Mindset theory – five top tips for embedding Dweck’s work into your school (with a little help from Lionel Messi and superglue)

Your mindset shapes your life. It affects your intelligence, your behaviour, your choices, your happiness, your relationships, your physical health, your mental health, your bank balance, your life satisfaction. If you’ve got a growth mindset, it affects these things for the better, if you’ve got a fixed one, for the worse. In fact, if you have a fixed mindset, it disables you.

Now, given that school is the place where young people prepare themselves for adult life, and given the life-shaping power of a mindset, it’s vital that schools take on the implications of Dweck’s work. Schools must embed mindset theory into the corridors, into the classrooms, into the very culture of the school. And this article will show you how – with five top tips.

Top Tip No.1: teach neuroplasticity

As we’ve all experienced, learning a new skill is difficult – and the more complex it is, the more difficult it is. Take driving, for instance. You have to concentrate on your feet, concentrate on your hands, and then somehow coordinate both at the same time. And while you’re getting to grips with all of that, your instructor has the cheek to tell you that you’ve got to look at the road too. In the beginning, learning to drive is difficult, but as we know it gets increasingly easier – to the point, in fact, that if you’ve been driving for a while you can do all of the above without even thinking about it. More than that, at the same time, you can have a conversation, listen to the radio or mentally plan your day.

It gets easier because of neuroplasticity. Something is said to be plastic if it can change its shape and retain that shape – and that’s precisely what your brain can do. Your brain hardwires new skills into your neural network. It literally grows new connections between brain cells. In the beginning, your brain has to use conscious effort to perform the skill (and not very well at that); but once it’s hardwired, it’s performed unconsciously and automatically (and smoothly too).

Neuroplasticity is a word that every student, every educator and every parent should know and understand. Because if they do, then they know and understand how the brain learns.

Top Tip No.2: teach mindset theory

Here’s Dweck on the difference between fixed and growth mindsets:

In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that

[…]. In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

Morehead 2012

People with a fixed mindset can’t really imagine that someone could ever have a growth mindset – and vice versa. Mindsets are a part of our core belief system, they exist without question, each presenting a truth so obvious that any other way of seeing the world is near unimaginable. Thing is, only one of the mindsets is true (growth, of course), but the other seems no less true to those that hold it.

Everyone benefits if you teach mindset theory. The growth mindset student ends up with an extra dose of ‘growth’ – a maybe a bit of empathy for those who are fixed. And the fixed mindset student gets to see how their own mindset is disabling them. More than that, they are now able to make a choice that wasn’t previously available to them: to act in either a fixed or a growth mindset way. They couldn’t make that choice before because they didn’t know the choice existed.

So, we need to teach mindset theory to our students. But it’s also important that we teach it to our educators (our teachers and TAs) and to the parents. In fact, it’s vital that we do. You see, mindsets can be induced. We can catch another person’s mindset and they can catch ours – and if those people are significant in our lives (like, say, our peers or our teachers or our parents), then our susceptibility to inducement is even greater. That’s why everyone in the school community, including the parents, needs to know and understand Dweck’s work.

Top Tip No. 3: teach the importance of growth: stretch, feedback and stickability

Let’s look at each in turn. Stretch refers to doing something that has a degree of difficulty – if there’s no difficulty, there’s no learning. Feedback is, well, feedback. It clarifies ideas, rectifies mistakes and tweaks performance. It shows you what you can’t see, or what you can’t see clearly. The trick is to be open to feedback, to assess it objectively and to incorporate it willingly. And lastly there’s stickability. Stickability is the act of supergluing yourself to a task. If the superglue comes unstuck, then stickability is also the process of re-application. Stickability is falling down six times and standing up seven.

Consider these three zones: the comfortable, the stretch, and the panic. Fixed mindset students want to be in the comfortable zone. In this zone they get to do what they’ve always done, which means they won’t fail. That’s its appeal. Unfortunately, in the comfortable zone, there’s also no learning. For us, as teachers, it’s a no-go zone. Another no-go zone is the panic zone. Why? Because in this zone students get so overwhelmed by pressure and stress that learning is impossible.

For learning to happen students need to be in the stretch zone. It’s got that vital ingredient called a ‘degree of difficulty’. If students stay in the stretch zone, stay with that degree of difficulty, changes will happen in the brain and learning will take place. Further, over time, the stretch zone will become the new comfortable zone, and the panic zone, which was once outside the students’ reach, will becomes the new stretch. This is the learning process in action – and if you teach this process, then you’re teaching students how to learn.

Top Tip No.3a – an addendum

But teaching about stretch, feedback and stickability is not enough – hence this addendum. You also have to embed all three into your lessons. You’ve have to stretch students; you have to provide them with good quality feedback; and you have to provide the conditions for stickability to occur. So teach all three, yes, but also provide the experience of all three.

Top Tip No.4: teach the true meaning of the word fail

I’ve never looked up the definition of ‘fail’ in a dictionary because, regardless of what it says, I know how it’s used. By most people most of the time, it’s used in fixed mindset way. It associates with words like rubbish or loser or worthless or stupid or idiot of moron or stand-in-the-corner-with-a-dunce’s-hat. It connotes with emotions like embarrassment, humiliation and shame. But that usage is wildly inaccurate. In reality, ‘fail’ is an acronym and it stands for First Attempt in Learning. If you can do something right away, then that’s not learning, that’s just doing what you can already do. It can also stand for the Fourth Attempt in Learning, or the Fifth Attempt in Learning or the Fiftieth Attempt in learning. It really doesn’t matter because every time you fail you get a learning opportunity, a feedback loop that allows you to refine your attempts until you get it right – or even better than right. It’s called trial and error.

Guess which people have the most failures? The answer is not those who are least successful, it’s the high achievers. By failing the most, they learn the most. Mozart mainly didn’t compose masterpieces; Michelangelo mainly mucked it up; Messi mainly misses the goal. But because they fail, they get more learning opportunities, and those opportunities mean that they get more successes. And as this process continues, the successes over time can become spectacular.

Failure, then, is not something to be feared, it’s something to be embraced. To fail is to learn, and that’s the true meaning of the word – the meaning we need to teach.

Top Tip No.5: use descriptive rather than evaluative praise

If you tell students that they’re clever or that their work is brilliant, then you’re doing them no favours whatsoever. Sure, they’ll feel good (and you’ll feel good because you made them feel good) but actually you’ll be inducing a fixed mindset. They will love your praise so much that they will do whatever they can to protect that praise. So, to make sure that you always think that they’re clever, around you they’ll stop taking risks. If they fail, you see, you might change your mind about their intellectual abilities. They may even reduce their effort. Why? Well, if they have to work hard at something, then they can’t really be that clever, can then. Things for them should come easily. So, then, around you, rather than progress, they might begin to plateau, perhaps even fall back.

Praise is important, but the praise you want is not evaluative (as above), it’s descriptive. Descriptive praise also has the power to induce a mindset, and that mindset is a growth one. It has four components: effort, progress, process and detail. Here’s an example.

Effort:
Grace, well done for your hard work. 

Progress:
When I saw your picture last week you hadn’t really managed to capture its movement, but now I get a real sense of the train coming towards me.

Process:
You’ve thought hard about perspective and been careful about how you’ve shown it.

Detail:
The way you’ve drawn the smoke, how the track narrows, the size of the engine at the front, all add to the sense of movement.

And how about another sentence on effort:
What are you going to do to make the picture even better?

It’s not always necessary to give all four elements of descriptive praise – often it’s enough to focus on one or two. But what you mustn’t do (ever!) is praise outcome or intelligence. Do that and, paradoxically, outcomes will worsen and intelligence will reduce.

One other thing – and it’s vitally important!

Repeat tips 1 to 5 over and over again (and again).

Fixed mindsets are fixed in two different ways: fixed in terms of intelligence of course, but they’re also fixed in that they’re difficult to budge. Sure, people can have a liberating epiphany, where they see something in a new way and that changes their thinking and behaviour. And teaching about mindset theory often creates those epiphanies, but, helpful as they are, they’re often not enough.

The problem is one of habit. If it’s been our habit to think in a fixed mindset way, then that habit will do its upmost to hold on to us. Yes, we might know and accept the truth of mindset theory, but that doesn’t mean that we are free of fixed mindset thinking. All smokers know the dangers of smoking, but not all smokers quit. So, to help a student break free of their fixed mindset, we need to repeat tips 1 to 5 over and over again (and again).

The trick is to take a little and often approach, finding different ways to get the message across. So teach explicitly, teach through analogy, teach through stories, teach through activities, teach through different media, teach through discussion, teach across the curriculum, teach by example. At the same time, use descriptive rather than evaluative praise and remind the students that amazing things are possible when you stretch yourself, when you are open to feedback, when you stick to a task.

It’s this repetitive approach that will allow the penny to drop, drop and drop again. The more the penny drops, the more they get it; the more they get it, the more they believe it; the more believe it, the more likely they are to make growth mindset decisions. And when they do that, well, that’s when potential is truly released – which, surely, is the very purpose of education.

Sources:

Dweck, Carol S. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Morehead, J. (2012). Stanford University’s Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and Education. [online] OneDublin.org. Available at: https://onedublin.org/2012/06/19/stanford-universitys-carol-dweck-on-the-growth-mindset-and-education/