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The Importance of a Growth Mindset for Learning & Teaching

April 11, 2023

As I write this, I’m preparing for a long-distance bike ride. I’ll be cycling 250 miles between Glasgow and Harrogate to raise money for the Hands Up Project

It’s the third time I’ve cycled to IATEFL. In 2022, I cycled from Glasgow to Belfast (via ferry) for Amala Education and in 2019 from Glasgow to Liverpool for Code Your Future

Each time, people have donated generously and then commented in awe:

  • "I just don’t know how you can do that."
  • "I’d never be fit enough." 
  • "You’re an amazing human." 

However, I’m not any more amazing than any other human. I’m also not even superfit. What gets me to my destination is my growth mindset. 

Emily Bryson biking to IATEFL

What is a growth mindset?

A growth mindset is having the self-belief that you can succeed at life’s challenges. It’s about having the confidence to try new things, push yourself, and learn from mistakes. People with a growth mindset believe that they can achieve anything if they try hard enough. 

The opposite is a fixed mindset. This is when someone doesn’t believe that they can do something, so they avoid it or give up when things get difficult. People with a fixed mindset may believe that their skills and abilities are unchangeable. 

Why is a growth mindset important for students?

Confidence is crucial for language learning. Students who believe that they can learn to develop their skills, memorize new words, and communicate fluently are much more likely to succeed. 

These learners also tend to be more self-directed, motivated, and resilient. When tasks are difficult, they’ll find a way to complete them rather than giving up.

Why is a growth mindset important for teachers?

As teachers, we are role models. When students see someone who believes in themselves (and in them), this inadvertently gives them confidence. 

Giving students praise and supportive feedback while encouraging them to develop new skills can have a huge impact on student’s self-belief and mental well-being. 

From a professional development perspective, cultivating a growth mindset is key to learning new teaching skills or making career advances

How can we boost our learners' (and our own) growth mindset?

Positive self-talk is the key to a growth mindset. We need to be kind and reassure ourselves (and our learners) that anything is possible with effort

I’ve had moments when I’m cycling uphill into horizontal rain. The only option is to continue and the best way to reach the destination is to pedal as hard as possible. In moments like this, I have mantras:

  • "Just keep pushing."
  • "I can do this."

I’ve adopted similar mantras when I have multiple deadlines or an overwhelming to do list:

  • "Keep going." 
  • "One more."

I remember once reading an article by Juliana Buhring, a round-the-world cyclist. She mentioned that she finds reframing her thoughts invaluable when things get tough. Instead of "This is awful," reframe it to "This is fun" or "I’m definitely learning something today." 

This can be particularly helpful when it comes to mistakes. For some learners, mistakes can be demotivating and anxiety inducing. However, in reality, they are the best learning opportunities

Whenever my learners make a mistake, I’ll respond with "Oh good! I’m so glad you did that. That's a really common mistake. Now we can talk about it and practice."

You can also support your learners and your inner voice by reframing with the word "yet."

For example: 

Student: I can’t do this. 

Teacher: You mean, you can’t do this YET?

Student: I don’t know how to use narrative tenses.

Teacher: You mean, you don’t know how to use narrative tenses YET?

This instantly demonstrates that skills are there to be developed. It’s only a matter of time and hard work. 

You may also like this post about switching off your inner troll and paying more attention to your inner angel

inner devil vs inner angel

Share a comment with Ellii. How do you feel about growth mindset? Is it something that comes naturally to you? How do you support your learners to be positive and confident about developing new skills?

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Comments (4)

Opal E.(Teacher)

I agree that a growth mindset is extremely important in teaching and learning. I continually encourage my students by reminding them that their knowledge is extensive and they are continually developing their skills in English, particularly, L-S-R-W and the art of communication including verbal and non-verbal forms.

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Elena Eidelberg(Guest)

While it sounds good, I feel that it's another one of those ideas that ultimately blame students who haven't had advantages. Like, they just aren't "gritty" enough, or they aren't thinking positively enough. I'm not saying teachers shouldn't be encouraging, but we shouldn't think this will come easily for many, many students.

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Donna H.(Teacher)

If I present this to my adult ESL students, I'll give examples of how to better parent with this growth mindset. I'll suggest they focus their comments to their children based on the effort and stick-to-itiveness they witnessed, rather than only on the result or a static "You're smart" kind of statement. "I like how you worked really hard on this," or "I see some improvement," would be good examples to model.

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Donna H.(Teacher)

Of course, we can re-parent ourselves, too. I will encourage them to speak to themselves in like manner.

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