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Actionable Steps to Bring Growth Mindset into the Classroom

By Pauline Zdonek, M.Ed., Instructional Math Coach at School District 89 in Melrose Park, Illinois
“Growth mindset” is everywhere in education these days, to the point of oversaturation. As in any trend that becomes big in education, it comes with the potential to be overused and misapplied. That being said, as a math instructional coach and psychology undergraduate major, the growth mindset theory spoke to me and I wanted to be a part of it.
I suggested our math department invest some time in reading Mindset by Carol Dweck to see what the hype was about and discuss the implications for our own practice.
Often in organizations there is a lot of talk, but little action and follow-through. With this in mind, as I reflected on my own reading, I organized my thoughts by how we can actually put these ideas into action.

Rethink Grades

“It’s no wonder that many adolescents mobilize their resources, not for learning, but to protect their egos. And one of the main ways they do by not trying.” - Carol Dweck, Mindset, pg. 58
We see, very often, students in the middle school that put forth little to no effort. Teachers are often frustrated by the fact that these students don’t seem to care that they are failing class.
But when you take this problem and look at it from a mindset perspective, certain details can be seen in a new light. It could be that we have students with fixed mindsets that believe they are not smart (or not good at math, or not a good writer, etc.) and therefore believe there is no point in putting forth any effort.
When you add the social components of middle school, these students (especially boys) would much rather look defiant in not doing the work than look stupid in getting it wrong. And by giving them failing grades, teachers just confirm what these students already believed about themselves - that they are stupid. In fact, by emphasizing grades as a motivational strategy, we are unknowingly reinforcing the problem that we find so exasperating!

Actionable Steps:

  • Reflect and discuss on our grading policies as a team (what we grade, how we grade, when we grade work) 
  • Move away from graded, summative assessments to using more formative assessments


Focus on Tasks that Require Perseverance

“Lowering standards just leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise.” - Carol Dweck, Mindset, pg. 193
However, to change students' mindset isn’t easy. It doesn’t mean that all we have to do is put in our classroom a cute poster about growth mindset vs. fixed mindset and we're done. For math teachers, the growth mindset lives in the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice 1, "Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them."
Perseverance lives in other subjects as well, whether its the scientific process or the constant revision of essay drafts. This quality has been shown as one of the strongest indicators of students success, which Dweck and Paul Tough outline in their books nicely.
Actionable Steps:
  • Use our team planning time to design lessons that promote perseverance
  • Find time to explicitly teach students about how their brain works and how they can use this information to help them grow as learners


Reflect on Our Own Biases

“‘I think it’s too easy for a teacher to say, ‘Oh this child wasn’t born with it, so I won’t waste my time.’ Too many teachers hide their own lack of ability behind that statement.” - Carol Dweck, Mindset, pg. 196
That can be a tough statement to read, especially if you’ve been that teacher or you know that teacher. Maybe the statement isn’t that blatant.
Maybe it’s a commentary made about their family situation, or their older brother who wasn’t any good either, or the friends that student hangs out with. Either way, it’s a statement that suggests that the child isn’t going to learn or be successful, so as a teacher it’s not my fault that they don’t do well in class.  
I know the realities are that we can’t reach every student in our classroom. Someone said once that while we know we can't reach every student, we don't know which students we are going to reach and which ones will slip by, so we have to treat every student like we are changing their life.

Actionable Steps:
  • Have honest reflection with ourselves, and ideally with each other, about our own biases
  • Try to eliminate the phrases, "These kids", "These parents", and the like from our meetings and conversations


Model Growth Mindset

“When you think about it, this makes sense. If, like those with growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even if it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively.” - Carol Dweck, Mindset, pg. 11
Good teaching is learning. If teachers don’t exemplify the growth mindset, students never will. As the teacher, you are the model for students of lifelong learning.
No matter what stage we are in our career, or what position we have, we can always be improving. We need to seek out accurate feedback from others we trust, and use that feedback to set goals in areas that we want to improve. We should be transparent with our students about our own growth, so they can see that learning is a life long process.
As a coach, I have teachers who are beautifully honest with their student about my role in the classroom, and the students love finding out that their teacher is learning and growing at the same time they are. 

Actionable Steps:
  • Embrace growth mindset by setting your own improvement goal or working with a coach (this includes coaches and administrators)
  • Share stories with students about our own mistakes and failures and what we've learned from them
In the end, after reading the book, I am on the growth mindset bandwagon. If you've incorporated growth mindset into how you work with students or with colleagues, I'd love to hear how you've done it and how it is going!
This article was orginally posted at Pauline Zdonek and is republished with permission.
Photo header image by wiselywoven at
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