As a recent high school graduate, I have been reminiscing about moments spent with friends, my hectic schedules, but most importantly, the way I viewed things. In this article, I share with you the top three reasons why I had a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset, and by reading my experience, my hope is that educators will better understand why their students may be demonstrating a fixed mindset.
What is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset?
Defined by Dr. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, a fixed mindset is a belief that your intelligence or skills are fixed, while, a growth mindset is a belief that your intelligence and skills can be developed over time.¹
Reason #1: Having a black or white way of thinking
To have a black or white way of thinking is a psychological term used to describe a person who may tend to think in extremes. In a way, it is having an “all or nothing” mindset.² I had a black or white way of thinking , which I believe other students may struggle with also.
According to Theories of Adolescence by German-American psychologist Rolf Muuss, as teens we’re not fully developed to see many solutions to problems and from different perspectives, unlike adults with a more mature or developed cognition.³
For example, below were common thoughts I had whenever I struggled with a new lesson:
It seemed that there was never an “in-between” for me regarding my mindset.
Although, I do want to point out the “in-between” within my black or white way of thinking was my effort.
I never stopped giving effort in school, whether it was my academics, or my extracurriculars. Having a fixed mindset didn’t make me lazy, or not try my best in school. Having a fixed mindset just allowed me think more negatively about my situations and myself. I found myself more focused on the outcome of my effort than my actual growth.
When I was faced with stress, I had a very negative mindset.
There was an underlying fear I had as a student, and that fear was struggling for way too long. In my head, I simply had no time to fall behind. School felt fast for me. We will spend one week learning a lesson, then we’ll take a quiz or be assigned homework after the lesson, and at the end that same week, we’ll have an exam. Before I knew it, we have already moved on to a new lesson.
So, in my altered way of thinking, I did not have time to remain stuck, and if you think about it, it’s good that I didn’t want to leave myself stuck and confused on a lesson, but with having a fixed way of thinking, I was not encouraging towards myself at all. With this way of thinking, it became very difficult for me to understand that it was a natural thing to struggle and despite whatever timeline I was on, there was always a way for me to learn and grow.
Reason #1: Key Takeaways
Don’t put too much emphasis on grades.
Try to stray away from saying/doing the following(s):
- Comparing a specific class period average to other classes.
- Declaring the highest and lowest grade made on a test or assignment.
- And please, DO NOT make comments such as, “I am very surprised with the results of your test grades”. Even if you say this to the class as a whole, it will not make students feel any better about themselves, especially if they already know they might’ve not done well on the test the first time around.
Reason #2: Belief that other students are more skilled/intelligent than themselves
Since I took higher-level classes, such as AP (Advanced Placement), I was surrounded by classmates who would make comments about other students’ intelligence, specifically reasons why one student or a small group of students will always be “smarter than everybody.”
My classmates would make comments such as:
Because I supposedly lacked resources other students had, such as having a tutor or taking a paid course after school, this was an excuse for me to not continue to do my best in class when I was faced with challenging work.
Because I believed that I was not innately smart, I also believed that I could never be as intelligent as “these types of students, especially when I noticed that other students around me were doing well on an assignment and they would mention “how easy” or “how simple” the assignment was.
Reason #2: Key Takeaways
Although a lesson may seem simple, especially when a majority of your students will agree and say they may not have any questions about the lesson you taught, keep in mind that there will usually be a few students who may not understand, and just won’t speak up about it.
By taking the statement examples I listed above into mind, it can become a bit harder for the student to move away from their fixed mindset because they have a key belief that they can never be as smart as any of the “known smart students” in their class.
Try not to Praise outcomes over effort.
I believe the whole point of giving a student a spotlight was to not only honor the student for their great work but also hope that other students may follow in their example. In a way, this isn’t very different from a parent comparing their child to another.
Although I was above average in my class, whenever a teacher would spotlight the same student, on getting a good grade and being “super smart” it simply did not make me feel any better as a student because all I thought to myself was:
“This is a student who has always been the best, and I can never become this student.”
According to an article, by James Hamblin: 100 Percent Is Overrated, it is important to not label students as “smart” because they may not put in effort in class because they’ll have a belief that since they’re naturally gifted and “smart”, they won’t struggle in class or make bad grades. Although, if they were to fail an assignment, there is a great chance that they’ll begin to doubt themselves and their “smartness”.⁴
What I failed to understand at the time was that I never needed to become like the student who was continuously praised for their outcomes. I never needed to be titled as the “smart” student. I just needed to try my best and allow myself to learn. High school is a time for students to grow and learn, and practice having a growth mindset. It will become harder to do so if they’re held back by their fixed mindset. However, it is never too late to develop a growth mindset!
Reason #3: Looking Bad
As a student who held a fixed mindset, looking bad in front of my classmates was one of the strongest held fears I had. For example, I struggled with being able to raise my hand in class whenever I had a question about the lesson being taught. Reason being because my classmates didn’t.
In this case, it seemed to me that everyone understood the lesson, but me, therefore, allowed me to believe that if I were to raise my hand and ask a question I would seem like the only student who was confused when realistically this is not always the case. According to a blog post by Jake Teeny: The Fear of Looking Stupid in Class – And How To Get Past It⁵ , he uses a personal anecdote to explain a psychological term, Pluralistic Ignorance, created by social psychologist Floyd H. Allport and Daniel Katz in the 1920s.
What is Pluralistic Ignorance?
Pluralistic Ignorance is when individuals from a group have a value or belief that differs from what they believe the values or beliefs from the rest of the group to be.⁶
Teeny felt different from his classmates when no one raised their hand for any questions. He assumed that everyone understood the content. Although, what he didn’t realize was that from his classmates perspective, Teeny seemed to understand the lesson because he didn’t raise his hand.
I dealt with this too many times in my STEM-related classes. Instead of asking my teacher questions I had to release me from confusion, I waited after class to ask any of my close peers if they understood the material that was taught, which unfortunately for me, the answer was usually “No, I did not understand either.”
I didn’t want to visibly show how confused I was about the content because I didn’t want to seem “not smart enough” in front of my classmates.
I didn’t want to “look bad” in front of my peers, and by having this mindset, I just allowed myself to remain confused and stuck on an assignment until the next lecture, when I could’ve solved my confusion the moment the teacher asked if we’d had any questions about the lesson.
Not only was I asking myself, “why don’t I understand this lesson?” I was also questioned why I didn’t ask for help when I could’ve.
Reason #3: Key Takeaways
Remember to always be encouraging.
Try to pay attention to a student whenever they seem to be struggling with an assignment or project. You’ll usually know this when they come to ask you for help, once or multiple times. Be aware that even if you ask your class as a whole if they understand the lesson, not all will speak up. It is important as an educator you pay attention to your classroom environment and any possible barriers that may lay in between you and your students.
For example, a practice I always liked from teachers is when they walked around the classroom after they just assigned us with work. It makes it easier for me to come in contact with the teacher for help, without feeling the anxiety of asking for help in front of my classmates.
Here are a few more strategies from Realizing Potential With Mindset Toolkit to help educators find ways to encourage their students to have a growth mindset.
POWER OF YET
Whenever you hear a student mention that they won’t be able to accomplish something, always help end their statement with the word: “yet.” This gives room for the students to understand that they may not understand a lesson or may not be able to figure the solution to a problem now, but with time and effort, they will succeed.
Watch a cute music video of Janelle Monae with Sesame Street to learn the power of yet!
Wise FeedbackGive your students feedback that goes beyond just being critical. Try to have 1 on 1 sessions with them regarding assignment they did, which may need some reflection on. Don’t forget to mention that you have high expectations for them and that you believe the student can reach those standards.
Safe MistakesThis is a way to improve another potential barrier in the classroom. It is important that your students know it is okay to make mistakes in the classroom, so whenever a student shares an incorrect answer say:
This helps create a more comfortable environment in the classroom because students may become less afraid to give an answer out loud, whether it is wrong or not.
What I’ve learned in this reflection is that mindset matters. Looking back, I wish I had paid more attention to having a growth mindset because it would’ve helped me push past my struggles and negative self-talk holding me back. Having a growth mindset would’ve allowed me to embrace challenges, have the courage to ask for help when I need it, and also not assume that other students are supposedly “smarter” than I am.
As an incoming freshman at the University of North Texas, I am bound to face many challenges academically and in my personal life also, but with a better understanding of implementing a growth mindset along with my learning, I plan to seek ways to learn and grow from my efforts and mistakes, and not allow them to keep me stuck and doubtful of my intelligence.
Engineer Inclusion teaches educators how to develop growth mindsets in themselves and their students.
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¹Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
²Stanborough, R. J. (2020, January 14). How Black and White Thinking Hurts You (and What You Can Do to Change It). Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/black-and-white-thinking
³Muuss, R.E. (1996) Theories of Adolescence. New York: McGraw Hill. Sixth Edition. Chapter 8.
⁴Hamblin, J. (2016, June 23). 100% Is Overrated. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/06/the-s-word/397205/.
⁵The Fear of Looking Stupid in Class – And How to Get Past It. Noba. (n.d.). https://nobaproject.com/blog/2015-06-04-the-fear-of-looking-stupid-in-class-and-how-to-get-past-it.
⁶Take Online Courses. Earn College Credit. Research Schools, Degrees & Careers. Study.com | Take Online Courses. Earn College Credit. Research Schools, Degrees & Careers. (n.d.). https://study.com/academy/lesson/pluralistic-ignorance-definition-examples-quiz.html#