Growth Mindsets: 5 Strategies for Creating a Culture of Rigor


The following is an edited excerpt from Mike Gershon’s new book How to Develop Growth Mindsets in the Classroom: The Complete Guide.

One of the challenges teachers can face is getting some students to believe they can do better. Repetitive bad grades or the inability to keep up with a lesson leads to discouragement and an overall belief that they simply can’t do it. Some learners believe they have a fixed amount of ability, however scholars like Carol Dweck say the opposite – that students can grow their intelligence, talent and ability. She calls this a “growth mindset.”

In creating a rigorous culture in our classrooms, we are aiming to do a few things that will help us develop growth mindsets across the board.

First, we are aiming to make challenge the norm. All lessons should be rigorous and students should come to expect this. Second, we are trying to change students’ perceptions of challenge. Challenge and rigor should be embraced rather than feared. Lastly, we want to show students how they can succeed in the face of challenge. The ultimate goal is to have students be drivers of their own learning.

So how do we do this? Here are some techniques from Mike Gershon’s new book How to Develop Growth Mindsets in the Classroom: The Complete Guide

1. Create a Challenge Wall 

Do you have a blank wall in your classroom you don’t know what to do with? Or maybe it’s time to take down the Halloween decorations and put up something fresh? Make rigor a focal point in your classroom and put up a challenge wall.

Fill a wall with puzzles, riddles, problems, questions on a variety of different topics.  When a student finishes his work early, they can go to the wall and choose a challenge. This creates excitement around the wall and helps them embrace challenges. Or you can set aside some time during a lesson when for a student to choose a challenge and the whole class can discuss openly to embed a culture of challenge in the classroom.

2. Teach neuroscience

Showing students what happens inside their brain when they learn makes “learning” seem less abstract. Seeing physical changes helps promote a growth mindset and can help students engage more in their own learning.

Try setting up a series of short lessons at the beginning of each class to go over different parts of the brain focusing on themes such as “What happens when we learn?” “What happens to our brain when we face a challenge?” “How does learning change your brain?”

3. Learning Goals Vs. Performance Goals

Here are two goals:

I really want to understand this topic.

I really want to get an A.

Can you tell which is the learning goal and which is the performance goal? Probably, however, a lot of students think that if they don’t get an A, they are incapable of learning. With learning goals, students focus on developing their understanding, whereas with performance goals, students focus on the end point – usually the grade.

While performance goals are important (students ultimately need to pass their classes) too much focus on them can cause students fear rigor and challenge. Any failure will cause a loss of motivation to confront challenge.

For this reason, take some time to set learning goals for students and reward them when they meet them. Show them how to set their own learning goals. Rather than saying “Congratulations, Susie, you got an A on your quiz!” You might say, “Bobby, I see you got more answers correct than last time. You met your learning goal!”


4. The Language of Challenge

Rigor. Challenge. Hard. Difficult. Struggle. Do these words send a chill up your spine? Do you feel instantly more alert because you anticipate that something is going to be difficult and you fear you might fail? If so, you already know how students, even in 21st century classrooms, might be feeling when they need to embrace a challenge.

How do we remedy this? We change the language of “challenge.”

Repeatedly ask challenge questions to habituate students to expect that their thinking will be challenged. For example, try asking, “Why do you think that? What’s your evidence?” or “What do you think will happen, based on what you know?”

Reframe the word “challenge.” So “challenge” becomes “good challenge.” “It’s hard” becomes “It’s hard, so I must be developing my brain.” “I can’t do it” becomes “I can’t do it yet so it must be a challenge and challenges are good!”

5. Make Positive Connections Between Mistakes and Challenge

Mistakes are the hallmark of challenge. If students are not making mistakes, then they are not being challenged. So how can we make a positive connection between mistakes and challenge?

Here are a few ideas. Move around during activities and ask students to tell you what mistakes they have made and how they have learnt from these mistakes. Tell your students to let you know when they did an activity without making any mistakes. This means they might need some more rigor. Talk about your own life’s challenges and what you learned from the mistakes you have made.


For more on Growth Mindsets, watch Mike Gershon’s recent webinar here: