What is a growth mindset, and why is it important?
Here are some of the stories our students tell themselves:
‘I’m so bad at learning languages because I can never remember new words. I hear a word five times and I still forget it.’
‘I’ve been in intermediate for four months and I’m still here. My parents are just wasting their money on these lessons. I’m just not the studying type.’
‘I’m really good at languages and I don’t need to work with my classmates on projects to improve my English. Perhaps if I do the next task very quickly, they’ll all see how talented I am.’
‘I’ve just made a mistake and now everyone in the class thinks I’m stupid. I’m going to just keep quiet and nod from now on.’
There is an underlying belief about learning for these students – the belief that some of us are born to be good at certain things, and then there are things that we are not going to be good at. If we are talented at something, then we will excel at it. We won’t make mistakes, and we will do it quickly without any help. If we struggle, then we just aren’t very talented at it.
The above constitutes what we consider today to be a fixed mindset – one that sees our character and our intelligence as static and unchangeable. This is in contrast to a growth mindset – a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck (2006) that describes a set of attitudes and beliefs towards learning that sees challenges, setbacks and mistakes as important parts of developing character traits, intelligence and abilities. People with a growth mindset believe that anyone can become good at anything as long as they invest time and effort into it.
While many teachers might agree with such an attitude, we ourselves might fall prey to the trappings of a fixed mindset. Here are some of the things you might have heard teachers saying:
‘Technology isn’t my thing. I can’t even use Word properly, so please don’t ask me to use Quizlet.’
‘I’m not a grammar person. I just don’t have that kind of structure or organization in my mind to understand grammar.’
‘I’ve been teaching for more than 30 years and I know all about soft skills. There’s nothing new I can learn about them so I don’t see any point in me taking a training course on the subject.’
While we might have a growth mindset in certain areas, we might find ourselves subscribing to the beliefs of a fixed mindset in others. Similarly, while we might try to instill a growth mindset in our learners by telling them to keep trying and not give up, we simultaneously reinforce notions of a fixed mindset by saying things such as ‘You’re a natural at grammar! It’s effortless for you!’, ‘That’s the right answer! You’re so smart!’ or ‘You’ve done this a few times already, so you should know this by now.’
So how can we consistently cultivate a growth mindset in our students? How can we regularly remind our students (and ourselves) to adopt a growth mindset? Here are five strategies we can employ:
1. Educate students about neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity refers to the elasticity of the brain and the way it is capable of reorganizing itself and forming new neural connections throughout a person’s life. The brain can be re-shaped and re-wired by changes in behaviour, environment and/or stimulus because every time something new is attempted, neurons are fired together, thus creating and strengthening pathways in the brain.
By having open conversations and discussions about neuroplasticity with students, we can help them understand that every time they work hard to do something, the neurons in their brain form connections and they are essentially getting smarter. Every time they stick to doing something that might be difficult, their neurons are strengthening and their brain is getting stronger.
The more we use our brain to learn something, the better our brain gets at it. But here’s the bonus: not only does the brain get better at the thing we are trying to learn, but it also gets better at learning in general. People who have done one MA often find it easier to do the second one. People who have learnt to speak one language fluently often find learning a third, fourth or fifth language much more painless.
2. Delve deeper into success stories
Who are the people your students admire? Whether it is a famous rapper, a skillful football player or well-known business person, many successful people are admired for their skills, their know-how, their intelligence and/or their accomplishments. But delve a little deeper into how they got there and we will find out that a great number of hours of hard work and consistent effort have been invested.
Michael Jordan was considered to be so bad at basketball when he was younger that he was cut from his high school basketball team. Having lost more than 300 games, the famous basketball player has been quoted saying, ‘Failure always makes me try harder at the next opportunity.’
Founder of the Virgin Group Richard Branson suffered multiple setbacks but they all served to help him shape his business models and the direction he wanted to go in.
Have your students do some research into the people that they admire. How did they get so good at what they do? How much time did/do they spend building up those skills/talents? What kind of failures and setbacks did they experience along the way? And how did this affect them?
Have students share their own success stories too. Get them to talk about something they are good at and have them describe what it took for them to get good at it. Ask them about their grasp of the English language and how they managed to get this far so successfully.
By focusing not just on the achievements, but also on the journey it takes to get there, students are reminded that it is not just talent, but also hard work, effort and resilience that enable us to accomplish great things.
3. Celebrate challenges and mistakes
When we see our students having difficulty doing something, it is often tempting to jump in and help them out, and perhaps even do the task for them. When they are struggling to find the right words, we urge them along and feed them with options in an attempt to smooth their learning journey.
But this could make students think that:
a) struggle and difficulty are undesirable things, and if they are good students, they should be able to do it with more ease; and
b) they should pick easier tasks to do or easier words/sentences that they can string together without any hesitation in the future.
There is, however, very little learning in picking less-challenging tasks or only using words they already know very well. Instead, we want our students to see challenges and mistakes as opportunities for learning and strengthening new pathways in their brain. And to do so, we ourselves need to get excited about the learning opportunities that these challenges and mistakes present.
When students struggle to get the words out of their mouths or when they are debating within themselves which tense to use, give them a moment to think. Give their brains a chance to form those new connections, and allow them the time to discover strategies to solve those problems.
If the obstacle is a complex one, have them collaborate with their fellow classmates to find solutions. In doing so, their classmates will get to benefit from those learning opportunities too.
4. Encourage students to go outside their comfort zones
Perhaps it is using their English with a real person in the real world that scares your students. Perhaps it is an unfamiliar genre of text that they are finding hard to read. Perhaps it is the use of a new complex grammatical structure that doesn’t exist in the students’ L1 that is mindboggling. There are many less familiar (and therefore less reassuring) scenarios that can cause students to turn their noses up at the chance to develop a new skill.
There are some strategies we could use to support them and help them take the first steps – e.g. going out into the real world with a partner, breaking down the new genre of text, practising using the grammar structure in a controlled environment – but, ultimately, we need to help students embrace that feeling of trepidation (or some might call excitement) by framing the experience differently.
Don’t say ‘This is a new genre of text/grammar structure, and I know it’s really complex and you’re going to find it hard.’
Instead, say ‘I’ve brought in this new text today and I know you’re going to find it very interesting. It’s different from anything you’ve ever done!’ or ‘Today I’m going to introduce you to a new grammar structure because you guys have been so amazing at figuring out how the other structures work, I thought you might enjoy this one!’
5. Give them ‘Growth-Mindset’ feedback
From a very young age, we’ve been conditioned to praise positive end results: ‘You’ve got rid of your dummy, that’s amazing!’‘That’s a great drawing, great job!’ ‘You’ve used the word correctly, well done!’ Throughout our lives, we often relate feedback and praise to how well someone has done something.
But in order to cultivate a growth mindset, we need to start focusing on the efforts made, the strategies used and the way setbacks are overcome. Compliment students on the interesting strategies they have chosen to deal with a particular problem, show appreciation for their persistence when they don’t give up in the face of difficulty and ask them questions about the efforts that they have made.
And if students lament about their inability to do something, saying ‘I can’t understand this’, or ‘I’m not good at this’, add the work yet to their sentences: ‘You can’t understand this YET.’ ‘You’re not good at this YET.’
For by harnessing the power of ‘yet’ (like in this Sesame Street song!) we can show students that, with time, they can become good at anything they set their mind to.
After all, as Malcom Gladwell suggested in his book ‘Outliers – the Story of Success’, if you practise anything for 10000 hours, you can become a world-class expert at it.
About the author
Based in York, Chia Suan Chong is a teacher trainer, an intercultural skills trainer and a materials writer.
She has been English Teaching Professional’s award-winning resident blogger since 2012 and is also a featured columnist in their bimonthly magazine.
Chia is a regular ELT conference speaker and holds a DELTA and a Masters in Applied Linguistics and ELT.
Find out more about Chia here: https://chiasuanchong.com/about/
Watch her webinar on developing a growth mindset on YouTube here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0PWdtt6vYg
- Dweck, Carol (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
- Gladwell, Malcom. (2011) Outliers: The Story Of Success. New York : Back Bay Books.