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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Praise: Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. Teachers have the power to change lives. They are trained to motivate and inspire students to be and do their best, and the messages they send can have a life-long impact on children’s self-esteem and confidence in learning. After a recent review of Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, I have become more aware of the need for teachers to be cautious in the subtle and direct feedback they give to students under the guise of student praise.

Carol Dweck (2006) asks, “Can human abilities be cultivated and grown or are they permanent and set in stone?” Dweck theorizes that people with growth mindsets, meaning they believe that they can improve their abilities through effort, are more successful than people who have fixed mindsets, which is the belief that ability is fixed and deep-seated. This theory is supported by decades of research on the importance of mindsets. For example, students who were exposed to the concept of a growth mindsets, for example by being told that the brain is a muscle that can become stronger, had greater gains in achievement than those who were only taught study skills (Blackwell et al., 2007).

Why does a growth mindset help students succeed in school? Perhaps it is because students with a growth mindset are more ready embrace challenges, take risks, learn from criticism and mistakes, see effort as a path to mastery, and persist in the face of setback. A growth mindset is one that sees failure as a place from which to grow and learn, as opposed to a stopping point. By being specific in praising the process by which students are achieving, teachers will reinforce the habits that will support their learning throughout life.

Unfortunately, the competitive nature of our schools often leaves students feeling threatened by the success of others. Students may take feedback from their teachers as a direct measure of their own competence and worth, and therefore, avoid perceived challenges. This can unknowingly be reinforced by the daily messaging from teachers. Dweck reminds us that instead of telling someone that they are smart or talented it is important to encourage effort, acknowledge persistence, and recognize hard work.

For teachers to truly empower students to be self-confident, self-directed learners, they must be intentional in reinforcing the strategies students are using in their learning, not just the achievement or grade they have made. For a teacher to say, “I like the way you used transition sentences at the start of each paragraph,” will have greater impact on students long term writing, more than simply saying, “Good job on your essay.”

This new psychology for success has implications for teacher training as well. Our traditional teacher training programs, which focus on behavior management and positive reinforcement, must now take a psychological approach—personalizing praise and offering students specific feedback toward growth. We as educators need to be aware of the messages that we send to our students. This new view of praise towards a growth mindset is necessary for educators to truly prepare students to be confident, self-directed, and collaborative lifelong learners in the 21st century.