One of the critical lessons from research into Mindsets is that what teachers say and how they say it matters.
Language acts as a Mindset Mover. The hidden and unintended messages in our language can push students along the Mindset Continuum, creating either a more Fixed or Growth Mindset. So, as teachers, we need to be highly conscious of the impact our language has on students.
For example, consider the impact of praising students for their effort. Many teachers have jumped on the “praise effort” bandwagon in an attempt to create positive Mindset Movers. Unfortunately, these intentions haven’t always matched the results.
We’ve discovered that, in some cases, praising “effort” has sent entirely unintended, negative messages to students about effort, creating more Fixed Mindsets in the process. (See Not All Effort is Created Equal and How Praise Became the Consolation Prize).
To understand how our language influences a student’s mindset, we need to develop our ability to monitor our language for any subtle messages our words may carry.
What we mean isn’t always what is heard
The messages we intend to send to our students may not be the ones received. Words can be interpreted differently depending on the Mindset of the recipient.
Take, for example, the way we use the term “best” in relation to student performance:
• We ask students to “do their best work”;
• We tell students, “It’s OK, as long as you’ve done your best”; or
• “All we ask is for you to do your best.”
To a student on the Growth end of the Mindset Continuum, these words might be interpreted to mean that they have engaged in effective effort and produced their best result on the day. They understand their best is temporary – it’s their “current” best. They expect their standards to improve because they expect their abilities to improve.
But how might someone on the Low Growth end of the Mindset Continuum perceive these words? Someone who believes his or her talents, abilities and intelligence are fixed? Might they interpret “their best” as a fixed point? When they are told they’ve done “their best”, they may consider have reached their limit and there’s nowhere left for them to go.
The problem is that in common usage, the term “best” is frequently used with fixed boundaries. The “best score” you can get in a game of bowling is 300 – it’s impossible to get a better score. When you’re the “best at something”, there’s no one better. Best is taken to mean furthest, greatest, most, number one, or the outer limit of performance. Even the common phrase, “good, better, best,” suggests “best” is the end point.
So, when we tell students they’ve done “their best”, how many of them would interpret that to mean they have reached their limit? That they can’t – and aren’t expected to – do better? What if “their best” wasn’t actually very good? Could that be interpreted to mean, “Get used to the fact that you’re not (and never will be) very good at this”?
I personally wonder if we aren’t biased towards hearing messages that confirm and reinforce our existing beliefs about ourselves – both positive and negative.
Of course, as teachers, we know your best can always get better. And I am not for a moment suggesting we stop asking students to do their best. My call is for teachers to understand there are subtle messages in our language that can be interpreted differently depending on the Mindset of the student. We need to ensure we do not send unintended negative Mindset Movers.
How we can say what we mean
When we tell students to do their best, we need to make it clear that we are asking them to tackle the situation with their most well-developed behaviours and Habits of Mind. They need to know we are asking them to produce the best they are currently capable of. When that task is done, they can continue to practice and develop their Habits of Mind so they can do better! We need to reinforce that their best is just today’s best.
Perhaps in primary school, instead of teaching “good, better, best”, we should teach students “good, better, best … and better”. (Dare I suggest “betterer”?)
Being aware of the way we need to tailor our language and pedagogy to students on different parts of the Mindset continuum is something I discuss in The Agile Learner. It also forms one of the key elements of “The Growth Mindset Teacher” online resource.
- Anderson, J., 2017, Fixed vs Growth: Two ends of a Mindset continuum, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 28th April 2017, www.mindfulbydesign.com/fixed-vs-growth-two-ends-mindset-continuum/
- Anderson, J., 2017, Not all Effort is Created Equal, mindfulbydesign.com, accessed 13th January 2017, www.mindfulbydesign.com/not-all-effort-is-created-equal/
- Gross-Loh, C., 2016, How Praise Became a Consolation Prize, theatlantic.com, accessed 5th February 2018, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/
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.
Are you enjoying my blog?
Get my latest thinking on Mindsets, Habits of Mind and Learner Agency straight your inbox each week.
Sign up for my newsletter.
Are you interested in professional learning around Growth Mindsets, Learner Agency and Habits of Mind?
Click on the links below for more details on my workshops, including locations and dates.