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Classroom Management: Facilitating a Growth Mindset

Jordan Catapano

We want students to have a growth mindset, but do we use classroom management to facilitate an environment that actually encourages this?

Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford University, defines two ways in which individuals can think about their ability in her book “Mindset”: The Fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

When a student has a fixed mindset, it means they perceive their current level of intelligence as “Fixed,” or unchangeable. How smart they are is how smart they’ll always be. Failures are proof of their fixed limitations.

On the other hand, a growth mindset means that a student believes she can learn knowledge and skills she doesn’t currently possess. Hard work, dedication, and even failure are the building blocks of growth.

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As Dweck puts it, “There is no relation between students' abilities or intelligence and the development of mastery-oriented qualities.” Students with a growth mindset think about learning, not about how “Smart” they are. The students’ attitude about their own learning drives their perceptions and behaviors. If they believe they can grow, they will exhibit the behaviors that help them to do so. If they believe they can’t grow, then to them there’s no point in trying.

But a growth mindset is not something students are just born with or not. It is something that can be learned and facilitated. As teachers strive to equip their students with the right knowledge and strategies for lifelong success, they must not overlook their own role in facilitating a growth mindset classroom. “Teachers must work hard to create a growth mindset and a classroom where it thrives,” says Dweck in an EdSource article.

Teachers must use classroom management to first address their own potential “Fixed mindset” about their students, their classroom and themselves. To see how they might better facilitate a growth-mindset attitude and environment for their students, here are some techniques to consider.

Classroom Management: Offer Second Chances and Revisions

Often our classroom management processes offer a one-and-done deal, where students have exactly one chance to show what they’ve learned. Unfortunately, learning doesn’t always happen at the exact same time or manner for each student, and the you-get-one-shot-to-keep-up-with-the-pace-of-learning system often shows students their limitations instead of their growth.

Instead of students saying, “I just didn’t get it. I’m dumb,” we want our students to say, “I didn’t get it, but I can!” If students know that they can try again, then they might be more likely to do so. We do not want to enable students, but we do want to encourage them to consistently push themselves to do better. Offering a second chance on a test or a revision of a homework assignment might lead those students to seek additional help, study more, or reflect on their first try so that they can improve on the second. These are the growth-oriented behaviors we want to encourage.

Encourage Trials and Failures

Schools are known more as places that punish failures rather than reward them. But there are two ways of thinking about failure: As an indication of ability, or as a building block for growth. Which way do you want your students to consider failure?

It’s inevitable that people will experience all kind of failures in their lives. Ideally, we are providing an atmosphere in school that trains students how to successfully learn from failure rather than developing an attitude that tries to avoid failure completely.

Consider how you approach trials and failures in your class. What happens when a student tries something new? What happens if they fail in the process? How are coaching, feedback, second chances, reflection, and growth a part of the learning process – or are these absent entirely?

Correct Students’ Statements About Themselves

Since growth-mindset is an attitude, one of the most practical things we can do is to train students to think in ways that foster this attitude. Often students will say fixed-mindset statements about themselves. “I’m just not a math person,” “It’s the teacher’s fault,” “Studying doesn’t work for me,” and so on.

When students say these things, it’s our chance to take a moment and step in. Tell students how they can rephrase these statements and reconsider their attitude towards their abilities. For example, when a student tells me, “I just can’t do this,” about a skill in class, I tell them, “Of course you can’t … yet. If you could do this already, you wouldn’t need to be in this class!” This helps them to consider what they’re in class for – to learn and improve, not show what they can already do.

Praise Them in the Right Way

Dweck is careful to explain the relationship between praise and growth-mindset. Our default manner of praising a child is to say, “You’re so smart,” or some other statement that comments on their innate abilities. However, even though we are praising students, when we attribute their success to innate ability, we are reinforcing a fixed mindset in them. Dweck says in her research, “Contrary to popular belief, praising children's intelligence did not give them confidence and did not make them learn better.”

Instead of praising intelligence, research finds that we want to reinforce student effort and hard work. Students who were told they “Worked hard” tended to except more challenges and do better than students who were told they “Were very smart.” In our classrooms, we want to make sure we praise students for the efforts they put into success, not the innate abilities.

Of course, we can’t just decontextualize praise and say, “You tried hard” for everything. Dweck decries oversimplification and says in a recent US News report, “Praising effort alone is useless when the child is getting everything wrong and not making progress.” Instead, tie effort, strategy, and results together. Show students with your praise how hard work leads to improvement and success.

Facilitate Reflection and Goals

Along the same lines of praise, we want students themselves to consider how their process leads to their outcome. When they experience success, we want to facilitate time for students to look back and recognize how they earned that outcome. The same is true for failure: What did they do wrong in their process that led to failure, and how can they improve?

If students just see grades and outcomes, they may be less likely to consider the efforts that lead to those outcomes. They may see outcomes as indicative of their fixed abilities. Conversely, if teachers help students reflect on their outcomes, then students can consider what they did or didn’t do that helped. This not only reinforces the notion that it was students’ behaviors – not innate abilities – that led to the outcomes, but it also helps students understand what to do the next time to strengthen their performance.

Give Timely Feedback on Efforts and Strategies

Feedback given long after the students submit their work becomes decontextualized and hardly useful for students to grow from. However, timely feedback given shortly after students attempt their task is feedback students can more successfully leverage for growth. When feedback is given, it should explain what students did both right and wrong, and comment on any efforts or strategies the students employed that could be adapted for future use.

Usually, the more immediate the feedback is provided the better, although researchers note that, “Delaying feedback somewhat can enable them to self-correct, develop perseverance, and take responsibility for their own learning objectives,” which is important as we consider how to best implement feedback for developing those behaviors in students.

Personally Model a Growth Mindset

Finally, we don’t have to be uni-dimensional with our students. While most of our time is spent instructing academic skills, we can also model for students what a growth mindset looks like in an adult. Ultimately we want our students to embrace a lifelong growth mindset, and giving students an example from our own lives is a great way to implicitly teach them this.

You can definitely talk about life as a teacher, about what you’re working on, how you’ve grown, and how you’re approaching challenges. But you can also share details from your own life, connecting it to students’ current circumstances as well. This helps students see that this is in fact an attitude that professional adults adopt, and also helps them see what practical implementations of this attitude in might look like in their own lives.

How do you facilitate a growth mindset in your classroom? Share your advice and experiences with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website