hired she told me it was my reflective nature which secured me the job among more highly qualified candidates. She valued my focus on continuous improvement over experience. In my first few days of work I did find there was another reason that lesson was not successful. Luckily that group left my room in MUCH better shape than when they arrived. ;)

LindaInlay's picture
Recently retired middle school administrator committed to SEL

Whether it's the growth mindset or resiliency or self-awareness, if these are desired outcomes for the social emotional side of the curriculum; then modeling by teachers is essential. Knowing that mirror neurons exist, we know that modeling is more effective in conveying to our students what we want them to learn.

As Laura pointed out, it's hard to teachers to accept that "do as I do is more impactful than do as I say." As a middle principal, I know that students at this age when the analytical side of the brain kicks in, know when adults don't walk the talk.

Just as students can learn the growth mindset in an environment of trust and therefore, less fear; teachers have to experience that kind of environment, too. It's not just the administrators who create this, teachers have to co-create this by taking risks so that the culture amongst staff and then amongst the students systemically reflects the growth mindset. Changing culture to one of trust where it's okay to make mistakes is the big leverage for learning new things.

Crystal B.'s picture

A theory mentioned in the article stated, "Mindsets predict motivation and achievements amongst students" is the notion that students and teachers alike actions manifest from the way individuals view the world around them. Students specifically, social - emotional status directly correlates to their academic achievement. Their emotional status is a derivative of a mindset, whether it is a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, their interaction with their immediate environment and how they perceive the world help develop these mindsets. All too many times I see students with a defeated approached to situations because they view failure as the end result which in return, they display limited motivations and willingness to try. I noticed that some of my academically challenged students with a fixed mindset see failure as acceptable due to circumstances that made them accustomed to failure. As a teacher, I am in constant battle to help students understand that hard work and effort is required along the educational journey and being met with failure periodically, or not reaching the given expectations is a part of life. A growth mindset has the understanding that failure is an opportunity for advanced learning. I always emphasize to my students that we will encounter failure and defeat at various stages, but the focus is not the failure, it is about how you handled that failure. So personally, I embrace a growth mindset for myself and try to expose my students to the same understanding.

Joshua's picture
Parent; Lead Advocate at Rochester SAGE

A Growth Mindset can be harmful in a educational system that is based on proficiency and does not take into account the individual learning levels and rates of students. A Growth Mindset requires a commitment to each student growing from their current level at a pace that requires them to expend effort.

Praising a student for effort who has aced on ability alone is either false or seen by the student as the teacher having no understanding of who he is. Not only does the student know that he succeeded by ability, but he now must keep up the deception and believes that deception is more valuable than effort.

If you are going to embrace the Growth Mindset, you must be willing to switch to a growth model in your classroom and school. EVERY student must grow and be challenged or the Growth Mindset has been undermined.

Laura B. Fogle's picture
Laura B. Fogle
Technology Facilitator in Durham Public Schools

I believe the change in perspective on failure is key "Fixed mindset people dread failure, feeling that it reflects badly upon themselves as individuals, while growth mindset people instead embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and improve their abilities." As educators we must give ourselves permission to fail forward. This is a change I am trying to nurture in myself by setting ambitious goals instead of playing it safe. I think the students in my school will benefit.

Coach Christopher's picture
Coach Christopher
Curriculum Designer at Courage To Core

It can be tough to allow students to struggle and then grow and learn from the experience, but a growth mindset means embracing a non-linear path. (Conversely, the path of least resistance requires the least persistence!) And when students travel a non-linear path, the teachers have to as well--some days there will be breakthroughs and other days there will be roadblocks--a teacher who creates a structure which engages and involves students is going to run that gauntlet. It is rewarding challenge to embrace the organized chaos that is a classroom of students failing better and better.

Mel's picture

Great discussion! I am a firm believer in encouraging a growth mindset (even before the term was coined.) I totally agree that we must foster it not only in students but in teachers as well. To do this, teachers need to create an environment in which mistakes are launchpads for learning, not holes for burial. Administrators must create the same environment for teachers (if not more so.)

imagination.AM's picture

"Fixed mindset people dread failure, feeling that it reflects badly upon themselves as individuals, while GROWTH MINDSET people instead embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and improve their abilities." ~We need this! - LOVE

lacimetta's picture

Hi, I'm an Italian High School teacher of English - ESL- in the North East of Italy & have been following you for years. Today's article deals with the the same topic I've been recently dealing with my students ( from 15 to 18) in my Blog. You may find their comments somehow interesting. Feel free to comment and leave suggestions.

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