In the same way a gardener cannot force a seed or plant to grow, neither can a teacher simply make a student become more motivated, develop a growth mindset, or perform better at school. Rather, just as a gardener creates optimal conditions to help the seed and plant grow, so too does a teacher create the conditions and climate to cultivate personal and academic growth that can assist a student to flourish. If the academic environment is carefully monitored, maintained and continuously tended to, meaningful growth can occur and students have the potential to thrive at school and beyond. Concepts such as ‘growth mindset’ and ‘mindfulness’ are integral to understanding and promoting students’ growth in the classroom.
‘Growth mindset’ refers to a belief that intelligence is malleable and effort is the key to mastery. Students with a growth mindset view learning and personal improvement as more important than outperforming others or ‘looking smart’. They see mistakes as an opportunity to improve. Students with a growth mindset also embrace challenges by viewing them as energising and motivating.
Conversely, students with a ‘fixed mindset’ hold a belief that intelligence is innate and static; they see mistakes and challenges as a threat to their self-worth; they see effort as a sign of low ability that can potentially make them look ‘dumb’ if they perform poorly. With these limiting and restrictive beliefs about intelligence and effort, there is little room for growth.
Not surprisingly, research repeatedly shows that students with a growth mindset, tend to do better at school, enjoy school more, participate more frequently in class, and have more positive aspirations for their future. Just as importantly, students with a growth mindset tend to learn from their mistakes rather than being paralysed or derailed by them.
‘Mindfulness’ is distinctive from a growth mindset. Mindfulness refers to a form of awareness whereby one observes and non-judgementally pays attention to inner states (such as thoughts or feelings) as well as being cognisant of what is happening outside the body in the world. Like any skill, it can be developed through regular and purposeful practice. A mindfulness practice can help loosen the grip of habitual, self-limiting, and ‘fixed’ ways of thinking about and responding to ourselves and our students in the classroom. There are now vast arrays of mindfulness interventions available for implementation in schools for both students and staff (e.g., “Mindfulness in Schools Project .b Program”; “Mindful Schools”; “MindUp”, “Smiling Mind”).
How teachers can cultivate a growth mindset and mindfulness in their classrooms
For students to flourish in the classroom, it is essential that educators not only ‘plant the seed’ (provide the information / present the curriculum), but also cultivate a garden (learning environment / classroom) that values and encourages growth. If students know that a teacher genuinely values effort, learning from mistakes, persistence, and reaching personal bests, then students are more likely to be motivated, have greater reports of self-efficacy, and enjoy and embrace the learning experience.
The way in which an educator uses praise/feedback in the classroom (i.e., informative praise for the specific processes a student used to accomplish something) and the language they use to discuss notions of intelligence, success, and failure can all have a profound influence on the classroom climate and student motivation.
An educator’s mindset also significantly influences the way he/she responds to students. Mindful teachers who adopt a growth mindset tend to be better ‘strength-spotters’ of students. They are inquisitive, observant, and have the ability to bring awareness to, and notice, the ‘blooms’ growing in their garden. Educators who utilise mindfulness develop the ability to bring awareness to any judgmental or limiting beliefs about themselves and their students (e.g., statements such as “he just does not have a mathematical mind”).
Mindful and growth-oriented teachers tend to see themselves and others as positive ‘works-in-progress’. In contrast, teachers who hold a fixed mindset are more inclined to form fixed judgments about students, tend to focus on students’ limitations, and are less inclined to modify their opinions and behaviours when presented with contrary information about a student.
Benefits of growth mindset and mindfulness in the classroom
There is a growing evidence base for the benefits of mindfulness practice. Indeed, when teachers learn and engage in a regular practice of mindfulness, they not only reap benefits such as reduced stress, decreased burnout, increased cognitive performance, and improvements in physical and mental well-being, but their students benefit as well. Mindful teachers organically put a growth mindset ‘into action’ every time they engage in mindfulness practice – thereby modelling a growth mindset to their students. Mindfulness has also been shown to be helpful in building student-teacher connections and a greater sense of relatedness and belonging in the classroom. Promising results are also emerging from research investigating the impact of mindfulness training for young people. This research has shown positive effects on cognitive skills (such as improved attention, visual-spatial memory, concentration), social-emotional intelligence, well-being and lower levels of anxiety and distressed states.
Interestingly, research investigating the neuroplasticity of the brain reveals that mindfulness training allows the brain to grow – the very premise of a growth mindset. Mindfulness training has been shown to alter the structure and function of the brain (predominately the pre-frontal cortex) by reshaping the neural pathways and connections in the brain associated with executive function and cognitive abilities such as attention, problem-solving, self-awareness, planning, theory of mind, and introspection. Mindfulness training can also decrease activity in those areas of the brain associated with anxiety, worry, and impulsivity. Teachers who are literally changing their brain with mindfulness (the very foundation of a growth mindset) also tend to educate in a way that regards the mind as a malleable learning unit. As a by-product, students start to see themselves as agents of their own brain development – as modelled by their teacher.
Weathering the Storms and Droughts: Personal Best (PB) Goals
As any gardener knows, gardening involves not only setting up the ideal conditions to cultivate growth, but also helping the garden to weather storm and drought (i.e., resilience). When students experience academic setbacks, there can be a tendency for motivation to decline. One way in which educators can help students deal with challenge and setback is by advocating a personal best (PB) goal setting approach to learning. A PB approach to learning refers to a personalised set of goals that allow a student to aim to do as well as or better than their previous best efforts or performance. With the support of a teacher, PB goals allow a student to create a personalised standard of excellence with a specific road map for how to get there.
PB goals are distinctive to general goal setting approaches in three key ways. They are 1) specific (a student identifies precisely what they are aiming for), 2) challenging (a student realistically raises their own expectations of themselves) and 3) competitively self-referenced (a student will compete with him/herself rather than compete with others). Students can pursue ‘outcome’ PB goals (e.g., getting a higher mark in the yearly exam than the half-yearly exam) and/or ‘process’ PB goals (e.g., preparing for an exam on the weekend when previously no study would be done on weekends). Emerging research has shown that PB goal-setting in the academic domain can help enhance student motivation, self-efficacy, persistence, classroom participation, enjoyment of school, task interest, flow, engagement, teacher relationships, and resilience. In line with the growth mindset perspective, PB goal setting helps students to develop curiosity and a locus of control about their learning (for relevant worksheets, visit ‘Download Corner’ on Lifelong Achievement Group.
When teachers engage in mindful and growth-oriented practice, they not only develop the ability to ‘notice’ the potential blooms in the garden, they also develop the ability to savour and appreciate this growth. We therefore encourage teachers to dedicate the time, to pause, and reflect on some key questions – “Am I the sort of educator who creates a classroom climate that allows students to make mistakes free from judgments, to feel comfortable asking for help or feedback?”, “What kind of praise and feedback do I give my students – does it focus on growth and personal bests?”, “What kind of language do I use in my classroom to optimise growth?”. Answers to these questions underpin the ideal climate and conditions for students to thrive at school – and beyond.
Dr Jasmine Green is a registered psychologist and part-time Research Associate of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She has vast experience working with teaching staff, students, and parents in the education setting as a school psychologist. Jasmine’s doctoral research in educational psychology as well as her clinical experience in the educational setting demonstrates a commitment to working collaboratively with students, parents, teachers, and school personnel to promote a learning environment that achieves the most beneficial outcomes for students.
Professor Andrew Martin, PhD, is Scientia Professor, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Co-Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He specialises in student motivation, engagement, achievement, and quantitative research methods.
Correspondence about this article can be directed to Professor Andrew Martin, School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia: email@example.com