Most educators would be aware of the term ‘growth mindset’ by now. The idea is you can work on being smarter. Whatever abilities and talents you have are just a starting point, if you work hard, make mistakes and keep trying, you can achieve. Teachers are using it to encourage and motivate children in their classrooms.
But there is another application for this idea; it can be used as an underlying ethos for the professional learning of teachers.
The term ‘growth mindset’ has developed from work of Professor Carol Dweck. Her research is psychological in nature. She is particularly interested in the areas of motivation and development.
As Dweck put it during an interview in 2012 :-
In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. 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.
This has significant implications for teachers and parents, especially in the nature of the feedback teachers might use when interacting with students. Rather than complimenting students on their achievements (which would develop a fixed mindset), teachers should instead encourage them to develop a growth mindset by focusing on the struggle and the commitment needed, hence recognizing the effort required, rather than the end result.
But what might this mean for teachers’ own learning?
I believe in the current environment where ‘quality teaching’ and ‘quality teachers’ are catch cries, school leaders can use Dweck’s research to provide a space where all teachers can continue to develop and improve throughout their career in a meaningful way.
It could be incredibly powerful for a school to become a complete learning institution, where everybody is constantly learning, with teachers continually reflecting on their own practice and honing their skills.
This would mean some changes to the way most professional learning models are structured. For example, one of the crucial aspects in developing a growth mindset is acknowledging that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process.
If a school were to encourage teachers to adopt a growth mindset to their professional development, then the school would need to acknowledge that teachers will make mistakes in their teaching; that is, they might try teaching methods that are not as successful as they might have hoped. This is a significant change for teachers and schools; in many schools teachers are expected to adopt specific models of teaching to the exclusion of all others.
Also schools would need to provide teachers with the opportunity to reflect on their teaching in a much more structured way than currently occurs. Often teachers are time-poor, rushing from assessment to planning to extra-curricular event, but part of developing a growth mindset requires taking time to reflect on previous experience and new ideas, and decide on the next step in improving practice. This has to be a specifically allocated time, otherwise it will end up being swallowed by the usual day-to-day teacher commitments.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, school leaders need to adopt a growth mindset themselves if they expect their teachers to do so. This means school leaders should speak honestly about their mistakes, reflect on past endeavours and identify the way forward. This needs to be a transparent process so teachers can see the growth mindset in action.
I have to point out developing a growth mindset is neither immediate nor straightforward. Rather, it is closely linked to the development of other habits of mind like resilience and motivation. It requires a concerted effort on behalf of a whole school community to develop it amongst students. The same level of effort would be needed to develop it among teaching staff.
I suggest the benefits would be great for any school where staff put in such an effort. After all, what more powerful example could teachers set for students than that of being a constant learner?
Keith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK.