In 167 AD the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius drafted a now notorious text on what could easily be described as a promotional piece for the growth mindset. Among this piece entitled, The Meditations, he wrote, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Aurelius believed that when one accepts an obstacle instead of avoiding it then they position themselves to benefit in a far more meaningful way. This seemingly simple concept is increasingly relevant in modern times. It’s known as the growth mindset and many are adopting it in schools and educational communities across the world, and with good reason. The psychological research supporting the growth mindset is advancing, but even more exciting are the results in classrooms when it is put into action. At Two Rivers Public Charter school we act intentionally in order to cultivate a growth mindset in our students.
CULTIVATING A GROWTH MINDSET AT SCHOOL
At Two Rivers we strive to be intentional and deliberate with our comments and actions. What we choose to say and how we decide to say it will determine what type of mindset we promote to our community of learners. Research has shown that praise matters to student performance and mindsets. This means that the type of praise we are giving to children can help form the development of a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Often the two are differentiated by praising children for ability or effort. Highlighting someones abilities can promote a fixed mindset while pointing out their effort helps promote a growth mindset. In the book, Mindset, by Carol Dweck, two examples are given for how praise was given in her research study and the outcomes. For the group of students where they were praised for their ability the researchers said statements like, “Wow, you got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” The other group of students were praised for their effort through statements like, “Wow, you got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” The students who were praised for their ability did not accept the next challenge and did not want to make any mistakes because they were already perceived as good at the task. The group that was praised for their effort, took on the next challenge with relish and had fun with the task, learning from their mistakes.
We have all called our kids smart. It is natural to be proud of them and to want to praise them. The risk of calling our kids smart, or brilliant, or gifted are relevant. These positive labels don’t truly support our aim as educators and parents. When using these types of ability-based positive labels, children begin to identify intelligence with innate abilities instead of effort, which means that you either have it or you don’t and when you struggle it means you don’t have it. Using phrases like, “You worked hard to put detail on that art piece,” or, “You really persevered when solving that conflict with your sister,” focus the child on effort and hard work, which they are in control of and can use to build intelligence and skills.
At Two Rivers we hold students accountable for using their growth mindset through our school culture. For example, the past few years, we have developed a culture for loving math. We helped all teachers understand that no one is “bad at math” or “not a math person.” In the past, these were common phrases among staff when describing their feelings about their math skills. These comments and the mindset behind them can hinder or stop our growth. Our math curriculum exposes students to problem-based tasks, which assist students in developing their conceptual understanding, problem solving, and procedural skills. Teachers often work out problems themselves to foresee challenges and misconceptions that students might face. This helps us learn how to best push students without giving them the answer because we’ve already struggled through it. We want teachers and students to view mistakes as opportunities for growth and not as a failure or stopping point.
We also promote a Growth Mindset through the phrasing of our Two Rivers Scholarly Habits. These include:
- “I work hard.”
- “I care for my community.”
- “I am a team player.”
- “I am responsible and independent.”
Students hear and speak these phrases regularly. This repeated exposure helps them practice the habits. We ask students to work hard which includes taking risks and persevering even when things are challenging. Appreciating our learning community is an important aspect to the habits and students regularly take notice of their role within it. The last two habits help students realize that they are part of a team and contribute to the success of their team by being responsible and independent.
CULTIVATING A GROWTH MINDSET AT HOME
While there are many structures at Two Rivers to promote growth mindset in our students, how can we also develop and nurture growth mindset at home? Parents are the first teachers of their children and thinking about how we as family members instill a growth mindset, or unintentionally, a fixed mindset, is important to building well-rounded children who are lifelong learners. Modeling growth mindset at home can be powerful for our children. Hearing stories from their family members about how a mistake turned into a learning opportunity or how hard work over time helped mom or dad develop a new skill is compelling for all children, no matter their age. All children love to hear details about their parents’ day. At the dinner table ask each other questions like, “What did you learn today?” or, “What mistake did you make that taught you something?” or, “What did you try hard at today?” Go around the table and ask each family member to share, making sure to excitedly include your own stories about effort, failure, and learning. Another fun way to model a growth mindset is to tell bedtime stories where children are the main character and have a problem to solve (maybe getting a cat out of a tree or saving a sibling from a monster) but as the main character your child makes mistakes, learns from those mistakes, and then uses that new knowledge to solve the problem. Kids love to be the central character in stories that parents tell! In addition to helping children imagine themselves using a growth mindset it is powerful to identify their family’s mindset. Saying phrases like, “The Bellos make mistakes and learn from them,” or, “The Smiths work hard,” and then modeling those family traits. This can help kids build pride and skills to promote a growth mindset.
As adults our first impulse is to protect children from failure and struggle. Of course, we don’t want students to face traumatic struggles and failures, so what kind of struggle is acceptable, even great, for our kids to experience? When our kids are babies and are learning to walk, they start out clumsy. They often fall down only to get back up to try again. The falling part is necessary. As parents, we know that this is the process they must to go through to learn to walk and we are there to support them by making sure they don’t fall on hard surfaces or sharp objects. Children must learn that like falling, failure is necessary in order to grow. As children grow older both educators and parents can support them by what we choose to say and the way we say it. Counter to a mindset of ease and instant gratification is a mindset of challenges and growth. Its a perspective that echoes Marcus Aurelius’s statements almost two Millenia ago, “Our inward power… reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces – to what is possible. It turns obstacles into fuel. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it – and makes it burn still higher.” At Two Rivers Public Charter School we empower students by teaching them how to confront an obstacle, acknowledge it for what it is, and then use it to fuel the flame of their own education.