Making Mindsets Meaningful in Your School and Classroom

There are many different approaches to developing Growth Mindsets in schools. Some approaches are more successful than others.

Over the next two weeks, I’m going to walk you through five different approaches to working with Growth Mindsets in schools.

This week, we will look at the three most common approaches – your current Mindset, catchphrases and rules – and explain why they are unlikely to have the meaningful impact we are looking for.

Next week, we’ll look at how the most powerful and enduring methods for making Mindset meaningful rely on developing a style guide that “nudges” teachers to make more growth-oriented decisions. Ultimately, it is a teacher’s own deeply authentic Growth Mindset that has the greatest impact on students.

James Anderson's guide to Making Mindset Meaningful in your school and classroom


Part 1

Your Current Mindset

Teachers can’t help but influence students’ Mindsets. We do it every day, whether we want to or not.

Most of these influences are unintended; they are part of your default. For example, we don’t usually consciously choose our words – we just speak.  The specific words and tone and inflection we use are driven by our subconscious and are a reflection of our Mindset.

Because most teachers haven’t deeply reflected on their Mindset, these default actions often send mixed messages. Sometimes, we create positive Mindset Movers. At other times, we create negative Mindset Movers.

For example, describing students as “high-achieving students” creates the negative Mindset Mover of categorising a type of student. On the other hand, describing students as “achieving highly” identifies something the students are doing – something any student might be able to do. This is a positive Mindset Mover. At school, students are likely to hear both terms used, so they get mixed Mindset messages.

Sticking with current practice is unlikely to result in students developing more growth-oriented Mindsets.


Our mindset is our unconscious bias. It is what guides our actions and decisions when we are not paying attention.



Catchphrases pay lip service to the real work of developing Growth Mindsets. The assumption is that if a person changes their words, they’ll change their Mindset.

Your Mindset is the underlying beliefs you have about the nature of your abilities. Changing your words doesn’t necessarily change those beliefs; it only makes it sound like you’ve changed those beliefs.

Problems arise when a student or teacher adopts a catchphrase like “not yet”. This is essentially a promise that the student will, in time, achieve. However, if, after a while, the student hasn’t achieved growth, their experience becomes one of “still not yet”. The promise of growth is broken, and they learn that they don’t grow.

Posters that purport to “Change your words. Change your Mindset” get the message back-to-front. Our words will only change when our beliefs change – not the other way around.

Changing your words might give the illusion of a Growth Mindset, but it may have the opposite effect.

See “Change your mindset THEN change your words” for more on this idea.


A rule-based approach to Growth Mindset is intended to direct and guide our actions, so we create more consistent, positive Mindset Movers in our classrooms.

The problem is that while the rules do work in some instances, they are often too broad. This means they are frequently misapplied and over-generalised.

For example, the Growth Mindset rule of “praise effort” is appropriate when the praise recognises the effective actions that lead to growth. However, as psychologist Carol Dweck has pointed out, this rule is often used as a consolation prize for students who don’t achieve.

Similarly, the often-repeated “celebrate mistakes” was intended to encourage students to take risks and stretch themselves into their Learning Zone. However, not all mistakes should be celebrated. Some should be avoided. And while mistakes are part of the learning process, ultimately, it is correcting them that is the evidence of learning.

Without a highly growth-oriented Mindset, a rules-based approach is often misapplied. Like catchphrases, it may have a negative impact.

See my blog “Schlimmbesserung” for more on how our best efforts to create positive Mindset Movers can backfire.

In my new workshop, The Growth Mindset Tool Kit, I show you how to move beyond catchphrases and rules to create a powerful style guide for your work with Growth Mindsets.


Part 2

Last week, we looked at the three most common approaches to working with Growth Mindsets in schools, outlining some of the shortfalls of these approaches.

This week, we will look at why it’s important to make Mindsets meaningful in your classroom and school, and how you can shift beyond catchphrases and rules to develop a style guide for your school. Ultimately, the best results will come from the “nudges” created by these style guides and through each teacher’s deep, authentic Growth Mindset.

Style Guide

A style guide is based on the principles underlying a Growth Mindset. As such, it is far less prescriptive and far more flexible than a rule-based approach. A style guide creates what behavioural scientists call “nudges”.

Nudges help reframe our choices. In this case, they make it more likely that teachers will create a positive Mindset Mover when there’s a chance they could create a negative Mindset Mover.

For example, a school’s style guide might include the statement, “When celebrating achievements and abilities, always recognise the backstory that leads to the achievement.”

This “nudge” can be applied in many situations – school awards, comments made on student work and recognising the achievements of experts in a field. It draws attention to the positive Mindset Mover of the process of becoming. It also avoids the negative Mindset Mover of praising achievements, talents and abilities in the absence of acknowledging the processes that created them.

Similarly, a school might create a nudge that says, “When describing groups of students, base the groups on verbs, not adjectives.” In this way, teachers create a positive Mindset Mover by describing groups of students who are “achieving highly” or “learning music”. The classification is based on actions. This is in contrast to categorising students as being high-achieving or being music students, which creates the negative Mindset Mover that there are different types of students, some who are high-achieving and others who aren’t, some who are musical and others who aren’t.

In my new workshop, The Growth Mindset Tool Kit, we explore how you can create a style guide for your school. Creating and tailoring a Growth Mindset style guide for your school will provide you and your staff with the principles to ensure you create consistent, positive Mindset Movers for your students.

Growth Mindset

Ultimately, the most powerful way to influence students’ Mindsets is through the consistent application of the teacher’s own highly growth-oriented Mindset.

Teachers don’t have time to think about their every word and action. Most of what we say and do comes from our subconscious – the set of beliefs and assumptions we carry with us every day.

When we see the world through the Growth Mindset lens, our actions authentically and consistently reinforce the Growth Mindset and act as positive Mindset Movers. Our Mindset is like our own personal Growth Mindset style guide that we carry with us all day, every day.

This reinforces why the number-one thing you can do to develop a Growth Mindset in students is to reflect deeply on your own Mindset, then take action to establish an even more highly growth-oriented one.

What's the number one thing you can do to change a student's mindset? Spend time reflecting on your own mindset!




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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One Comment

  • Pamela Paull May 14, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    To really help students develop a growth mindset depends on the type of mindset a teacher has. I have really reflected on how I think and act can have either a negative or positive impact on student behaviour.

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