"The fixed mindset is a prison with little hope for improvement or building of self-esteem and self-efficacy over time. The growth mindset is a way of viewing oneself as a work in progress, which offers learners of all ages both optimism and agency."
In the 21st century, teachers have begun to think beyond “What information should we teach students?” and started to ask, “What kind of information acquisition strategies should we teach students?” This is a crucial shift in the mission statement of day-to-day classroom teaching and requires a new toolkit and a new way of thinking. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford, one of the world’s foremost authorities on motivation, provides great insight into facilitating this shift in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
In her own work as a professor, Dr. Dweck realized that students who were more optimistic, harder working and, therefore, more successful always believed that “smart” and “capable” were qualities you acquired, not traits you were born with. She dubbed this viewpoint “the growth mindset,” while identifying the opposing viewpoint (the notion that people have innate aptitudes and will always be good at some things and weaker at others) as “the fixed mindset.” The fixed mindset is a prison with little hope for improvement or building of self-esteem and self-efficacy over time. The growth mindset is a way of viewing oneself as a work in progress, which offers learners of all ages both optimism and agency.
When we as adults and educators look back on our own time in school, it’s easy to see how the promotion of the fixed mindset played a role in “capping” student achievement for decades. Remember teachers making sweeping statements like, “Some students just can’t handle fractions,” or, worse yet, “Your handwriting is so bad, I can’t read anything you turn in”? Both those statements communicate two equally powerful messages to students: shame and futility. The fixed mindset essentially communicates to students, “You’re so bad at doing this that there’s really no point in trying to do better,” and that’s a message students will buy into and embrace quickly.
To create a classroom environment that truly works for every student, we must embrace approaches that foster and leverage a growth mindset to drive learning. Personalized Learning and Competency-Based Learning are two prominent examples of approaches that encourage teachers and students alike to shift their thinking away from measuring who’s how good at what and toward finding relevant, powerful ways that each member of the classroom community can learn and grow. Both approaches achieve this by helping students construct a metacognitive understanding of themselves, encouraging them and their teachers to think about how they work best, and then using that knowledge to inform what kind of learning experiences they’re likely to engage in and benefit from the most.
This metacognitive understanding of oneself as a learner is fundamental to the growth mindset because, in order to improve and develop new skills, students must understand where they are, what they know and what they’re good at right now. Once that self-knowledge has been fleshed out, students and teachers can shift their attention to identifying and defining long and short term academic, personal and professional goals. When students truly know where they are and where they’re going, it makes the academic journey more knowable, more authentic and easier to engage in. If we’re to empower the next generation of 21st century learners, we must value and teach the growth mindset in our classrooms.