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Teaching the Growth Mindset

This Friday my students and I had a conversation about being smart versus working hard. Recently Sal Khan of Khan Academy wrote a fantastic op-ed titled The Learning Myth: Why I'll Never Tell My Son He's Smart. Khan writes on how he instilled in his young son the idea that intelligence is malleable, not something that is fixed from birth.

He brings up the influential work of Carol Dweck and her book Mindset. Dweck says that everyone can be placed on a spectrum depending on their opinion of how ability is formed. If you believe that intelligence and ability is something that is unchangeable, then you have a "fixed" mindset. Dweck explains the better alternative:

In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.
-Carol Dweck

This is precisely what Sal Khan is cultivating in his son, and it is what teachers need to instill in their students. My host teacher and I decided that we should engage our class in a talk about these two different mindsets, in terms they could understand.

I feel passionately about this idea of a growth mindset because all through grade school I had a fixed mindset and suffered because of it. As a young child I was showered with praise for how smart I was, my father telling me (and anyone who would listen) that I was a born genius. I was given intensive instruction until I entered the public school system in third grade and at that point everything was easy for me. I knew it was easy for me because I was smart. Things would always be easy for me, and I would get by on sheer brilliance alone.

But things weren’t always so easy. As the material got harder in middle school, I went from thinking I was the smartest kid in the class to thinking I was just plain dumb. My “natural gift” was gone. If I had not based my early success on something I saw as static and innate I would have learned to study and developed self discipline.

I look back on that part of my childhood and wish that someone had banned the word “smart” from my vocabulary just like Sal Khan did for his child. The best part about being a teacher is that I get to learn from research as well as my own past and use it to influence the children I teach. I will not allow my students to fall victim to this fallacy of “either you have it or you don’t.”

In his article, Khan gives an example of the dialogue he has cultivated with his 5-year old son as they read together at night:

Dad, aren’t you glad how I struggled with that word? I think I could feel my brain growing.

The language used here is striking. This seems like a simple difference in the way that most children approach reading and the search for praise, but this makes all the difference.

When teachers and parents shower children with praise for things they are already good at, but hold back that praise when they struggle or fail, they are unwittingly training them to back away when things are difficult. However, by teaching our children to seek out that which is challenging, as it is the only way to ‘grow’ their brain, we teach them to lean towards the hard work and to embrace the failure as part of the learning process.

Despite knowing what is best for students, I know it can be hard to lose the vocabulary of our culture and upbringing. On a daily basis I still catch myself moving on too quickly when a student gives a wrong answer when called on, or give too much praise to the student who flew through his classwork with little trouble. It takes time and conscious thought to encourage students to embrace the struggle, to accept the challenge, and persevere until the problem is solved.

I showed my students the video that Khan Academy created called You Can Learn Anything, and it acted as a great subject starter. From there we had a great conversation that I will continue to build on and reinforce throughout the year. I highly recommend other teachers doing the same. It is a great kid-friendly video that is understandable and appealing with a life changing message. My students know that if they work hard they can learn anything.

Alexander Trost

Alexander Trost

A 2nd Grade Teacher turned programmer. I solve problems and automate tasks with code so teachers can focus more on the kids and less on the rest.

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