Growth Mindsets – 10 Tips for developing your students

How intelligent are you? How fast can you run? How well can you surf/knit/teach/learn/cook/….?

Do you really know where your own limits lie?

Most of us operate well within our capabilities, cruising through life. So why should we push our young people in schools to try and reach their full potential?

If we put aside this moral question and simply see our role as educators to open our students’ minds to what they are capable of. What can we do?

The idea that we can rise to a challenge or be self-defeating, depending on our own attitude is indisputable.  As Henry Ford is attributed as saying;

‘Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you are probably right’

The idea of Growth Mindsets proposed by Carol Dweck came from studies of students reactions to failure. Some students rapidly bounced back, others were devastated by failure. It seemed those resilient students saw failure as a learning experience that could be dealt with.  The fragile students seemed to only dwell on the failure as something immutable about themselves that they could do nothing about. Dweck categorised these attitudes as Growth and Fixed mindsets.

If we believe our success is primarily down to our own innate talent, then failure forces us to confront that we are not as smart as we thought we were. We are not! 

This fixed mindset attitude means we have no way of improving, of getting past that barrier and we may slip into failure avoiding strategies:

  • See challenges as threats
  • Blaming others
  • Appearing not to care and lack resilience
  • Have a pessimistic outlook
  • Exhibiting challenging behaviour

If we believe that we can improve and brain plasticity research  (impact of exercise on brain development)  supports this idea, then we are more likely to persevere and be successful. We become Achievement Motivated with a Growth mindset where we may:

  • See challenges as opportunities
  • Take personal responsibility for our performance
  • Have an optimistic outlook
  • Show resilience

This graphic provides a good overview

Growth vs Fixed Mindsets

So what can we as educators do to foster better learning? Human beings are complex and there are few certainties, but there are some ideas.

(1) Try to get your students to see failure as a learning experience

This is so easy to say, but so hard to achieve. We all have an aversion to failure, particularly public failure. Websites such as FailArmy are hugely popular entertainment from the humiliation of others.

We only truly know our limitations when we fail, so it makes sense to keep pushing until we get there. Few people do this though preferring to stay within their comfort zone.

No amount of inspiring failure videos(Michael Jordan, Elon Musk are likely to have as much impact as us talking to our students about when we failed and how we dealt with it.

Lots of low stakes testing with diagnostics can help our students to become less fearful of tests. This may be particularly important from students who may suffer from Stereotype Threat although there is a debate as to the effect of this

(2) Take note of effort before remarking on performance 

“Jenny is a very intelligent girl with a real talent for History ”  This is a fairly typical report and Jenny and her parents would be happy with it. But what if Jenny failed her next test? We would want her to consider what may have gone wrong with her preparation and learn from her failure. She may well conclude that actually, she’s not very intelligent, nor has any great talent. Self-doubt creeps in and she may start to avoid history.

When giving feedback let the student know that however they did, it was down to a combination of ability and effort. Do they need more effort to improve, or to work on their skills, or knowledge, or any combination of these? Focus on the learning and what they need to do to improve as a learner.

(3) Don’t just praise effort, praise learning

There is debate as to whether we should praise at all. Students can consider the praise as the reward and not the learning, which should be enough reward in itself. If you are going to praise (and I do) then make it very specific and personal. Praising someone for lots of effort, but with little progress can be counterproductive. I remember getting an award for ‘Most Effort’ from a football team I played for. I would have gladly swapped it for ‘Most Valuable Player’ it had little value to me. The following year I got ‘Most Improved Player’ What does that mean? Better than the rubbish at the start of the season?

(4) Be less helpful

This is a difficult one, teachers seem to have a helpful gene. We have an aversion to seeing students struggle and often step in too soon to help them. Students need to become comfortable with a degree of confusion and realise that the need to take some responsibility for their own learning. This cannot happen if they are supported so that they never fail or are challenged

(5) Teach students what to do when they don’t know what to do

Fruitless effort leads to little learning. Students need to learn strategies that can help them solve problems. When they are stuck and asking for help,  teachers should ask them what they have tried so far, what has worked and what hasn’t. Then help them learn strategies by explicitly modelling the thinking you (or other students)  use in order to solve the problem – See visible thinking 

(6) Teach students about internal and external locus of control

The Locus of Control is the extent to which people believe they have power over events in their lives. A person with an internal locus of control believes that he or she can influence events and their outcomes, while someone with an external locus of control blames outside forces for everything


(7) Learn about brain plasticity (Neuroplasticity) and share with your students

Every experience leads to a change in our brain structure. Our brains are continually changing. Some of the strongest evidence for this comes from brain injured patients who have relearned how to rebuild their lives


We all have the capacity to make ourselves smarter, if not always the willpower.

(8) Try to attain the state of Flow

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Trying to find the sweet spot with high challenge, but low-stress activities can be the key to building confident learners. All too often our higher achievers are in a state of Relaxation or control, not being pushed to the next level. Alternatively, many of our learners are in a perpetual state of anxiety, feeling that they are not capable of dealing with the work. Everything we do as teachers is a compromise and all we can do is to try and find the balance.

(9) Consider the Cognitive Load of your delivery 

Understanding Cognitive Load is important to creating confident and competent learners. I am currently writing a blog about this that will be linked here later. A good overview is presented here

(10) Emotionally invest in your students 

We are more likely to take risks and tolerate failure if we trust the person evaluating us. If our status is dependent wholly upon our performance we are in the realms of high-stakes testing which could trigger failure avoidance.

Dan Covey proposed the idea of an emotional bank account  that I have found effective in building relationships


There is some evidence that our students are less resilient than those in previous generations. Another blog here outlines some suggestions.  We possibly need to work harder and smarter in order to develop them fully. Never give up.

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