Turning Attitude into Achievement: 3 Takes on Growth Mindsets

Over the past decade, many educators and parents have learned how to unlock more potential from all students and children after learning about the inspiring work of Carol Dweck and the Growth Mindset movement. Recently, I have seen this work revisited as we – educators, parents, coaches alike – have experienced the challenges of implementing the changes in our language and our policies called for by this research. Here are three takes on growth mindsets and how to help schools, parents, and children learn more about how to avoid fixed attitudes and embrace growth attitudes.

Carol Dweck wrote in Ed Week, a publication for schools, about revisiting her own work. She writes, in part:

Students’ mindsets—how they perceive their abilities—played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). And when students learned through a structured program that they could “grow their brains” and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better. Finally, we found that having children focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits…

A growth mindset isn’t just about effort.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 to the 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: “Great effort! You tried your best!” It’s good that the students tried, but it’s not good that they’re not learning. 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. When they’re stuck, teachers can appreciate their work so far, but add: “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.”

[Dweck, Carol. “Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset.'” Education Week. Editorial Projects in Education, 22 Sept. 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://www.edweek.org/>.]


In the same publication, Ed Week, Peter DeWitt wrote about John Hattie‘s work in researching the evidence of change he found about different research-based initiatives, including the “Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset”. Here is a long excerpt and you can find the full link in the citations below:

As Hattie continued to speak, he said the reason why growth vs. fixed mindset has a low effect size is due to the fact that adults have a fixed mindset and keep treating students accordingly, so right now the effect size is low, and will continue to stay low unless we change our practices in the classroom. We put students in ability groups, they get scores on high stakes tests that help label them, and then we place them in Academic Intervention Services (AIS) which adds to their fixed mindset. Once students enter into AIS or Special Education, very few leave.

Students are conditioned to have a fixed mindset, and it’s due to us.

What can we do differently?

First and foremost, we have to get away from having a fixed mindset because it has terrible implications for how we treat students. We do not have a crystal ball, and we shouldn’t treat students who struggle like they will struggle for the rest of their lives. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat students like they will always struggle…they may always struggle.


If students aren’t doing well in our classrooms it may not be due to them and may require that we change the way we teach. “Change the environment and not the child.” When we use ability groups, categorize students by test scores, and do not instruct in a variety of ways, we will continue to treat students with a fixed mindset. Our fixed mindset puts them at a greater risk of having a fixed mindset. We need to try to do the following:

  • Less Testing – Yes, I know. We don’t feel like we have control over this but we do have control over parts of it. We can continue to speak up about the harmful way that high stakes testing is being used, but we can also change the way we use the tests we create and use in our classrooms. First of all, use less summative testing. Formative assessment is the sweet spot. Be less concerned about grades and more concerned about formative assessment. Join Teachers Throwing Out Grades and read this blog by Shirley Clarke.
  • More feedback – If we want things like class size to matter more, than we need to change the way we provide feedback. Reflect on the feedback you provide to students. Does the feedback go deeper as the students gain more expertise in the topic? Or do we just slap a grade or a sticker on a paper and say “Great job!” Praise, although great to hear, does not move learning forward.
  • Flexible Grouping – When we put students in ability groups like Lions, Tigers and Bears, something I was guilty of, they know which group has the high achieving students and others who are not as gifted in the curricular area. Students, no matter their academic level, can provide effective feedback to each other if it has been modeled correctly.
  • Different Questioning – 95% of questions stay in the surface level.  According to Hattie’s research, Experienced teachers ask 75% surface and 25% deep. Expertteachers as 75% that are deep and 25% that are surface. Check out SOLO Taxonomy for alternatives.
  • Stop talking so much – “Teachers ask more than 200 questions per hour,” which means wait time is low and students are not getting the opportunity to talk with one another. Try to do a Think, Pair, Share or cooperative conversations.

In the End

We talk a lot about the growth mindset but our actions may be counterproductive to putting it into action. A growth mindset is so vitally important for adults and students. Adults need to have that mindset for their own growth but more importantly for the growth of their students.

Talking about the growth mindset is not good enough. Our actions are where the rubber hits the road. If we believe the growth mindset is important, and believe that it should have a higher effect size, then we need to follow up with the actions to make it happen.

[DeWitt, Peter. “Why a ‘Growth Mindset’ Won’t Work.” Education Week. Editorial Projects in Education, 17 July 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://blogs.edweek.org/>.]

 Finally, there are many Internet memes on the subject and this enjoyable one recently found its way into the Middle School faculty room: