Self-Efficacy & The Growth Mindset
Let’s say that you are now a 25 year teaching veteran. Reflecting back, you realize that you had two students in your career who loved learning so much that they gave you suggestions for the following week’s lesson. Those same students had asked you for extra homework assignments on the side.
Some might wonder, “What’s wrong with them?”
Perhaps, we should be asking instead, “What’s right with them?”
Welcome to the growth mindset.
These students are the ones who still feel innate curiosity about the world around them. The ones who still prize the thrill of challenge because of the trial and error that follow. These are the students who still understand what it means to learn, to grow, to become.
The growth mindset is borne of strong self-efficacy, which is a belief in one’s ability to grow, learn, and succeed. It deeply intertwines with grit, a mix of passion and perseverance. Coined by Carol Dweck in the bestselling book Mindset, the growth mindset can anticipate success both inside and outside of the classroom.
Standing in contrast is the fixed mindset. As Carol Dweck explains, a fixed mindset assumes that you are born with certain capabilities and intellectual capacity. Your fate is sealed when it comes to intelligence, personality, and abilities.
Getting out of the habit of the fixed mindset is not just about praising effort and telling students they can do anything. It is much more than that.
The growth mindset is a paradigm shift in the way we see ourselves and, thus, the world. People with the growth mindset see a new opportunity to learn in all of their encounters. They thrive on challenge and engage in learning as a pleasure in itself.
The Cornerstone of the Growth Mindset
The sixth principle of MBE Science shows that the brain has a high level of plasticity and continues to grow throughout the lifetime. Neural connections can be formed at any time and then solidified to create new understanding. This illustration can give you an idea of what that looks like.
Incorporating this sixth principle into our knowledge base is the cornerstone of the growth mindset. Knowing that our brains are constantly capable of expanding our abilities will help us embrace challenge.
Once we understand that we are capable of changing our present abilities, we will no longer be afraid of error. Error becomes one more stepping stone on the way to growth. Carol Dweck quotes from a seventh grade student in her study:
“I think intelligence is something you have to work for… It isn’t just given to you… what I usually do [in class] is raise my hand, because if I’m wrong, then my mistake will be corrected… Just by doing that I’m increasing my intelligence.”
Challenge & Error
The eighth principle of MBE science tells us that making errors is a natural part of the learning process. Our ability to assimilate new information with old in order to self-correct plays a major role.
Error in a fixed mindset is a huge setback. If your abilities are fixed and you make an error, that means you are not capable—and will never be capable. In this situation, a failing grade becomes an identity. It comes to mean a student is a failure, as Carol Dweck’s studies indicate.
When we engage in the growth mindset, a new definition of learning emerges. As Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa so astutely observes, learning becomes a “collection of corrected errors.”
Ellen Galinsky, President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute, outlines The Seven Essential Life Skills that we must impart to our children. One of these is the ability to take on challenges, to face the possibility of error through new or difficult situations, and to cope. This leads to self-directed and engaged learning, the next of the essential life skills.
The “Brain” Behind the Mindset
In the brainwave lab at Columbia, Carol Dweck tracked the brainwaves of people with both the fixed and growth mindset. They were asked a number of questions and received feedback about their answers.
Those with the fixed mindset displayed brain activity when being told whether they were right or wrong. Yet, they did not show activity when being given the correct answer or being told information that would help them learn. Meanwhile, those with the growth mindset showed brain activity when being presented with information that would help them to learn.
The growth mindset is alive and active in the brain. Meanwhile, the fixed mindset teaches the brain to shut off if information is not applicable to a short-term, superficial goal. These can be anything from correct answers to grades.
5 Actions to Take Now
Teach About the Brain
In one kindergarten class in Harlem, children arrived to school unable to hold their pencils. As part of an experiment, the students were taught that every time they go out of their comfort zone, their neurons form new and stronger connections. They were told that they could get smarter.
After this new education about the brain, the experimental group scored in the 95th percentile on the national achievement test that year. Not necessarily because of technology or curriculum, but because of the growth mindset these students succeeded in improving far beyond what anybody would have imagined.
Simply learning facts about the brain can transform the meaning of effort to students. It can help to emphasize the importance of the process of learning, not just the end goal.
- The brain has high plasticity and grows throughout life.
- The brain learns through trial and error.
- The brain changes daily based on experience.
- The brain learns based on its ability to self-correct and self-reflect.
These principles are founded upon solid neuroscientific research. Real examples of success can bring this research to life.
Use A Growth Journal
While facts and real-life success stories can be very powerful, nothing can be as powerful as experiencing the growth mindset for oneself.
We need to teach students how to set goals, what goals are appropriate to set, and how to then achieve those goals. There are a number of goal setting systems available, but one simple and effective system may be to keep a “growth journal”.
Writing is not only cathartic, but it can also help solidify thoughts. It is a valuable resource for teaching students the art of metacognition through reflection.
In the growth journal, students can list their self-set goals for the semester and the practical steps needed to work toward those goals. They can use their growth journals to track their progress and reflect on what works and what they need to improve upon.
Teachers can also respond within the journal, commenting on the student’s goals and outlined steps. We can ask “what if” questions about obstacles that may arise. This will strengthen the student’s resolve when things pop up along the way, as they inevitably will. It will also teach students about challenge and how to work through it in an optimal way, while strengthening their critical thinking skills.
In essence, students become their own growth mindset experiment. By keeping a growth journal, students are learning their way to the mindset.
Become A Mentor
Mind in the Making reminds us that children learn through imitation. Studies of infants as young as nine months old (see page 307-308) show that imitation is a primary way that we learn and retain knowledge.
As such, teachers may also want to keep a growth journal alongside their students. We can share our goals, progress, challenges, and ultimate growth, just as our students have shared with us. Additionally, modeling behavior for our students demonstrates that we believe in and apply what we are teaching. We can show students how we self-direct our learning and grow from it.
Psychologist and Cognitive Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene says that all people have a “learning instinct” built into them. If we love learning, our students will feel it. Eventually, they may just remember that instinctual love of learning too.
Focus on the Process
Often we can get caught up with assigning a grade and looking for “correct answers”. So can students. Yet, we should remember to praise process and effort, reminding students that the grade is not the ultimate goal for a lifelong learner. It is just a measurement to help us assess our progress.
Carol Dweck found a school in Chicago that started assigning the grade “not yet” instead of “failing”. This is what ultimately launched her study on the growth mindset. “Not yet” reminds us that learning is a process, not a product.
Detailed narrative feedback and constructive criticism helps students strategize and move forward. Community High School of Arts and Academics in Virginia, founded by a group of parents (most of whom are professors), have made it their mission to focus on the learning process.
“We Believe that students learn best when they are engaged in meaningful work in real world situations, and are encouraged to value both their accomplishments and failures in pursuit of their passions.”
Community High School of Arts and Academics provides narrative feedback in exchange for grades. No grades are to be seen on any papers or to be given for any classes. Instead, students are provided with constructive feedback and leave the school sporting a 20 page evaluation. School is about the learning experience and not about the grades for these high schoolers.
Set High Standards
Students’ self-reported grades comes out as the major influence on student achievement in over 800 meta-studies conducted by John Hattie. While this may be a reflection of how familiar a student is with his/her abilities and knowledge, looking at it from a mindset standpoint shows a different picture. It may, indeed, be an indicator of strong or weak student self-efficacy.
Now, a student who doesn’t put in any effort to learn but predicts he/she will get an “A” obviously has no recourse. However, our mindset plays a fair part in our expectations of ourselves and our capabilities.
Making Classrooms Better analyzes Hattie’s data and summarizes:
Failing a grade is a strong indicator for future failure, primarily because the student loses faith in her own ability to learn because her teachers–those “in the know”–have deemed her unable to learn. On the other hand, the joy of learning is a great motivator, and people who love learning have often had at least on teacher in their lives who has given them confidence in their ability to learn and pushed them to achieve more than they believed they were capable of.
Setting high standards for students, and showing them how to reach those standards, will help them begin to set high standards for themselves. In time, this will grow their mindset.
Try some of these strategies in your classroom and watch your students flourish. Let us know what works for your lifelong learners.