Teachers' Mindsets: "Every Student Has Something to Teach Me"Image composite: M-ImagePhotography/iStock/Thinkstock

Feeling overwhelmed? Where did your natural teaching talent go? Try pairing a growth mindset with reasonable goals, patience, and reflection instead. It’s time to get gritty and be a better teacher.

Educational organizations tell me that many of their most promising young teachers drop out — quickly. Many of them believed they were born to be teachers, and yet within a year or two they’re gone. It seems puzzling until you think about teachers’ mindsets.

What are mindsets?

Mindsets are people’s beliefs about human attributes, including abilities. In a fixed mindset, people believe that basic talents and abilities are fixed traits. Some people are well-endowed and some aren’t, and you can’t do much to change that. However, in a growth mindset, people believe that basic abilities can be developed through hard work, good strategies, and good mentoring. People can have different mindsets in different areas, believing that some abilities are fixed but others can be developed. Within any given area, our research has shown that people’s mindsets play a significant role in their achievement.

Most of our research has been on students’ mindsets about their intelligence and abilities. In this research, we have found that students in a fixed mindset are overly focused on their ability. They are invested in looking smart and never looking foolish; they avoid effort because it makes them feel dumb; and they are derailed by setbacks, believing that setbacks mean they lack ability.

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In contrast, students in a growth mindset focus more on learning. Their main goal in school is to learn, they put in the effort and strategies needed to acquire knowledge, and they stick to difficult tasks, learning from their mistakes and setbacks. They have more grit.

Research shows over and over that students in a growth mindset are more motivated and earn higher grades and achievement test scores, especially in difficult courses or across difficult school transitions. Research also shows that teaching students a growth mindset changes their motivation and achievement. Students who learn that they can grow their brains (make new, stronger neural connections when they stretch themselves to learn hard things) then show greater motivation to learn and earn higher grades and higher achievement test scores. And we have found that praising for “process” (challenge-seeking, hard work, good strategies, focus, and persistence) instead of ability or intelligence creates a growth mindset and enhanced achievement in students.

There has also been work on the impact of teachers’ mindsets about students’ abilities. This research shows that teachers with more fixed mindsets engage in more ability grouping and create more self-fulfilling prophecies when it comes to student achievement. Students whom they consider to be low in intelligence remain low achievers in their classroom. In contrast, low-achieving students often blossom in the care of teachers with a growth mindset. For example, chronically underachieving minority students in New York City or on a Native American reservation have gone to the top of their districts after a year of immersion in growth-mindset classrooms, classrooms where teachers believe in their students’ universal potential to become smarter.

But what about teachers’ mindsets about themselves — about their own teaching ability? New research by Greg Gero at Claremont Graduate University shows the critical importance of teachers believing that they can grow their teaching abilities.

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