Growth mindset, for good reason, has become one of the biggest buzz words and theories in education today. The concept comes from Dr. Carol Dweck’s studies of thousands of children and their attitudes towards failure. In her research, Dr. Dweck noticed that, when faced with failure, some children felt devastated and helpless, and quickly gave up. Other children, on the other hand, seemed to bounce back, learn from their mistakes, and move forward with optimism and hope. So, what is the difference between these two types of children, and how do these attitudes affect their learning and self-esteem? And how can we encourage students to adopt the more positive and resilient mindset and approach to life?
What is growth mindset?
Our “mindset” is the way we see and think about ourselves. If we have a “growth” mindset, we believe that the abilities, intelligence, skills, and talents we were born with do not determine our success. Instead, we understand that although we were are all born with strengths and weaknesses, through hard work, practice, and learning, we can grow, progress, improve, and get better. Our brains are constantly growing, changing, and adapting as we learn new things. When we have a growth mindset, we love learning and try to learn something new each day. We understand that making mistakes, taking risks, and failing is how we learn and grow. We are self-confident and believe in ourselves and our abilities. We don’t give up – we are resilient, hard workers who persevere and stay strong when faced with challenges. We move forward quickly when we make a mistake or fail. We believe in the power of YET: We understand that it can feel frustrating when we are faced with a challenge or feel as though we can’t do something right. The truth is, we just can’t do it…YET! With a little more practice, hard work, and perseverance, we will be able to do it and accomplish our goal!
When we have a growth mindset, we tell ourselves,
- “Even when things get hard, I won’t give up!”
- “I can do anything I set my mind to!”
- “I can’t do it yet, but I will soon!”
- “When I believe in myself, I feel confident, brave, and strong!”
- “I understand that achieving my goals takes time and effort.”
- “I can face my fears and be courageous!”
- “I learn by making mistakes and taking risks.”
- “I just can’t do it…yet!”
- “I’m not good at this…yet!”
- “I don’t understand this…yet!”
- “This doesn’t work…yet!”
But, how does our brain grow?
Inside of our brains are millions of cells called neurons. Neurons connect and communicate with each other. They process information from our 5 senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch) and control our thoughts, feelings, and movements. The strength and pattern of the connections of the neurons in our brains make up the knowledge, skills, and abilities that we have. When we learn and practice new things, we build new connections between the neurons in our brains and the connections that we already had grow stronger and faster.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change through learning, practice, and experience. Since our brain is “plastic” and can change, this means that practice, effort, experience, and learning MATTER and make a physical difference in our brain. Our intelligence, talents, and gifts are not “fixed” – they can change and grow!
What is a fixed mindset?
If we have a “fixed” mindset, we believe that our qualities and traits are “fixed.” This means that they cannot change. In other words, we were born with certain talents and gifts, and a certain level of intelligence, and we cannot grow, improve, learn, or change with time or practice. Those with a fixed mindset often make excuses for their behavior or performance. For example, if they don’t do well on a test, they may say, “I’m just no good at math” or “I can never learn this, no matter how hard I try.” They may give up easily and lack confidence in themselves and their abilities. In addition, those with a mixed mindset may compare themselves to others and see themselves as second best or not as good. They may feel less prepared or confident to try new things, take risks, face challenges, or solve problems because they feel they just can’t do it, so why try? They may also feel devastated when they make a mistake or fail and lose their desire to try. You can only imagine the implications this type of mindset and attitude have on the learning process in and out of the classroom!
So, why does our mindset matter?
Our mindset, how we think, controls how we feel, how we act, and the choices we make. Having a growth mindset helps us learn and succeed in life in general because we…
- Understand that through practice, effort, and focus, we can achieve our goals.
- Are motivated. We set goals and do whatever it takes to achieve them.
- Are creative and imaginative.
- Value and respect our own ideas and others’ ideas, too.
- Are optimistic. We are positive, upbeat, and want the best for ourselves and others.
- Participate. We listen, share ideas, and understand that learning is how we grow.
- Give our best effort and don’t give up. We persevere and have grit even when faced with a challenge.
Researchers Claro, Paunseku, & Dweck (2016) studied 10th graders in Chile and how their mindset affected their scores on a national achievement test. The results showed that mindset MATTERS – those students with a growth mindset were three times more likely to score in the top 20% on the test, and students with a fixed mindset were four times more likely to score in the bottom 20% on the test.
How can I teach growth mindset to my students?
With very few exceptions, I begin just about every classroom guidance lesson, no matter the topic, with a story book. Stories engage students, are memorable, relatable, and make tough concepts easier to grasp. My typical (and favorite) sequence for lessons is to read a story book, review a PowerPoint or visual aid of some kind that teaches the lesson content, and then do a craft, activity, or game to process the material. Here are two of my favorite story books and lessons to teach growth mindset and how I use them!
“Jabari Jumps” by Gaia Cornwall
I remember the feeling like it was yesterday of being a little girl in the suburbs of Chicago, cautiously climbing the ladder of the high dive at our local pool. I remember vividly how it felt to climb each cold, wet step on that ladder and then have that amazing bird’s eye view of the pool. It was both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time! “Jabari Jumps” by Gaia Cornwall (affiliate link), captures this experience so beautifully by telling the story of Jabari who overcomes his nerves and fears of jumping off the high dive. His story is so relatable for children because even if they haven’t jumped off a high dive yet, they can absolutely think of something in their life that was scary to them that they faced with courage and bravery. I also love that the main character is a child of color. I use this lesson to relate Jabari’s experience on the diving board to the concept of growth mindset. At first, Jabari had a fixed mindset. He let his doubts and fears get the best of him and decided he was “too tired” to jump and maybe he would try to jump tomorrow instead. However, with a little time and a lot of courage, Jabari adopted a growth mindset that helped him believe in himself and face his fear. He stood bravely at the edge of that diving board, pushed his fears aside, and knew he had what it took to take the great leap. For this lesson, I read the story, review the PowerPoint presentation that summarizes the story and teaches about growth vs. fixed mindset, show students the growth mindset vs. fixed mindset posters, then give them one of the included worksheets or coloring pages to complete. I love how this book and lesson can make a relatively complicated concept like growth mindset so easy to relate to, understand, and remember for the little ones.
“The Pout Pout Fish Goes to School” by Deborah Diesen
My 3-year-old son’s FAVORITE book is “The Pout Pout Fish” and when I learned that there were multiple books in this series, well of course I had to check them out! Little did I know in reading “The Pout Pout Fish Goes to School” by Deborah Diesen (affiliate link) with my son as his goodnight story that I would discover a perfect growth mindset story for my students! This book tells the story of Mr. Fish who has the “first day jitters” and is very nervous about starting school for the first time. As he travels from class to class, he realizes that he doesn’t know how to write his name, draw shapes, or do math like the other students do. He feels very discouraged and convinces himself that he isn’t smart enough and might as well just give up. Thankfully, Mr. Fish eventually finds himself in the “Brand New Fish” class and his new teacher, Miss Hewitt, assures him that he IS smart and with practice, time and effort – he WILL learn! I love relating this part of the story to “the power of yet” and showing how it is totally okay that Mr. Fish didn’t know how to do things that he hadn’t learned yet. Mr. Fish’s transformation from a fish full of doubt, uncertainty, and nerves (fixed mindset) to a confident, self-assured, and optimistic fish (growth mindset) is super relatable for the students and makes the concepts of growth and fixed mindset very easy to understand and grasp!
To teach this lesson, after reading the story, I review the PowerPoint presentation that summarizes the story and teaches about growth mindset, fixed mindset, and the power of yet. Next, we play a sorting game (photo below) that asks students to choose a card, read the statement aloud to the class (or have the educator read it aloud, if necessary) and then sort the card into either the fixed mindset bag or the growth mindset bag. If students struggle to sort the card, I like to review the growth mindset vs. fixed mindset posters with them and see if that helps them better understand which type of mindset the card is portraying. My kids absolutely love sorting games because they are interactive, get them up and moving, and everyone gets a turn to participate. They also make for an easy and quick informal assessment for me to see how well each student understands the concept. After the sorting game, we finish the lesson with either a coloring page or worksheet to reflect on the information learned. I absolutely love this lesson because Mr. Fish’s experiences as the new kid at school are so relatable for students, and just like “Jabari Jumps,” make this somewhat complicated concept easy to understand and remember for our elementary friends.
“Bubble Gum Brain” by Julia Cook
“Bubble Gum Brain by Julia Cook (affiliate link) is a book that is new to me so I haven’t used it with students yet, but I wanted to share about it anyway because I LOVE its simple and understandable approach to growth mindset! Julia Cook uses a boy named “Bubble Gum Brain” to represent growth mindset and a boy named “Brick Brain” to represent fixed mindset. Bubble Gum Brain loves to stretch and expand, and understands that mistakes help him grow. He loves to try new things, practice, and learn each day. When faced with challenges such as riding a unicycle, playing accordion, painting, and doing his math homework, he understands that he can’t do them well…YET…but with practice, time, and effort, he will improve and grow! Brick Brain, on the other hand, believes that things are just the way they are and aren’t going to change. He worries about failure, gives up easily, and believes that things are “just too hard” and not worth the time and effort to try.
Julia Cook books are often a bit wordy, metaphorical, and complex for my mostly English Learner/high poverty population, but I truly believe this one is a WIN. I can imagine the visuals of the stretchy bubble gum vs. the hard and inflexible brick being very relatable and understandable for my students – especially if I brought in some props to help demonstrate the difference between the two! And, Julia’s use of very realistic and common scenarios with comparisons of the two boys’ mindsets and approaches in each situation makes for a very direct and to-the-point read. Since I haven’t used this one in the classroom yet, if you have, I would love to hear how your students reacted to it and if you feel they caught on well to the concepts it teaches!