A teacher’s approach to cultivating a healthy student mindset regarding the quality and quantity of effort for learning is crucial. The teacher’s expectation of student learning capacity and the student's expectation of their own learning capacity are nurtured and enhanced by one of two mindsets, growth or fixed. A growth mindset is a way of viewing challenges by taking ownership of your own development through practice and dedication to improvement. A fixed mindset is a way of viewing capacity through an unchanging lens.
Mindset relates to expectation because of the notion of talent. Essentially, there are two theories of intelligence: the inherited/genetic theory which leads to a fixed mindset, and the incremental improvement theory which leads to a growth mindset.
Inherited/Genetic Theory (Fixed Mindset)
Followers of the inherited/genetic theory essentially believe you either have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, there’s not much you can do about it. This is also referred to as the “talent” view of intelligence. Sure, you might get a little better at a chosen skill over time, but you’ll never be really good at it. The language of this mindset is:
- I’m not got at something (musical/mathematical/sporty/a reader/the outdoors type/etc.); so why bother trying? It’s not my thing.
- I’m lucky because I am talented.
- You can’t be good at everything. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. I just haven’t found what I’m good at yet.
This theory tends to lead to a fixed mindset because of the diminished role of effort.
Incremental Improvement Theory (Growth Mindset)
Disciples of the incremental improvement theory believe that intelligence is improved through experience, effort, and persistence. They don’t put a ceiling on possibilities like the other camp does. They enjoy the question “where is the point that someone can no longer improve?” This mindset believes that the idea of “reaching potential” is bizarre because no one knows what anyone’s potential for anything is. They teach to broaden potential without engaging in unnecessary limitation predictions such as “they’ll never be a Mozart.” The language of this mindset is:
- I may not be good at this yet…
- I can get better if I practice.
- If I work hard, I can accomplish more.
This theory tends to lead to a growth mindset because of the belief in improvement through training and effort.
Whilst many teachers attribute a bit of both to their theory of personal intelligence, in general, people side with one viewpoint more than the other. According to John Hattie in Visible Learning, these attributions of intelligence are the main drivers for the expectations of student achievement.
Psychologist and Stanford University professor, Carol Dweck, conducted research investigating the typical learning and character traits that accompany mindset. Dweck’s studies found that, in general, students with a growth mindset tend to work harder (the quantity and quality of effort), persist for longer (persistence is the noblest learning trait), like to be challenged (let me compete in a higher division!), are more likely to seek feedback, and accept and act on criticism. These students really want to keep improving, enjoy the challenge of learning, believe in their capacity to solve problems, and as a result, broaden their potential through continuous improvement.
Growth mindset: “Why am I good at this? Essentially, because of my personal effort. If it is to be, it is up to me! This includes the quality of practice (for skills this means different types of repetition, chunking, pattern identification, slow movements, and so on), the quantity of practice, and the regular distribution of time.
Students saddled with a fixed mindset, however, are less likely to work hard (because the assumption is that talent will carry them without work ethic), persist less (quitting makes failure permanent), are less adventurous (for fear of failure), and are more image focused (would rather look smart than apply the effort to become smarter). They tend to ignore useful feedback, are more likely to cheat in a test and lie about results (mindset leads to character development), lack empowerment (because ultimately, they doubt their capacity to improve), and enjoy learning less. Overall, their performance drops over time.
Fixed mindset: “Why am I good at this skill? I’m lucky. I’m talented.” The effort is secondary.
Teacher attribution of talent intelligence is one of the strongest and most perceivable attitudes that indicate expectation. Labeling students as talented risks cultivating these fixed-mindset character traits. Those who believe in the inherited/genetic theory should note that there is not a lot of evidence to support talent-based intelligence. And, if you subscribe to this theory, then by comparative default, you must also believe that some students are less talented, or even not talented at all. This belief is transparently conveyed to a student. Try as you might, you cannot hide this. They know what you think!
Expectation studies reveal that when teachers lack belief in a pupil’s potential, they spend less time with that student, engage in less sophisticated conversation, ask fewer questions, and grant less “wait- time” between questions. They give dubious “encouragers” like “just do the best you can,” a recognized sign of low expectation, along with helping too much or too quickly, and the curse of inflated praise. As students quickly and accurately perceive their teachers’ low expectations of their learning ability, the realization negatively impacts their performance.
Given the association of mindset with the talent view of intelligence, a much heralded and lauded personal attribute in western society, the mindset journey is challenging. Think about the language you use in your teaching. Do you need to use the word “talent?” Gifted, talented, and natural carry the baggage of a fixed mindset. Some teachers assume that talent labels promote student effort, but the evidence indicates that they are more likely to do the opposite. It might be better to use non-talent type descriptors and phrases such as ability and able, skilled and skillful, competent, proficient, capable, very good at it, and so on. Attribute improvement to action, for we know that the best predictor of continuous improvement is the quality and the quantity of personal effort, and this is ignited with a healthy growth mindset.
Originally published: Professional Development and Enrichment
Michael Griffin is an educator, author, speaker, and pianist. He is the author of Metacognition: Teaching Children to Think, and three online teacher training courses. His current course, Growth Mindset: Improving Teaching and Learning, is a five-hour online, on-demand course offered at a discount for international educators.
Email: [email protected].