Fostering a Growth Mindset

By Adam Craig and
Kristine Burgess, contributor

“The greatest teacher, failure is.” (Yoda, The Last Jedi)

Wise words when developing skills to become a Jedi Knight, a successful high school student, or a master of virtually any skill in the universe. Unfortunately, it is much easier to smile and nod, while Yoda speaks the truth, than actually live out the painful, yet rewarding journey of trying something over and over again … refusing to give up or surrender … pressing forward with a “not yet” mentality.

Navigating math class is one of those journeys that can bring out the best and worst in all of us. Some love math’s structure and certainty: “Every problem has an answer.” Others have struggled to find that answer so many times, they categorize math as a chore to be avoided at all cost. However, math is not meant to be something that you are either good or bad at, finding answers that are either right or wrong. Math was invented to make sense of the world. It is a language that requires explicit instruction and strategic intervention.

In a Growth Mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.

In response to the cries of many students, claiming that they “are not good at math,” the Math Department where I teach adopted language and methodologies to foster a mindset of growth and perseverance. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of motivation and professor of psychology at Stanford University, coined the phrase, “Growth Mindset.” In a Growth Mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. 

Dweck has brought attention to research that shows how our brains are like a muscle that needs to be pushed in order to develop. She also shed light on the fact that new neural pathways actually grow when we persevere through a difficult task and eventually “figure it out.”  Khan Academy has collaborated with Dweck to provide free resources to educators interested in promoting these concepts in their classrooms.

The Reading Department at my school also strategically promotes a Growth Mindset in their classes. Kristine Burgess, Reading Department head, described this process as follows:

For many of our students, reading class is an area of stress and anxiety—focusing attention on areas of challenge and deficit. The language of growth, the esteemed value of mistakes, and the constant reassurance that with every challenge new pathways form in the brain proved to be helpful for our students to think both abstractly and concretely about difficulty.

One student in a reading class heard this language being used and said, “Hold on! That’s what we talk about in math class. This isn’t math class!” And that’s where the rubber meets the road. The need to grow is not a math thing or a reading thing … it’s a life thing!

What can we do to help foster a growth mindset within our learning communities?

The biggest change that we, as adults, can make in this regard, whether at school or in our homes is modeling a growth mindset ourselves. So, we should push ourselves to try new things, make mistakes, normalize mistakes by laughing about them and/or reflecting aloud, and try again. One can’t get around the importance and power of showing students what this process looks like. It will be a struggle … and the struggle will “be real” … but it will also be REALLY worth it!

Free online resources:

Adam Craig is head of the Math Department at Landmark High School, and Kristine Burgess is head of the Reading Department at Landmark High School.

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