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September 19, 2016

Mike Ritchie

The Value of a 'Growth Mindset' in Education

Topics: Learning Through Play

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

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“When educators create growth mindset classrooms…equality happens, and here are just a few examples:

  • In one year, a kindergarten class in Harlem, NY scored in the 95th percentile on the national achievement test – many of those kids could not hold a pencil when they arrived at school.
  • In one year, 4th grade students in the South Bronx, way behind, became the #1 4th grade class in the state of NY on the state math test.
  • In a year to a year and a half, Native American students in a school on a reservation went from the bottom of their district to the top, and that district included affluent sections of Seattle. So the Native kids outdid the Microsoft kids.”

This quote is from a TEDx talk given by Carol Dweck, a researcher whose work, in her own words, “examines the self-conceptions (or mindsets) people use to structure the self and guide their behavior. My research looks at the origins of these mindsets, their role in motivation and self-regulation, and their impact on achievement and interpersonal success.” So how did these teachers she describes achieve these results? What exactly is a ‘growth mindset’?

In 2007 Carol Dweck published her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, which introduced the concept of a growth mindset. What she found in her research was that changing the way students perceive their own abilities and potential could drastically alter their performance. Rather than praising students based on their talent or intelligence, she says, they should be praised on the process of learning – the effort they put in and the strategies they use, as well as their focus, perseverance, and improvement.

The key here is that students need to understand, and believe, that their abilities are not fixed. Just because they can’t solve a certain math problem, or achieve a specific goal, right now doesn’t mean they won’t be able to after working on it. Too often, Dweck says, students live in the ‘now’ rather than the ‘yet’ – they focus on their limitations rather than their potential.

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This doesn’t mean that effort should necessarily be valued above all else, as some have understood the concept. In a 2015 article, Carol Dweck wrote: 

“Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches – not just sheer effort – to learn and improve.”

“We also need to remember that effort is a means to an end goal of learning and improving. Too often nowadays, praise is given to students who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment…the growth-mindset approach helps children feel good in the short and long terms, by helping them thrive on challenges and setbacks on their way to learning.”

Mary Cay Ricci, an educator, published the 2013 book ‘Mindsets in the Classroom’, about her experience as the Coordinator of Gifted and Talented Education for Baltimore County Public Schools, where she sought to implement this concept in classrooms using, among other methods, logic games from ThinkFun.

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Mary ran a 7-month long experiment with 53 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms from Title I schools, with the goal of improving reasoning skills, as measured by before and after tests, using ShapeOmetry, Chocolate Fix, Brick by Brick, Rush Hour, and Math Dice Jr.

In ‘Mindsets in the Classroom’ Mary wrote,

“As a result of adding the specifically chosen reasoning games to the project, an outcome surfaced that was unexpected. The addition of the games did something more than build the reasoning abilities of these students; the reasoning and problem solving games contributed to a mindset shift in the teachers and, in some cases, the students as well. Many teachers reported that they saw potential in students that they would never have seen without the games. Some of the students who spoke little English flourished when the games came out. Some students who were functioning below grade level showed great strength in reasoning through playing these games. Teachers became more reflective about their own mindsets, viewed students differently, and raised expectations for many students. The games became an unexpected vehicle for building growth mindsets in the teachers and the students.” 

In the book she quotes Holly, a 3rd grade ESOL (English as a Second Language) teacher, who said “I first taught the game to my struggling ESOL students, giving them plenty of time to become familiar with the game and to formulate strategies for problem solving. Once they were comfortable…I sent them out into the classroom to ‘teach’ the rest of the class how to play. This was a powerful tool for their language development, as well as their self-esteem. These games contributed greatly to the growth mindset culture being developed in the class.”

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At the end of the 7 months, the students took their reasoning tests again, and with measurable improvements. The total average was a growth of 8 percentile points in analogical reasoning, and 7 percentile points in quantitative reasoning, and one of the schools improved by 21 percentile points quantitative reasoning! 

There are many different ways to help your children learn, but perhaps as important as any of them is that your child understands that they can learn. And that the process of learning happens all the time, not just in the classroom. Anything from playing games at home to watching Mom or Dad cook can be a learning experience with the right mindset and a willingness to be challenged, fail, and keep trying until they succeed. As Mary says, “we can expect students to embrace challenge only if we make it available to them on a consistent basis.”

You can read more from Carol Dweck, talking about what she's learned in the years since publishing her book, in this article.

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