“For Learners to have a true sense of their abilities, they not only need to learn but they also need to know that they know.” Richard Bandler

As soon as we get our math books out, one of my 6-year-olds starts shouting out, “I can’t do that Miss, too hard… you know. My mum also isn’t good at maths so… so might as well go eh play outside?”  It only takes a sec and he’s at the classroom door, ready with his sun hat on. It’s the same every morning when the maths books come out. At the red table, there’s a quiet learner who sighs when it’s number-time. He gets up, finds the pot with counters, number lines etc. and puts it all on his table. “I’m ready for this Miss… but this stuff isn’t easy.”

I’m sure you have all experienced differences in response from your learners in the classroom. Some learners just seem to give everything a ‘red hot go’, as they say in New Zealand, whereas other learners seem to have given up on their own abilities to succeed before they have even started!

Being a fervent reader of anything related to learning I came across Dr. Carol Dweck’s (2006) concept of Mindset in 2011 and it has changed my approach to life, inside and outside the classroom. These 2 young learners are profound examples of fixed and growth mindsets. One 6-year-old learner with a fixed mindset believes that math will be something he’ll never be able to master, no matter the amount of time and effort he puts in! The other one beliefs that practice makes perfects (not sure if I totally agree with ‘perfect’ but I won’t let that stop him…), even though he’s not good at it yet he persists and feels he can learn when he works hard on it. How can it be that learners respond in such different ways to the challenges they face in the learning process?

I think most teachers would agree that self-esteem – particularly in the case of young learners – seems a factor in determining success or failure. Students with high self-esteem are convinced they can do anything, maybe not yet but they will go for it and eventually they will! In contrast, low self-esteem often causes learners to avoid trying new or more challenging tasks. Research by Robert Fisher (2005) indicates that some students develop a sense of inadequacy about themselves and keep on telling themselves ‘I can not …’, ‘I’m no good at this’ or ‘I always fail’, which, according to Fisher and supported by my own experiences (and I’m not talking only about my learners here!), often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of low grades.

So how can we help students’ believe more in themselves so they are willing to give it a’ red hot go’ without running for the exit when hurdles appear? Psychologist Martin Seligman (2006) states we have a choice of how to look at the challenges or failures we experience: we can choose to give things a go and take possible failure in our stride, or we can be negative about ourselves and just think that we can never do anything right anyway. Young learners don’t consciously make this choice but the way challenges and failures are perceived by their carers, parents and educators – the main influences in their lives – is key in the perspective they form about learning something that’s hard.

The beliefs we have about intelligence, our mindset, is according to Dweck a deciding factor in choosing between a ‘no go” or “giving it a go” approach. She distinguishes between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. When learners with a fixed mindset encounter challenges or fail, they relate it to their abilities.  How often have you heard comments such as “Ahmed knows, he is smart..” In this situation some learners believe that Ahmed is smart, implying that they are not. Full stop.  However, learners with a growth mindset do not question their abilities but instead give everything a go, are happy to take risks and through their persistence and efforts develop their abilities. Their focus is on getting there, or in other words: learning. This of course is a much better departure point for learning!

In our role as teachers, we are constantly striving to maximise learning opportunities for our learners and develop well-rounded individuals who can cope in our ever-changing, and rather challenging societies. When we encounter students with a fixed mindset, we are not having optimal conditions for effective learning.  Research (Ricci, 2013)  has shown that around 10% of first-graders demonstrate a fixed-mindset, however, in 3rd grade this number has quadrupled to over 40%! It’s key that we get in early and encourage our learners to keep believing in themselves and their success. The question is what can we do as educators to encourage all students to try again and again and again? To instill in them the motivation to meet the challenges they face in the classroom and beyond?

1 – Reflecting on our own beliefs

First of all, it’s key that we as educators are aware of our own mindset; do we believe intelligence is malleable “can be grown or developed with persistence, effort and a focus on learning” (Ricci, 2013, p.3)? We are role models and the way we deal with challenges and failure in our classrooms will affect their perspective. Everything we say and do – or don’t say or do- as teachers sends a message to our students. In particular to our younger learners as they are very sensitive to these messages. We have a profound effect on our students’ belief in their abilities so we need to model a growth mindset in how we deal with challenges and learning something that’s hard (If you are interested in a quick quiz to see where you stand. http://mindsetonline.com/testyourmindset/step1.php

2 – Use positive language

A lot of what our students pick up will be from observing and listening to you as their teacher. Positive language is essential to self-esteem and motivation. Instead of saying ‘if you finish this’, say ‘when you finish this’. Using when is much more encouraging as it reflects your confidence in your students. Reframe students’ comments, so that never becomes not yet, and turn ‘I’m not good at …’ into ‘I’m getting better at …’. Be aware that some learners interpret the words you should as meaning that they are currently doing something wrong! Giving positive models and using appropriate teacher language can enhance the students’ confidence and raise awareness of their strengths and abilities in learning. Words are powerful use them wisely, they can create a feeling of success and optimism in your classroom.

3 – Use praise mindfully

Carol Dweck suggests that the moment we give praise by using expressions like good boy, we are inherently causing problems for our students. Firstly, praise often overshadows constructive feedback – it’s all the students remember, and the real learning opportunity for learning fades away. Secondly, we often tend to give personal praise (e.g .You are so smart!), when success should be about the effort, the process and not the person. Using praise related to effort or process shows students that success depends on the effort put in and not on innate talent. Here are some phrases that can help foster a growth mindset:

Good job, working on this (tricky task)

I like they way you keep trying

I can see you have tried really hard at this!

I see you are trying it again, great thinking!

4 – Highlight learning strategies

Students’ willingness to deal with tasks doesn’t only depend on the level of the challenge and their perceived ability. The strategies they can apply, or rather might not apply, also affects the overall outcome and thus their motivation. Raising awareness of learning strategies, and developing a step-by-step plan of attack, starting with a low-demand task which the students can easily complete before moving towards higher-demand tasks, will guide learners with more confidence to the next level. Scaffolding can enable students with fixed mindsets to develop more confidence in their abilities and willingness to try which can help to increase their effectiveness in learning.

5 – Create awareness of brain plasticity

Our brains develop throughout our lives and through effort and learning, we can master skills we were previously unable to perform well. It’s essential that students become aware of the fact that their abilities are not fixed and that we are able to acquire new skills even over at older age! I often say the brain is like a sponge or the brain is a muscle, we need to practice it to make it stronger and absorb new ideas. Raising awareness of the fact that our brain can get stronger can be a powerful way to help them develop a growth mindset about their own abilities.

There are many ways to include elements that encourage our learners to develop a growth mindset into the young learners’ classroom.  However, as always, with young learners ensure you are consistent and that it’s not a one-off, we don’t change overnight and neither do they. It’s a journey and it takes time but I can’t express the happiness I felt the day my ‘I-can’t-do-no-maths-Miss’ learner got up to get himself a pot with counters instead of his sun hat!

Dweck, C,.(2006). Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential

Fisher, R,. (2005). Teaching Children to Learn

Seligman, M,. (2006) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your mind and Your Life

Ricci M. C. (2013). Mindsets in the Classroom