Growth Mindsets: Techniques to Help Students See What They Can Achieve


By Mike Gershon, author of How to Develop Growth Mindsets in the Classroom: The Complete Guide

Some learners believe they can get better, no matter what subject they are studying. Some learners believe they have a fixed amount of ability and that this will never change. Carol Dweck characterised the difference as growth mindset versus fixed mindset.

A mindset is a set of beliefs you have about yourself. In the case of learning, a fixed mindset is a fundamental belief that intelligence, talent and ability are fixed. That whatever you’ve got is what you’ve got and that’s the end of it. You might have a lot or you might only have a bit, but no amount of effort will change this.

A growth mindset is where the student believes their intelligence, talent and ability are open to change. They believe that putting in effort and targeting that effort effectively can help you to grow your intelligence, develop your talents and improve your ability.

Perhaps you’ve encountered students who fall into one of these two categories? Or, as is often the case, students who have a growth mindset in one subject and a fixed mindset in another?

I know I have

At one time in my career, I was teaching GCSE Sociology to a group of 14 and 15 year olds. Sociology was an optional subject, unlike math, science and English. All of them had chosen to be there.

There was a generally positive atmosphere in the classroom from the get go. The students were pleased to be in the room and excited about what this new subject might hold. One particular student was incredibly attentive and keen to learn. He was always focused, always smiling and always ready to throw himself into whatever task I set or whatever new topic we started studying.

One day, later on in the year, a little after Christmas, a colleague in the math department was running a math symposium in the school. Students from across the county were coming to take part. It was a big event.

This colleague had managed to get cover for most of his classes on the day of the symposium. But there was one class which was proving difficult to cover. He asked me if I would mind standing in for half an hour so he could start the symposium off and make sure everything was running smoothly. No problem, I said, and happily turned up at his classroom after break.

There were seven students in the room, already sat down, and the work for the lesson was written up on the board. My colleague went off to start the symposium and I did a quick scan of the class before asking everybody to get their books out and make a start on the work. After a minute or two I noticed that one student was slumped over his desk and hadn’t yet opened his book.

‘Come on, young man,’ I said, ‘let’s get started. Off you go, please.’

I gave the student a chance to compose himself and to begin his work while I walked around the classroom with the intention of checking how the other members of the class were getting on.

Then I heard him speak: ‘Sir, it’s me.’

I turned round and looked at him. He smiled and slowly raised himself up off his desk. I couldn’t believe it. Here was exactly the same student I taught in Sociology, but he was presenting himself in such a different way that I’d not even recognised him at first glance. The difference was remarkable.

This particular incident really made me think about the importance of how students perceive themselves. What kind of stories do they tell about what is possible? How do they make sense of their experiences in school? And what beliefs do they have about the limits, or otherwise, of their own potential?

How could this one student see himself and his potential so differently in sociology compared to math?

I decided to tackle these questions head-on by writing my book, How to Develop Growth Mindsets in the Classroom: The Complete Guide. The book takes its lead from Carol Dweck’s research into learner mindsets and then moves on to provide a host of practical tools you can use to change how your learners think about themselves, their learning and their potential. It gives you everything you need to take learners from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset; to help them tell a different story about themselves and what’s possible for them to achieve.