Actually Teaching Growth Mindsets: 5 Dos and Don’ts

Growth mindsets are the superfad from five years ago. At this point, most teachers have have tried and probably gotten tired and frustrated like I did. But we keep trying to teach growth mindsets because we know how important it is for students to keep trying and the huge impact it could have on their whole lives. 

As a teacher and a parent, I’ve failed at teaching growth mindset dozens of times. I tried every approach I could think of. Nothing worked all that well. It wasn’t until I was overhauling technology class and creating Innovative Arts class that I started to figure out what works. Now I share what works and all the things I did wrong along the way.

Here are my top five dos and don’ts, and bonus advice near the end of this video. 

It takes time and repetition to teach a growth mindset.

Stop thinking about this like a single lesson and start thinking about as something that is baked into the class. It has to be a topic that comes up again and again. 

Teaching this as a lesson all by itself will not help kids in the long run. Whenever I tried teaching growth mindsets explicitly it went nowhere. A few days later it was as if the lessons never even happened.

When you plan on explicitly teaching growth mindsets, limit it to the high-interest activities ONLY.

Right before you dive into the stuff that kids are excited about is the perfect time to model a growth mindset and introduce some ideas. If the kids are indifferent about what is happening in class, the lesson is going to flop.

Do not teach growth mindsets to get more work out of your students. Mindsets might someday give kids more self-discipline but teaching a growth mindset is like digging a well. You can’t dig it by trying to draw from it. You have to do the work of digging it before you’ll get anything out of it. 

Kids have to see it to believe it.

 That is both from you and within themselves. From you, modelling how you have grown over time, mistakes you have made, and make fun of your past attempts. Kids need to know that you struggled and failed in the past. You kept trying and that is why you make it look easy.

On the flip side, don’t dive into teaching growth mindsets when talking about chronic problems that a student might have. The baggage behind that problem may well be so visceral or ingrained that most kids will not be able to believe that change is possible. Start with a new skill in a low risk situation first to avoid the landmines. You can go up against the big problems after gaining some good habits. 

Pre-teach the problems that kids might have and how to think.

 In Innovative Arts, I have a few props around the room to help with this. You can see all of the resources that I use to help kids become creators and all of my resources for teachers and parents on this site. To summarize the resources on the site, kids need to know that mistakes are how you learn, failures help you see what works or does not work in the real world, and the people who really know what they are doing are the people who have learned from the most mistakes. 

Help it come up organically.

 I’ve had to get good at recognizing times when my students learned from a mistake, when they’ve tried, failed, and adjusted, how far they’ve come from when they just started something. 

The good news is that the more that you talk about growth mindsets, the easier you’ll find it to be. It is worth it – speaking as both a parent and a teacher, finally figuring out how to instill growth mindsets in my students has brought out wonderful results with students. I’ve been developing all of these resources to give away to other students and I would love to change education for the better. At my core I am creating the course that I want my own kids to take when they get old enough.

Bonus advice: Teach this topic by jumping into how our brain works. 

We make connections by watching, doing for ourselves, and through mistakes and those connections get stronger if we use them and literally go away when we don’t use them.

Adjust after your first attempts

As you build, you will probably think of improvements to make or ways to make your project better. You may even decide to start over with a better idea. Most projects need several changes before they are finished!

Useful links for teachers:

This site holds the resources for Innovative Arts class, a class that replaced our technology class in our middle school. Students learn to create as engineers, designers, and more. At the same time, we are learning about our brains/mindsets (‘Puzzle‘), engage technology (‘Shift‘) and the creative process (‘Create‘).

New resources are being added constantly, so I send out a weekly roundup email with all of the new resources. Sign up to stay in the loop.

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