We live in an era of accountability where success or failure is measured primarily through test scores and intelligence tests. This can lead to an undermining fixed mindset that believes some students can learn while others cannot. But successful schools, such as turnaround campuses, share one important practice: they operate within a growth mindset, knowing that all students can and will learn. Intelligence is malleable and can be bolstered; the mind is always growing.
Educators benefit when they understand how students’ brains learn. The same is true for teachers of students who are learning English. They are no different from other students who already own many ideas and are endowed with thinking processes, experiences, and a growing vocabulary that enable them to be proficient learners. Teachers can empower their students to tap into what they already know and what they already can do through classroom experiences, collaborations and assessments.
We are endowed with a brain that selectively responds more positively to stimuli and does so in an atmosphere of affirmative relationships. As educators, we are tasked with establishing an atmosphere of affirmative relationships in classrooms by building a growth mindset not only for students but for all staff (Dweck, 2006; David, 2015).
By inspiring teachers and students to foster these affirmative relationships in the classroom, we provide a learning environment that is relevant, engaging and challenging. Leaders and teachers strengthen students’ persistence and resiliency to engage and succeed academically. This intentional development of a growth mindset directly impacts the success of students, teachers, leaders and schools alike (David, 2015).
School leaders must ensure that teachers see that they can strengthen their own competencies as well. This is a growth mindset that improves efficacy throughout the school community by motivating and supporting aspirations that lead to achievement.
For example, a growth mindset is a prerequisite when educators model the metacognitive skills required for inferencing and reasoning. These are critical skills that become more complex as students go from grade to grade. By modeling thinking aloud, students learn to become strategic thinkers and independent learners who are continuously growing intellectually by accessing knowledge and applying that knowledge to new situations.
Inferencing and reasoning require that students develop these skills as “habits of the mind” because their use is needed constantly throughout their lives. We cannot leave the development of these skills to particular lessons taught at certain times during the school year nor to chance.
Sarcasm and criticism have no place in the classroom because of their damaging effects to students’ engagement in the learning process. They extinguish learning opportunities. Instead, students need to hear about the strengths and skills they own and can be enhanced to increase possibilities for success, learning to never give up and to seek help when necessary.
When a student says, “It’s too hard” or “I can’t do it,” our response needs to focus on the things he or she has done that were partially successful and, as Dweck states, shows the student is “not there yet.” Consequently, the idea of “not there yet,” gives the student hope that promotes confidence and increases purposeful efforts. We must help students develop beliefs of their most basic qualities. With a growth mindset, their intelligence, talents and personalities are thereby cultivated throughout their life through dedication, determination and intentional effort. However, if students have not been told that they have an innate ability and potential to accomplish success in their schoolwork, and people do not acknowledge they believe so, how will students be able to do so? Therefore, educators must ensure this message is communicated daily, validating to students that abilities and effort lead to greater success and they can do so in spite of all odds and challenges they face, such as racial discrimination and oppressive behaviors (Wood & Harris, 2016).
Using Social Persuasion
Building a growth mindset also involves the use of social persuasion. This is an environment where students receive personalized messages that they have skills and capabilities to handle any situation. In this environment, students feel more competent to make greater effort, persisting even in the face of setbacks (Harris & Franklin, 2007).
Through social persuasion, teachers and students are aware of the thoughts, motivations and feelings of others, which fosters a collective identity in the pursuit of common goals. In this environment, teachers and students tap into what others are thinking and use this to enhance their own thinking to increase their learning. This is an environment with a growth mindset promoting the sense of efficacy needed.
As educators, we must encourage and coach students to strengthen their efficacy and success. We must acknowledge that all of us can slip back into fixed mindset behaviors. We must be constantly vigilant to not creep back into dysfunctional behaviors. And we need to coach students to realize that setbacks are temporary. In an administrator or teacher coaching experience, the focus is not just on eliminating a fixed mindset but recognizing it as a learning experience that allows one to succeed.
Educators can guide students to monitor their own thinking to recognize the negative thoughts and emotions that inhibit their success. Then they will have a choice to adjust their thinking and realign it with the growth mindset. Educators do this by modeling the positive behaviors of a growth mindset. This instills in students the belief that they have the power to transform their life circumstances by being fully engaged in learning opportunities and experiences (Yeager & Walton, 2011).
For instance, educators can name an academic behavior that a student has demonstrated previously and then guide them to transfer that named strength to their new situation where they have experienced frustration. As a result, thriving even through the most challenging times, students demonstrate a growth mindset.
During setbacks, students also can learn from others who have excelled under difficult circumstances. As stated by Pierson (2013) “Every kid [everyone] needs a champion!” Students can be inspired by teachers, historical figures and community leaders. Observing how others overcame challenges to be successful show students the pathways that they can emulate and make their own. Teachers engage students to reflect on the experiences of others and this inspires them to use a growth mindset to learn and persevere.
Students can be models for other students as well. Observing and listening to students with similar backgrounds who have succeeded can help students believe that they too can accomplish challenging tasks.
In partnership with the San Antonio ISD, IDRA’s STAARS Leaders project embraces the development of a growth mindset for all (see story on Page 1). By preparing leaders and educators to guide students to use metacognition and reflection during problem solving and content learning, teachers and students can meet and surpass all expectations. Despite the odds that life can bring, everyone is better equipped to accomplish greater things not only in school but in life itself when we have the perspective of a growth mindset. Continually, by generating effort and implementing new strategies to overcome challenges, everyone can meet the goals and expectations that have been set.
Avilés, N. (March 2016). “Leaders Turn Around Schools – Transformational Equity Focus Makes College Readiness a Priority,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Random House).
David, L. (December 14, 2015). “Mindset Theory: Fixed vs. Growth Mindset,” Learning Theories.
Harris, M.B., & Franklin, C. (2007). Taking Charge: A School-Based Life Skills Program for Adolescent Mothers (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press).
Pierson, R. (2013). “Every Kid Needs a Champion,” TED Talk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzw_bEroAoM
Wood, J., & Harris, F. (2016). Teaching Boys and Young Men of Color: A Guide Book (Lawndale Hill Publishing).
Yeager, D.S., & Walton, G.M. (2011). “Social-psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic,” Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 267-301.
Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate and directs the IDRA STAARS Leaders project. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gerald Sharp, M.A., is an IDRA STAARS Leaders consultant. Kristin Grayson, Ph.D., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at email@example.com.
[©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2017 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]