Is 'growth mindset' the key to student success?

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PALO ALTO, CALIF. — As states debate how to best test students on subjects like mathematics and English language arts to predict career and college readiness, there's another field of research that students need more than a mastery of ABCs and 123s to be successful.

Last week the Education Writers Association hosted a seminar called, "New Lens on Learning: The Hidden Value of Motivation, Grit and Engagement." In other words, one's mindset matters.

Held at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education, the program brought together top researchers as well as educators and journalists to take a deeper dive into a widening pool of evidence that suggests brain science, a student's sense of self and socioeconomic and social-emotional factors play an equally important role in fostering students success and closing long-term achievement gaps.

"Policy makers too are starting to pay attention," said Caroline Hendrie, executive director of the Education Writers Association. She cited federal grant programs like "Skills for Success" which addresses non-cognitive skills and President Barack Obama's mentoring program, "My Brother's Keeper," among several major investments in shifting student mindset.

By basic definition, "mindset" is the set of values, assumptions, or attitudes that an individual or group holds.

Stanford psychologist and world-renowned scholar Carol Dweck pushed the envelope on the subject in her best-selling book, "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success," arguing that people who are approached and educated with a fixed mindset will be less successful than those approached with a so-called "growth mindset."

Those with a fixed mindset tend to rest on their laurels — for example, saying they're a natural at math — or their doubts, believing that they're just not a math person.

According to Dweck's definition, "In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point."

Dweck admitted there are pitfalls to the translation of this theory, such as equating growth mindset with effort alone.

"You have to praise the effort and tie it to the outcome," she said, versus just praising a student for giving a project a good go.

"The growth mindset is hard and it requires a constant journey," said Dweck. "You can't just banish a fixed mindset. You have to start by legitimizing it. We're all a mixture."

Mindset, in terms of aspirations in Berkshire County, has been a priority highlighted in a progressive agenda known as the Berkshire Compact for Education. The Compact calls for programs that raise residents' aspirations to view a minimum of 16 years of education or career training as the norm.

Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, said that people in general have a stake in learning to shift their mindset, whether they're students or workers. "We need to think about where we're heading," she said, noting today's students especially, with changing technologies and world issues, are "going into a world to work with knowledge we haven't discovered yet."

"Part of growth mindset is knowing when to improve yourself and not waiting for a test or someone to tell you," Darling-Hammond said.

As Hendrie observed, the research and practice of growth mindset strategies are "getting out there," but "many questions remain."


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