If “Mindset” isn’t a Curriculum, what is it?


“Mindset” isn’t a curriculum. But if it isn’t a package that can be bought, studied, and implemented, then what is it?

There are a couple of ways to answer that question. It is a theory about achievement motivation.

But when you see the word “theory” that can be a cue to tune out, right? Theories are long, passive reads, after all.

Lately, instead, I’ve been thinking of “mindset” in a different, more active light.

  • First, I’ve been using the phrase “mindset friendly teaching” to emphasize the position that the ideal is about actions – it’s not just a static body of knowledge.
  • Second, I’ve been thinking about mindset friendly teaching as a practice, like “mindfulness” is a practice.

By “practice” what I mean is that “mindset friendly teaching” is a carefully cultivated frame of mind. It’s a frame of mind that permeates all aspects of a teachers’ comportment in the classroom. And it’s a frame of mind that requires practice and constant attention, just like mindfulness. As well, like engaging in mindfulness, it’s a practice that one gets better at over time.

Because you are here, reading this, you may very well be a teacher who has heard the mindset buzzword, read the headlines in the social media feeds (e.g., EDWeek, Edutopia), and are left wondering…

“… could it really be all that’s it’s cracked up to be?”

Is this a trend worth my time?”

If it really works, and it isn’t a curriculum, how do I incorporate this practice into my teaching?”

Though mindset IS a buzzword, and it is trendy, I believe that is also worth our time to attend to it. So I am glad you are here. I hope you find what I share here useful.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, then you likely recall that I’ve written about mindsets before on this site. Why am I doing so again? When I came across ED Week writer Evie Blad’s recent report where she stated that:

“In a nationwide poll of K-12 teachers conducted by the Education Week Research Center, 77 percent said they were familiar or very familiar with growth mindset, but 85 percent said they wanted more professional development in the area.”

I felt like now would be a great time to build on my older posts by getting my recent perspectives on the practice of mindset friendly teaching out of my own head and into yours. This time around, I intend to do less defining (i.e., the difference between “malleable”/”incremental” and “fixed” mindsets) and more describing (how to promote and nurture “incremental” thinking).

In light of the recent EdWeek report mentioned earlier too, it appears that there may be an audience for a more how-to oriented discussion of the issue, too. Indeed, as Blad reports, many teachers out there in the field didn’t learn about the “mindset” approach to motivation in their pre-service training, they are left to build the skills on their own, gleaning what they can from reading and consultation with their peers. Trainings on how to infuse mindset into your practice exist, but not all teachers or school districts have the resources to attend such trainings.

When it is difficult to find how-tos, it is easy to dismiss the concept and move on. Critiques of it exist out there, though as I’ve also written elsewhere, many critiques, especially those that liken the mindset idea to the old “self-esteem” movement, wherein all you do is praise your students efforts, and miraculously their motivation improves, are off-base. Mindset friendly teaching is much more than simple cheerleading.

Mindset-friendly teaching is embodied in teachers’ words, their actions’, and their in intent to support their students’ all throughout the day. “Mindset” is a belief system about what it takes to achieve, and the belief system comes with it’s own vocabulary. It is a belief system that should permeate all aspects of a teachers’ repertoire in class. Being a “mindset friendly teacher” really means that you are directing your students’ attention away from “grades and benchmarks” and towards “improving their learning” one step at a time.

How do you do that? While you can’t do away with grades and benchmarks, you surely can NOT talk about them during your daily interactions with your students. At the heart of it, mindset-friendly teaching comes through in the words you use, the way you direct your students’ attention to certain aspects of their work, and how you help them set and achieve learning goals.

The infusion teachers need, to become “mindset friendly” is often subtle.

 Mindset Friendly Words

When teachers are talking with their students, they emphasize behaviors rather than learners. That is, mindset-friendly teachers point out effective students’ behaviors and use the behavior as the example, rather than label students by their behaviors and then use the student as the example.

  • Mindset friendly: “High scores on the assignment were earned when the topic sentence clearly stood out in the paragraph. In the next assignment, please work on careful placement, like this example here…
  • Non-mindset friendly: “This student’s work earned top marks because of just how clear the topic sentence stands out. In the next assignment, please work like [insert student name here] did on this assignment.”

What’s the difference? Both remarks state the same thing: what the expectations were, how to earn more points next time, and each includes an example, after all. The difference is subtle.

  • In the mindset-friendly example, students are directed to look at the work and make a “match” between work and outcomes. In this scenario, the audiences’ attention is focused on the work and on how to improve their work. This is powerful, because it feeds their sense of personal control (autonomy; metacognitive self regulation).
  • In the non-mindset friendly example, students are directed to look at a classmate and emulate that classmates’ work. In this scenario, the work itself is lost, because when a student is called out as the example, the audiences’ attention shifts away from the work and towards social comparison. In this scenario, a likely train of thought to follow would be “I’m not like them because I didn’t get a good score…” and then emotion takes over and the lesson is lost.

The “take-away” from this comparison is that your words and how you say them have a powerful affect on your students’ attention, how they compare themselves to the point you are making, and importantly whether they are willing to accept the advice as something “do-able” or whether they dismiss it as “not doable.” You goal is to aim for “do-able” of course. You want to keep your students’ attention focused on how they can improve their skills—something that IS in their control. In contrast, pointing how they differ from their classmates makes many students feel “out of control.” That’s the heart of the “malleable” versus the “fixed” mindset.

  • A malleable mindset is where students focus on changing their skills, one step at a time, and they watch their skills improve.
  • A fixed mindset is where students focus on comparing themselves to benchmarks and classmates, one assignment at a time, and they often find themselves falling short.

Over the course of a school year, the former approach – emphasis on small steps and improvement – builds motivation. The latter approach – emphasis on a distant target [benchmarks] that you still haven’t reached or a student who gets it while they don’t– hurts motivation for the students who need it most – those who are farthest away from the benchmark.

Mindset Friendly Actions

A teacher who practices mindset-friendly teaching is one who makes it a regular classroom practice of following a cycle that starts with small-scale goal setting, moves to a work period, and that ends with a reflection back on how the work aligns with the goal. This cycle should be a part of all aspects of the day – the goals don’t have to be big nor does the reflection have to take long. What matters is the regular habit of supporting students in thinking ahead, then looking back, then thinking ahead, then looking back. This pattern keeps their attention focused on their own growth, rather than on social comparisons that can often lead to disenfranchisement.

“The cycle of starting a classroom lesson with a behavior-based goal, letting the work happen, then taking time to reflect on the goal and the outcome, while talking about successful behaviors, keeps students’ attention focused on improvement.”

Words are a part of this, but the activity of goal setting, work, and then reflection where work outcomes are compared to goals is a powerful piece of mindset friendly teaching. This kind of daily flow creates a classroom where mistakes are seen as stepping stones, not roadblocks. That difference – stepping stones versus roadblocks – is also subtle.

  • A stepping-stone environment is maintained when the teacher sets a tone of “small steps towards success” and “feedback helps you grow”
  • A roadblock environment is created when the teacher focuses instead just on the cycle on work and grades, leaving no time for reflection and improvement

Additional Suggestions for create a stepping stone environment~

  • Remind students that skill growth takes practice, and that no one does it right the first time.
  • Direct your students to look-back on earlier work, so they can see their own growth patterns.
  • Share, within reason, stories of your own growth patterns.
  • Make improvement a steady topic of conversation in the classroom
  • Set the ground rules up in your classroom about how students are to talk about each other: language that labels people is not allowed. Steer conversations and help your students rephrase their own remarks if needed so that the emphasis is on behavior more than on people.

Non-verbal actions matter too

Most teachers circulate their classrooms at some point everyday. When you are circulating, talk out loud about all the positive examples of healthy growth-oriented behaviors you are seeing, and point to (with your hand, not your words) a particular student’s work as you walk by, and smile at them as you point. As you look up during your “walk” don’t call out students’ names as you remark on work, rather call out their behaviors and smile at the student you are describing while you talk. If you are seeing repeated mistakes, direct your students’ attention to how to correct the behavior, and catch the eye – with a smile or a wink or whatever kind of facial expression you use to connect with your students – of a student who is making the mistake. As you circulate gently tap the desk or page or screen of a student who could be paying more attention to the correction, and so on. Don’t embarrass them, but let them know that they are known and that you can see where they can do more.

Mind-Set Friendly Intent To Support Student Learning

A mindset-friendly teacher uses physical cues, facial expressions, and encouraging words together to great effect. The key here is to create a safe place where students feel like they can try without success and get the help they need to get closer next time. In this way, mindset is much more than simply effort. A teacher who praises effort in an “empty” cheerleading kind of way isn’t doing it right. You do want to do some general cheerleading, now and again, in your classrooms. But the power of effort, under the banner of mindset friendly teaching comes from teachers who help students learn which efforts lead to success, and which efforts don’t.

When it comes to supporting student learning in this way, Dr. Carol Dweck (the psychological scientist who coined the term nearly 20 years ago) encourages teachers to use phrases like “you aren’t there yet,” with an emphasis on “yet.” Other folks suggest that mindset friendly teachers emphasize “failing forward” rather than simply “failing to meet expectations.” The two points have in common the sentiment that we shouldn’t be saying “failure” like it’s a bad thing. Instead, mindset-friendly teachers use gestures and words to help students find points where they can improve. Missing a mark simply serves the purpose of pin-pointing where a student needs to double-down their efforts, to reach a higher mark the next time.

But wait, there’s more: Mindset friendly teaching aligns with the common core (in fact it aligns with any program, really)!

Here in the US, where we are inundated with pressure to reach benchmarks, to adhere to the common core, and to demonstrate proficiencies, the subtleties I mention here are easy to lose sight of. The pressure is real to reach those benchmarks. But students don’t need to know that. In fact, the less they know about benchmarks and pressures like that, the better off they are, and the more likely they will be to grow their skills.

A mindset-friendly teacher shapes students’ beliefs about what it takes to grow and succeed in the most powerful way: by focusing their attention on their own behaviors and helping them see direct evidence of their own growth. When you see your own growth, and understand what you did to get there, you really are most likely to succeed.

Additional Posts about Mindset-friendly teaching:

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