Fostering growth mindsets in education


By Brody Hannan

It was 2014. I had just finished Year 12 and university offers were being made. A friend of mine had just received an offer into med school, with the long-term aim of becoming a neurosurgeon.

My friend was incredibly bright, and she loved to learn. Anything and everything. She asked me to join an online reading cub she started where we’d each read a novel a week to then discuss on skype every Sunday afternoon. She’d go hiking on the weekends, loved to travel, and believed she could accomplish anything. She was obsessed with the idea of ‘neuro-plasticity’.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced. I thought she was pretty naïve, to put it bluntly. I’d grown up in a small, rural community, and gone to a public high school where there were more people who dropped out of Year 12 than those who went on to university. I was firm in my belief that you were a product of where you were born, how you were raised and the people you grew up with – and not much could be done to change that once you reached a certain age. ‘Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man’ was a piece of knowledge that I’d hung onto for a long time.

It wasn’t till 2018 that I began to challenge these beliefs that I’d held for so long. I’d been through a rough 2017 and found that I needed to do something to ‘re-imagine’ myself if I was going to get out of the emotional well I’d made for myself. I’d also finished reading a book by renowned author Carol Dweck which labelled my beliefs as a ‘fixed mindset’, and my friend’s a ‘growth mindset’.

In other words – fixed mindsets believe that much of who we are and what we are capable of – both good and bad – is largely predetermined. Growth mindsets on the other hand, embrace failure, try new things, and believe that they can become good at anything through persistence and a willingness to try new strategies in the face of difficulties.

In one of his articles, the founder of Future’s Collective, Aqeel Camal, describes his vision for future education – one where creativity and growth mindsets are embraced. From the comparisons I’ve described above, I shouldn’t need to go into too much detail about how fixed mindsets can be limiting, and in turn, detrimental to the education system. Instead, I want to talk about how we can create growth mindsets in our interactions and in our education systems, primarily at the school level:

1. Praise Processes and Ways of Thinking, Not Intelligence or Sheer Effort

Complimenting intelligence can reinforce it as a fixed trait, and explicitly praising effort when students’ hard work doesn’t pay off can make them feel incompetent. Instead, we should give feedback to students that highlights the values of planning and trying new strategies.

Ask your students – what went well? How could you have planned better? What do you think the issue is? What are your next steps?

2. Vary Your Teaching Style

Exposing students to a variety of different teaching methods help build a repertoire of learning skills that students can use to handle diverse challenges.

Using videos, presentations, role plays, working individually and in groups of all sizes, submitting essays, or artistic projects, posters or giving a presentation to the rest of the class – these are all techniques used by many teachers already. They encourage students to synthesise and communicate knowledge in different sources, as well as develop the skills to overcome diverse learning obstacles.

However, these same teachers are quick to give out grades and percentages to mark students’ progress. Doing so is ‘deducting marks’ from 100, and acknowledging that there is a perfect score a student can achieve.

Instead, students’ answers should be probed through inquiry based learning. Students should be encouraged through difficult work pieces so they learn to embrace challenges. Grades should be given on an ‘experience level’ or point scheme to illustrate steady improvement and to remind students of their growth.

3. Encourage Introspection

The importance of journaling, reflection and meditation is discussed a lot in the leadership and self-development circles as adults, but rarely engaged with as kids. Why?

Just like weekly reading time is allocated in most classes, ‘reflection time’ can be, too. Journaling encourages students to build growth mindsets through goal setting, training them to not only set goals, but to discuss their progression towards meeting these goals, as well. ‘Success folders’ can be used for students to catalogue and reflect upon their learning process each week, serving as a constant reminder to them that growth is always possible.

The way we interact with students and all young people – whether we are a teacher or not – should be helping guide them away from a fixed, to a growth mindset.

And where is my friend now, you wonder? Well, she is still in med school, still studying hard. The book club didn’t get off the ground but she still is a prolific traveller and reader. And me? Well, my life for the last 6 months has been trying to add as many small, but productive habits into my life as I continue to grow and in turn these reflect into positive traits and characteristics.

I reached out to my friend 2 months ago to tell her all this, and how I should have taken her more seriously when she was trying to enable me to move on from my limited mindsets. We reconnected after falling out of touch for over 3 years. She was as inspiring as ever.

Meet the author

I’ve just wrapped up my Bachelor of Science at the Australian National University and am looking towards further studies in public policy and a career in teaching. Growing up in Cowra, NSW, I am passionate about improving education outcomes for regional and low SES students across Australia. I want to devote my life to develop the leadership of young people to solve the global challenges of the future.