Mindset 101 – Teaching Students to Think & Do Hard Things

Mindset 101I gave a keynote presentation to a few hundred K-12 educators recently on the topic of Teaching Kids to Think and Do Hard Things. There are so many directions one could go with such a topic, but I opted to build a few foundations. Among them, I talked about Mindset 101, Failure 101, Motivation 101, Learning In Depth 101, and Student Personal Learning Networks 101. If we want to help students experience the joy and benefits of deep thinking and hard work, these are pretty good places to start. For this post, I’ll focus on the first one, Mindset 101.

I’ve mentioned Carol Dweck’s work on mindset before, but I find it helpful in nurturing a positive learning community. According to Dweck, we each tend to nurture fixed and growth mindsets. The fixed mindset is one that believes we are either good or bad at things. It is a matter of genes. You have it or you don’t. A growth mindset may recognize the genetic differences in people’s abilities, but instead chooses to focus upon the fact that, regardless of our natural abilities, we can get better at things with practice and persistence. Are you afraid of challenges because not meeting the challenge might be an indictment on who you are as a person? That is the fixed mindset at work. Do you like easy tasks and getting tons of affirmation from others in order to stay motivated? That too is a symptom of a fixed mindset. Do you welcome feedback from others and get excited or motivated by challenging tasks? That is a sign that you are working from a growth mindset. Challenges help you get better, so go for it. Even if you don’t succeed, you will have grown and learned something. Or, do you get scared, angry or bitter when people give feedback and constructive criticism? That is the fixed mindset again, trying to fool you into thinking that criticism diminishes your worth. It doesn’t. You are valuable beyond measure, and that has nothing to do with your genes. So, when you experience failure, you can respond by basking in it, dwelling on it, and lamenting about how it is proof that you are a failure as a person. Or, you can react by giving more effort, chalking it up as a lesson learned, and realizing that you can’t get better without persisting through challenges and setbacks. The more we can nurture a growth mindset in students, the better chance we have of helping them think deeply and do hard things.

This challenges us to evaluate our vocabulary, policies, and practices. Without recognizing it, we may find that we are promoting a fixed mindset. Do you tell students that they are brilliant, geniuses, amazing writers, etc.? Or, do you focus on commending their hard work, effort, persistence, attentiveness, and the like? Those are flexible traits that can help any student, regardless of genes, growth and reach increasingly higher levels of learning. When you give feedback to students, do you talk about what they do and don’t know, or do you word it in terms of progress? “You have not quite mastered ________, but with time, effort and a bit more study; you can do this!” “I can see your effort and progress with this second draft!” “If you focus on revising your introductory sentence and build stronger transitions on the first couple pages, this could greatly improve the impact of your paper.” These are all statements that encourage a growth mindset.

Similarly, what do you emphasize on student work. Do you highlight student scores and letter grades? Do you have an honor role based on pretty much nothing else but GPA? Or, do you focus on progress, achievement, risk taking, and direct evidence of increased learning? The former risks separating the work from the true goal, which is learning. The latter is a great way to help students embrace that culture of learning that you want to promote while also developing more of a growth mindset.

Help each student tap into a growth mindset, and you are on your way to creating a learning community where students think and do hard things. In the next article, I’ll write about a second step, Failure 101.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.