I want to take issue with one of the more common Growth Mindset infographics: “Change your words. Change your Mindset.” You can find it in various forms on social media and in many classrooms. The problem is, it gets the message we want to send to students back-to-front.
Firstly, like many Growth Mindset memes, there’s a kernel of truth to the infographic. Students with a Fixed Mindset do tend to engage in self-talk along the lines of “I can’t,” “I give up,” and, “This is too hard.” And students with a Growth Mindset tend to engage in self-talk along the lines of “I can’t yet,” “I’ll find another way,” and, “This may take some time and effort.”
But beyond that, this infographic isn’t useful. It may even do more harm than good. Let me explain.
It treats the symptoms, not the cause
This infographic describes the symptoms of a Fixed or Growth Mindset, not the actual Mindset. The Mindset is comprised of underlying beliefs. It’s those beliefs that cause students to say, “I can’t” or “I can’t yet.”
Asking someone to change his or her words simply masks the underlying Mindset. It doesn’t address their beliefs about their abilities. It’s akin to taking an aspirin when you’ve got the flu. Your fever might go away, but you’ve still got the flu that caused your fever. Left untreated, the flu will get worse.
But then …
When teachers ask students to change their words, it’s like they’re asking them to pretend they have a Growth Mindset. Teachers may feel they are seeing a Growth Mindset in their students, but it’s not real. It doesn’t last.
What happens after “not yet”? Without some sort of teacher intervention, it’s unlikely the student will achieve much growth. As I’ve written about before, “I can’t do it yet” too often becomes “I still can’t do it yet!”
As I show in the table below, changing your words is a short-term fix that can lead to a long-term problem, as illustrated in the “But then …” column.
All this underscores an even bigger problem: Schlimmbeserung – the German word that means to make things worse while trying to make them better. Our efforts to help students develop a Growth Mindset can backfire, resulting in the development of a more Fixed Mindset.
How does a student respond when the promise of “not yet” remains unfulfilled? They are likely to have their previous beliefs of “I can’t” reinforced. They develop a sense of learnt helplessness that acts as a negative Mindset Mover, reinforcing their fixed beliefs about their abilities.
It’s like the aspirin wears off and the fever comes back even stronger!
Between the Fixed and Growth Mindset is teacher action
Changing students’ words to change their mindset gets the order wrong. We need to change students’ beliefs about their abilities before they can change their words. We must treat the cause, not the symptoms.
For students to move from a Fixed Mindset to a more Growth Mindset, there must be teacher action that shows children how to grow. It’s not enough to simply tell students to repeat the mantra, “Mistakes help me learn.” We must show students how mistakes help them learn so they can correct them.
Similarly, telling students, “This may take some time,” isn’t helpful unless we tell them how their time needs to be spent.
When the student makes a Fixed Mindset statement (“I’m not good at this” or “This is too hard”), the teacher must create a positive Mindset Mover. A Band-Aid response of, “Don’t say that,” won’t work in the long run. The teacher’s response needs to show the student how to achieve growth.
The graphic below suggests more helpful, positive Mindset Movers teachers can use in response to the Fixed Mindset phrases we may hear from students. There are obviously many more.
When teachers intervene and show students how to achieve growth, and when students develop Learning Agility, the resulting changes in their abilities act as positive Mindset Movers. These create a more growth-oriented Mindset.
And when that happens, we begin to see authentic changes in students’ self-talk. Only when we treat the cause will the symptoms change in a meaningful way.
It’s not about “change their words, change their Mindset.” It’s about how we, as teachers, change our words so that we can change students’ Mindsets.
James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.
James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.
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