Four Ways to Develop a Growth Mindset in Students

Some years ago, Dr. Carol Dweck wrote a book called Mindset. It was based on her research at Columbia University, where she and her team discovered what was preventing students from really achieving their potential. This has special application for today’s coaches, educators, employers, and parents.

In a single phrase, it was a “fixed mindset” versus a “growth mindset.”

We were privileged to hear from Carol Dweck at this year’s National Leadership Forum that we hosted in Atlanta. She reminded us that both students and adults can be guilty of falling into the trap of thinking with a fixed mindset.

What does that mean, you say?

A “fixed mindset” believes that you are what you are, and you really can’t grow or change much in life. This person makes statements like:

  • “Well, I’m just not good at math.”
  • “I just can’t learn to throw a slider.”
  • “I’ve never been good at setting picks.”
  • “I just don’t remember names well.”

As adults, we find this mindset lingering, moving us to say:

  • “I can’t ever seem to balance the checkbook.”
  • “I just can’t lose weight.”
  • “I’m not very good at starting conversations with players.”
  • “I’m not a good leader.”

Dr. Dweck says that kind of thinking can stunt our growth.

Instead, she advocates a “growth mindset.” This thinking assumes that while some issues are tougher than others for each of us, we all can grow; and given enough effort, we can fair far better than we ever imagined by just thinking correctly about our lives. The growth mindset is not a lesson in futility. It doesn’t mean we live in denial. It simply refuses to believe in a fate that is thrust upon us that we have no choice about. If I am not good at math today, I am not destined to be poor at math forever. This is not my identity.

Four Ways to Build a Growth Mindset

After talking with Dr. Dweck on the Stanford University campus, I asked her about developing a growth mindset. How can both adults and students build one? Let me offer four simple steps below.

  1. Believe that your brain works like a muscle.

Through the right training, our brains can be developed, just like a muscle in a fitness center. When we view our brains this way, we stop hiding behind excuses and get honest: If we’re not changing, it’s because we’re lazy. There are specific tasks or exercises you can perform to expand your brain in areas you felt were impossible to develop.

  1. Use the word “yet.”

It’s okay to be honest about your challenges, but insert the word “yet” into your affirmations: I am not good at math… yet. I am not great at spelling…. yet. I am not a good dancer… yet. I am not good at shooting free throws… yet. Dr. Dweck believes this single word, while it isn’t magic, can transform the way we view our problems. Our current condition isn’t good, but we are in route towards progress. The word actually fosters the idea that we are growing and improving.

  1. Affirm variables that are in our control.

Too many parents and teachers unwittingly affirm attributes that are out of our student’s control. We say things like, “You’re smart. You’re beautiful. You’re gifted.” There is nothing inherently wrong with these phrases, but Dweck’s research tells us it causes students to stop working hard. They say things like: “Well, if I’m so smart, I shouldn’t have to try so hard!” Instead, we must affirm variables that are in their control: “I love the strategy you used on that problem. I love your work ethic in practice. I love how honest you are with your friends. I love how hard you tried.” When we affirm effort, which is in their control, we tend to get more effort.

  1. Surround yourself with “growth mindset” people.

People will grow into the conversations (and people) they have around them. You will become more and more like the people you have around you. Obviously, we can’t control every interaction we have with people, but we can choose our inner circle. Growing people determine to surround themselves with growth mindset people, who become contagious with others. You will reflect the books you read and the people you position next to you.

Both adults and kids can fall into the trap of fixed mindsets. We get stuck in old patterns and routines and become lazy when it comes to risk and growth. We make excuses as to why we can’t change or grow or make a difference. This prevents us from becoming who we’re capable of becoming. I read recently that women from one of the poorest slums of Uganda, earning less than a dollar a day, raised over $1,000 for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Wow. Here’s to cultivating a growth mindset this year as you teach and lead your students.

Four Ways to Develop a Growth Mindset in Students