In 2021, David Yeager was named Holdsworth’s first scholar in residence. This is the second in a two-part series. In an earlier blog, David explained the results of a groundbreaking study he led on growth mindset, and what the data mean for educators and parents.
Think it’s hard to get kids to do what the experts recommend? Try changing grown-ups.
Convincing an adult to drop a 20-year habit, adopt a different worldview, or shake up their predictable routine is difficult, which makes “behavior change” one of humankind’s most stubborn problems. The problem is even more complex when we apply it to people’s professional lives, such as the behavior of teachers in schools.
I say this as someone doing research on teacher practices that support student success, as well as someone with firsthand experience in the classroom. Before becoming a researcher, I was a middle school teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I worked like crazy for my students, but like any novice teacher, I had a tough time using complicated pedagogical tools in diverse classrooms. The press for coverage was too great and my skills were too undeveloped.
Researchers studying social-emotional learning and growth mindset – which is my area– often focus on what we can do to help struggling students – and we’ve made some helpful discoveries on that front.
But how do we help teachers who are struggling like I did in my early years? And how do we help leaders better support those teachers?
This is the next frontier, and a challenge for researchers and practitioners alike: Changing adult behavior to benefit students.
Findings from the Largest Growth Mindset Intervention
Over the past few years, I’ve been working with a team of researchers on a national study that tested the impacts of growth mindset training on 12,000 9th graders. Recently published in Nature, we evaluated a 50-minute online module students completed during the school day. It explained that intelligence is not fixed and that you can get better by putting in more effort and trying different approaches. This simple message had the power to mitigate failing grades and prompt students to take more difficult courses.
This was good news, of course. But the most telling thing we learned is that the impact of growth mindset could only be sustained in supportive environments.
What are supportive environments? What are teachers and parents doing to create them? Our data and partnerships with schools provided a starting point for us to chase down these questions.
All 76 schools who participated in the National Study of Learning Mindsets have now joined the National Mindset Innovation Network, a group of educators and researchers working collaboratively to discover and share the practices that contribute to creating a growth mindset environment.
Data from the national study equipped the group with some early insights to build upon.
For instance, a survey of math teachers in our 76 schools found that teachers’ own mindsets can turn up or down the growth mindset effect for kids. When teachers had a growth mindset, kids benefitted from the treatment. But when teachers had a fixed mindset, kids didn’t benefit. It turns out students don’t find the growth mindset to be valid or actionable until the teacher’s behavior makes it true.
The free online module is a seed that can be planted, but in order for it to grow and thrive, it must be planted in fertile soil.
Growth Versus Fixed Mindset Teaching Practices
We next wondered what growth versus fixed mindset teachers were doing or saying in their classrooms. To get a sense, we included open-ended questions where teachers could write what they would say to a struggling student.
Teachers who embraced a growth mindset tended to use collaborative, troubleshooting language such as, “Let’s look at your process to find where it went wrong and see where we can fix it.” This approach acknowledges that the child’s confusion is normal and real, and that the teacher has a role to play in helping the student overcome the frustration.
Teachers with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, often directed students to come after class and do more worksheets – more rote practice in isolation, or “try harder alone.” For students, it could be interpreted as, “Everyone else understood it and you didn’t, so you must not have been paying attention or working hard enough.”
Teachers who embraced a growth mindset also allowed students to revise and resubmit work because it gave them a chance to turn mistakes into learning opportunities. If a mistake is the final word, failure becomes a sign of a student’s fixed ability, not a step along the path to getting it right later.
These insights led us to the intersection between growth mindset and trends in curriculum improvement, pedagogy and school leadership. Practices that many schools are embracing, such as inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, formative feedback and the Socratic method, are all supportive of a growth mindset, when done right. But it’s easy to see how a fixed mindset teacher, who does the things in the right column of Table 1, could undermine an effective curriculum.
A Solution: Online Program + Changes in Pedagogy
The online growth mindset intervention is a powerful starting point. It costs almost nothing and holds promise for students who struggle. Any school can access the online module for free, and we will never charge for it. It could easily be part of freshman orientations across the state of Texas.
But it would be short-sighted to stop there. Schools must intentionally create the kind of environment that fosters and sustains growth mindset among teachers and students. The message is not, “Take kids to the computer lab and do nothing else.”
Think of it like fluoride or seat belts. Fluorinated water and seat belts can be scaled up everywhere at very low cost and can prevent millions of people from suffering from tooth decay or dying in car crashes. But nobody would say that you don’t need toothbrushes or driver’s education. In both of these cases, it was a combination of scalable policy solutions and behavior change that led to a big impact.
In the case of growth mindset, we should leverage the online intervention to give students a growth mindset, but also work with adults in schools to make that growth mindset “true.”
I don’t suggest this is easy. But I do believe it could be transformative.
For teachers, finding the time to give students frequent, meaningful feedback and building chances for revision into grading is difficult, especially when they feel pressure to cover content and prepare for tests.
As I learned in my own teaching experience, it’s key to have a great school leader, someone who not only provides the knowledge and tools teachers need to master their craft, but also creates a supportive school culture.
In this next phase of research, I want to give teachers and leaders solid, evidence-backed practices that will help them work together to create environments that supports growth mindset. Once we have a toolbox of practices and strategies to share, the challenge will be scaling it statewide, then nationwide.
Scaling is never about one thing in isolation. It’s about connecting the dots. Schools are already incorporating many programs aligned with growth mindset – Social-Emotional Learning, Trauma-Informed Teaching, Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports – no need to get hung up on terminology, they are all consistent with one another. What’s important is that local communities are gathering behind powerful ideas that motivate them to get better for their kids’ sake.
To succeed in our mission, we must call upon the entire brain trust of social and behavioral scientists working on major social problems and marry their discoveries with the leading research on curriculum and pedagogy. It will take deep investments by people who care enough about real, sustained improvement to push for good science and drive bold changes in practice.
Let’s get to work.
For more resources and to access the free online module, visit PERTS.net.
David Yeager is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin Population Research Center and was formerly a middle school teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the principal investigator of the National Study of Learning Mindsets and co-founder of the Mindset Scholars Network. He has no financial interest in growth mindset products or companies.
Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C. L., Tipton, E., … Dweck, C. S. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature.
Dweck, C. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2019). Mindsets: A view from two eras. Perspectives on Psychological Science.