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Cultivating a Growth Mindset for Better Teaching Practice

"Growth mindset" is a concept and term coined by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University professor of psychology. Her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success introduced educators to the term and its application in schools and classrooms.

Employing a growth mindset means believing and acting based on the idea that a person's qualities — especially intelligence — aren't static but can be developed. A growth mindset believes that everyone has the potential and ability to learn and improve.

Educators in special education classrooms can especially benefit from a growth mindset structure. The Master of Education in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors online program from Southeastern Oklahoma State University can help educators build a foundation in this area.

What Does a Growth Mindset Look Like?

As Dweck writes, 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."

Much of the application of growth mindset principles to education has focused on how this approach can benefit students to help them reach their potential and improve their achievement and learning outcomes. The education field is also applying these principles to teachers and staff by asking how educators can model a growth mindset for their students. Applying a growth mindset in this way asks teachers to view themselves as learners, and just like their students, to see themselves as capable of learning and improving.

How Does a Growth Mindset in Education Benefit Students and Teachers?

Dweck's own research has found that a growth mindset helps students learn more and faster. She describes this as "the power of yet," which reminds students that they are on a persistent learning journey toward a more successful future. In her TED Talk, Dweck explains how this is especially beneficial and powerful for groups of students who have historically underachieved: it alchemizes effort and struggle from a negative — a feeling that a student is unintelligent or "behind" — into a positive.

"Before, effort and difficulty made them feel dumb, made them feel like giving up, but now, effort and difficulty, that's when their neurons are making new connections, stronger connections. That's when they're getting smarter," Dweck explains. Her research indicates that a growth mindset has yielded better learning outcomes among several groups of students who historically underperform compared to their peers.

Teachers can also harness this mindset and apply it to their own work and learning. This encourages them to reject a fixed mindset not just of student capabilities, but of their own capabilities. This is especially applicable to continuing professional development (CPD). Applying a growth mindset to CPD transforms it from an obstacle or obligation to an opportunity for improvement and learning.

What Strategies Can Educators and Staff Use to Develop a Growth Mindset?

Many of the strategies educators and staff can use to promote a growth mindset involve modeling such a mindset for their students. The following are strategies recommended for cultivating a growth mindset in a school community:

  1. Use language that reflects the value of struggle and effort: Often, learners perceive struggles as negative experiences. They are seen as obstacles or barriers to learning rather than opportunities. Using language to frame challenges as positives rather than negatives can help students (and educators) approach learning with a growth mindset.
  2. Adapt to new technology: New technology can be a source of intense frustration when students and educators don't readily understand it. However, staff can embrace the learning curve toward adopting new technology, treating it as a journey rather than a task to be completed immediately. An educator can draw on a growth mindset to reframe learning the new technology as a goal to be consistently worked on is a growth mindset.
  3. Ask questions, then listen: A fixed mindset assumes a finite end to a learning process, a point at which someone "knows" a piece of information. A growth mindset challenges this assumption through continued, critical questioning, active listening and reflection. Educators can use questions in their own learning and professional development, seeking new ways to apply existing information or testing further possibilities.
  4. Emphasize learning over "smarts" when giving feedback: A fixed mindset thinks some people are "smart" or better at something, and others are not. Rather, a growth mindset would focus on the persistence and strength of a learner's efforts, rather than whether they've mastered a task. Instead of offering feedback such as "you are so good at this," educators could try phrases like "I'm impressed by the effort you've put into this" or "you've come a long way in your understanding."

Actively working toward curricula and activities that support a growth mindset is crucial to effective and holistic education, especially in settings that include students with special needs.

Learn more about Southeastern Oklahoma State University's Master of Education in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors online program.


Edutopia: Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff

Iris: Growth Mindset: The Key to Successful Teaching

James Clear: This Research Study Changed the Way We Think About Success (Here's How You Can Use It)

Resilient Educator: Building a Growth Mindset for Teachers

TED: The Power of Believing You Can Improve

Wasabi Learning: 9 Ways Teachers Can Cultivate a Growth Mindset to Enjoy Teaching

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