What is a Growth Mindset and How Can It Be Applied in the Classroom?


Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, founder of ‘growth mindset,’ defines the concept as believing that every student can succeed and teaching them to believe in their abilities to: (1) embrace the challenges and complexities of learning; (2) learn the positives of being persistent (3) value effort as a positive; and (4) be inspired to do more (2007).

She contrasts this to a ‘fixed mindset’ where educators believe some students can’t succeed based on their intelligence and circumstance and students may believe the same thing about themselves and others. According to sociologist Claude Steele (2010) these perceptions can negatively affect some students who perceive themselves to be in a racial, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic, or gender group that is not expected to show school success.

The same growth versus fixed mindset pertains to educators- as everyone has the potential to improve using the tenets of Dweck’s growth mindset.

One of the sharpest distinctions among students are those who possess the type of literacy practices used in school versus those needing to learn them (Zacarian, 2013). Generally, the former group’s families have higher levels of formal education, are familiar with school practices, use dialect skills similar to what’s spoken in school, routinely enact literacy activities (e.g., reading newspapers, recipe books), and engage children in school-readiness activities and an individualistic culture where children are expected to think independently. These practices often mirror ours, as educators, and our interactions with students and families reflect these commonalities.

Conversely, sociologist Geert Hofstede (2010) claims that most people, except Western European and US dominant peoples, come from collectivist cultures that favor relationships and interdependence. According to psychologist Mary Gauvain (2001), development focuses on providing children with rich narratives and explicit directives for being cultural members of this group. Additionally, many families, according to Gauvain, educational scholar, Lisa Delpit (1995) and sociologist Barbara Rogoff (2003), have less formal education and speak vernacular language.

Dweck provides an example of how these cultural distinctions appear in classrooms. In a study of a Native American population, students weren’t engaged in a growth mindset when their teachers’ discussed how it would benefit their individual growth (e.g., your grades are improving, this is your personal best!). When teachers understood that contributions to the community were critical and shifted their interactions to how student learning benefited their community, students’ progress grew significantly.

As educators, our individual perspective is always missing something. It’s always a partial picture of any whole and requires the contributions of others to be complete. Teachers have a pivotal role in fostering an open and much-needed dialogue with students, families, the school community and community-at-large to ensure that education works. A first step is creating a classroom environment where everyone is seen as already capable, already learning, and already contributing. When we invite and are open to the cultures others bring, when we allow ourselves to be changed by different perspectives, and when we see these as gifts rather than obstacles, we embrace a growth mindset and, in turn, help all students succeed.


This response originally appeared in EdWeek’s Classroom Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo.  It’s drawn from “In It Together: how student, family and community partnerships advance engagement and achievement in diverse classrooms” (Zacarian & Silverstone, 2015).


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