Let’s stop making “growth mindset” a buzzword

I’m unsure of the lifecycle of a buzzword, but I’ll take a cheeky stab at its journey:

  1. A popular thought leader makes waves, and the word makes its debut in a TED Talk.
  2. It finds itself in educational and business spaces, in PowerPoints and five-year plans.
  3. It trickles down to printed and digital assets, like advertising and curriculum. Those of us outside of board rooms and blazers read about it on our phones.
  4. It becomes part of everyday life, its once-brilliance dulling with common usage.
  5. Years later, it’s available for purchase as home decor!

We teachers have been riding the word-of-the-year roller coaster for a while now, and we barely feel the thrill, even as these words are printed all over coffee mugs and bumper stickers. Remember “rigor” and “resilience”? Remember “grit”? Once, I walked into a bathroom at a barbecue joint and a giant poster greeted me, inspiring me to keep up my hustle as I did my business.

As Carol Dweck laments in an essay: “Scholars are deeply gratified when their ideas catch on. And they are even more gratified when their ideas make a difference—improving motivation, innovation, or productivity, for example. But popularity has a price: people sometimes distort ideas, and therefore fail to reap their benefits. This has started to happen with my research on ‘growth’ versus ‘fixed’ mindsets among individuals and within organizations.”

Dweck asserts that the power of “growth mindset” has not only waned, but it’s been misunderstood and misapplied. And while I agree that “popularity has a price,” I have an additional reason to posit: we have all heard about growth mindset, but I’ve realized that we are fixated on the first word —“growth”—and nearly always leave the second—“mindset”—unexamined.

What is a mindset, anyway? How can I know if my “mindset” is in “growth” if I don’t know what a mindset is to begin with? Maybe we should first establish what “mindset” is with students, families, and ourselves before we tackle what state it’s in.

Refresher: What exactly is growth mindset?

Don’t skip this section, even if you know. Why? Because the meaning of “growth mindset” has gotten so diluted over time that even the most seasoned of buzzword-ers can overlook the once-sparkling nuances.

We have all heard about growth mindset, but I’ve realized that we are fixated on the first word—‘growth’—and nearly always leave the second—‘mindset’—unexamined.

Growth mindset, as opposed to fixed mindset, is a mental state where the person chooses to believe that their success is not based on a finite, hardwired set of abilities. Instead, the person chooses to believe that hard work, effort, persistence, and resilience are the qualities that compose success. “Some people are just naturally (insert ability). I wasn’t born that way.” = Fixed Mindset. “With hard work and practice, I can become more (insert ability).” = Growth Mindset.

Studies repeatedly show that those with a growth mindset consistently find more success and happiness in their lives. When learning is the goal and failure is seen as an opportunity, the person is more likely to continue the pursuit.

Known about growth mindset for a while? Beware: some folks think it’s enough to learn about growth mindset and buy into it to then, forevermore, have a growth mindset. Dweck calls this a “false” growth mindset. (I like to call it a “fixed” growth mindset!) Your beliefs about yourself and your growth are on a spectrum, constantly waffling between growth on one end and fixed on another. Makes sense, right? To quote Dweck yet again, “Nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time.”

Isolating the “mindset” in “growth mindset”

I’ll say it: it’s much easier to talk about “growth” than it is to talk about “mindset.”

Growth is easy to measure, easy to assess. “How did a student do on Monday’s homework versus Friday’s?” “How did a student do from Test 1 to Test 2?” That data is undeniably important, but that’s what it is: data. And we’re much more comfortable there, because it’s less touchy-feely, easier to quantify, and doesn’t always require too much reflection.

But what about the more elusive, invisible “mindset”? How can we reflect on something that we’re so unused to looking at? That’s much harder. Maybe because we, as teachers, as human beings, don’t have a clear, personal relationship with our own mindsets. Yet we’re supposed to turn around and talk about it with students.

All of this is much more connected to social-emotional learning (SEL) than I realized. “Using a growth mindset as the foundation for SEL,” a webinar sponsored by Dweck’s Mindset Works, helped me begin thinking about all of this differently.

After watching it, the very first step I took was defining “mindset.” I headed straight to dictionary.com, which defines “mindset” as “a fixed attitude, disposition, or mood.” That just made me mad. Clearly they’re a bit behind on their Dweck reading list.

Step two? Define the word in approachable terms, to take ownership of it and ensure we’re on the same page.

Mindset is…

  • A simple curiosity: “How am I thinking about this thing, right now?”
  • Changing all the time
  • Something I might have to slow down to notice
  • Most importantly, something I can choose

Mindset exercises to do in front of* and with your students

*I say “in front of” because I believe that whatever vulnerability you ask of your students, you should be willing to engage in yourself.

Before introducing which type of mindset we should have to students, what if we first practiced mindset awareness? This could be a discussion, or a series of Flipgrid or Padlet responses, or a journaling session. I would even recommend exploring mindset awareness with your colleagues, learning first from each other and then taking it to students.

Exercise 1: Inner self-talk: How does my mindset dictate how I frame my experiences?

Imagine this: Your friend takes a big risk and fails spectacularly. You hear them say, “Well, it didn’t work out as I planned, but I am really proud of myself for taking a risk. I feel brave.”

Reflect: Does this response seem legitimate to you? Does it seem healthy? Does it sound like a response you would have? How do you talk to yourself, about yourself, when you fail? When you succeed? When you see others failing and when you see others succeeding?

[I]t’s much easier to talk about ‘growth’ than it is to talk about ‘mindset.’

For example: I noticed that when I don’t understand a mathematical concept (as a math teacher!) my first self-talk is very shaming and blaming: “Why don’t you understand this? How embarrassing for you!” But my mindset comes to my aid and says, “Hey, take it easy! Do you employ this math every day? Do you think every pediatrician remembers what they learned in dermatology? No! That doesn’t mean you couldn’t learn it, and you deserve a really great teacher to help you.”

Activity: Recall a time you experienced failure, either in a class or relationship, with a risk you took or an answer you got wrong. Take a moment to relive that experience. It might be tempting to cringe in shame! But instead of dwelling on the failure, celebrate the bravery it took to go through that moment and emerge with more knowledge.

Exercise 2: Mr. Should and the Naysayers: How does my mindset frame how I perceive risk-taking?

Imagine this: An older relative of yours reveals they are taking piano lessons for the first time in their life, despite having no previous musical experience.

Reflect: Does this endeavor surprise you? Do you wish you could start a new hobby, learn a new skill, no matter your age or previous skillset? Do you find yourself thinking that some people should be doing something, while you shouldn’t? So many people—students, teachers, humans—rob themselves of “curiosity tripping” because they associate learning something with pursuing success at something. What if we simply pursued the pleasure of learning? Does your mindset filter your curiosities into “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”?

For example: I did not grow up working with cars, and that might lead me to believe that it’s not a skillset I could have, or should want to have. But what if, instead, I asked myself, “Would it be fun for me to learn how to do this? Do I wish I knew?” And if the answer is a shy “yes,” I may ask myself why I’ve decided, before I even began, that I’m not “eligible” for that skill. Because, yes, I am!

Activity: Imagine a hobby or skill that seems the farthest away from you. It doesn’t have to be extroverted or have a final product; it’s just something that isn’t already in your wheelhouse. Singing into a microphone? Cooking a gourmet meal? Writing a poem? Learning a new language? Now, press pause at that moment between contemplating the hobby and judging whether or not you’d be good at it. It’s hard! But linger in that space and ask yourself, “What if I didn’t judge that possibility and, instead, got curious about my feelings toward it?”

Exercise 3: Worst case scenario: How does my mindset catastrophize the future?

Imagine this: A close friend reveals they have to give a public speech. They are very nervous and confess that this skill has never been their best. You respond by asking them, “What’s the worst that can happen?” They respond, “I could stand onstage, forget my words, completely choke, and have everyone remember me as the person who can’t give a speech.”

Maybe we should first establish what ‘mindset’ is with students, families, and ourselves, before we tackle what state it’s in.

Reflect: Indulge the worst case scenario for a moment: “Yep, that’s exactly what happened, and ever after, you were the worst speech giver ever. Now what? Carl the librarian makes fun of you in the elevator?” How likely is this outcome? How often is the worst case scenario truly as bad as it seems? How can indulging in the worst case scenario help?

For example: I am notorious among my friends and family for feeling a sense of dread that has no real origin. Famously, I even dread vacations, because I have this nebulous fear of nameless, impending doom. When I notice this mindset, I play “worst case scenario” and, very often, I can’t really think of anything that bad. And when I do, I can plan, put the worry aside, and choose a different mindset.

Activity: What’s stressing you: a deadline, a difficult conversation looming, an issue at home? Go ahead and fathom the worst case scenarios. Go on, catastrophize! Give yourself the permission to face, head-on, the absolute worst. Then really meditate on the likelihood of each scenario. What if the worst really did happen? What would the day after look like? How can you plan?

Also worth noting: Statistically speaking, if you’re going to rent out so much of your brain space to the worst case scenario, you should rent out an equal amount to the best case scenario. Are you spending as much time imagining the positive horizon that could be in front of you?

Moods and mindsets

This magnetic mood board has always frustrated me. “Guilty.” “Lovestruck.” “Hysterical.” “Enraged.” The specificity inflames my commitment issues! As soon as I move the square to one mood, my eyes catch another, equally true mood. And what if I feel a combination of moods?!

Maybe this obnoxious board can be redeemed, however. Maybe it’s a good reminder of all the things we agreed a mindset is:

  • A simple curiosity: “How am I thinking about this thing, right now?”
  • Changing all the time
  • Something I might have to slow down to notice
  • Most importantly, something I can choose

When it prompts me to think about mood, the magnetic board seems to be encouraging me to reflect on the fluidity of mindset. And maybe it asks me to slow down and choose how I feel.

If you’re like me, you’ve caught a bit of buzzword fatigue, and the word “mindset” washes over you with little effect. But there’s a lot of value in taking a moment to get curious about it. When you feel fresh, take it to your students. How are they feeling? What’s their mindset?

My mood? Hungry. My mindset? Under construction.

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