Think back to a time in your childhood where you struggled to succeed at something. Maybe it was solving a challenging puzzle, singing in harmony in music class, passing the ball smoothly to a teammate, or completing a difficult homework assignment. When the going got tough, did someone give you encouragement like the following?
- “No pain, no gain.”
- “Practice makes perfect.”
- “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”
The underlying message is that successful endeavors require effort. And while not quite as simple as parents, teachers, and coaches might make it seem, there is at least a grain of truth in these sayings. Learning is hard work. It’s blood, sweat, and tears.
What can teachers do to encourage students to put forth the necessary effort? How can we help our students persist despite difficulties or even failure?
Mindset is key. When we notice our students are making an honest effort to learn, we can spotlight that effort and encourage them to continue to exert themselves. When they struggle, teachers can emphasize the power of “yet.” We can tell students that they may not have learned a certain skill yet, but if they continue to try, they are capable of learning it. In other words, there is still room for their skills and knowledge to grow. This is what researcher Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset (link).
What a teacher shouldn’t do is ascribe students’ success to their innate abilities. While students can control the amount of effort they put into learning, they can’t control the degree of intelligence they were born with. In fact, it’s counterproductive to give students praise like, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so talented!” Why? Students who are told they are smart or talented tend to take on that attribute as part of their identity. They want to continue to be perceived as intelligent or talented. So, when given a choice between an easier task and a harder task, they may well choose the easier task. And when confronted with failure, they might give up because they see that failure as evidence that they’re not as smart or talented as they thought they were. Students who view themselves this way have a fixed mindset, and this mindset is not very conducive to learning.
In contrast, students with a growth mindset tend to be more willing to accept challenges, persevere, and learn from failure. Precisely what we want to foster. So, I invite you to watch the Main and Deep videos and read the articles in this Think Tank issue to discover the ins and outs of helping students cultivate a growth mindset.
Heather Kretschmer teaches Business English at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen in Germany.