Sustainable Teachers Cultivate a Growth Mindset

Students with a growth mindset are less angsty, less reactive and they understand that they’re on a learning journey with you.
Melissa Kennedy
Oct 28, 2023
Mental state
The ability to accept failure and turn it into an opportunity for growth is an essential skill.

A sustainable teacher empowers young people (and their parents) to understand and cultivate a growth mindset. It’s great for them as people and learners, and the bonus is it helps the teacher as well. Teaching students with a fixed mindset has the potential to soak up a teacher’s time and energy in a big way. These students are, on the whole, anxious and very judgemental of themselves. They are more worried about the destination (the mark, grade or result) than the journey (the experience of creating a project). They get upset if they don’t achieve to their (or their parents’) expectation and for them, perfection is attainable.

I once had an interesting discussion with a Year 12 English student who was upset that they had not received full marks for an assessment task. We discussed the feedback they’d received and why they hadn’t achieved at that level and they said they understood why. But they were still concerned that they hadn’t achieved full marks and someone else had. When I asked why, they said that they needed to be perfect. I knew they did higher levels of Mathematics, so I asked them to calculate the probability of being ‘perfect’ in every assessment in every subject. They couldn’t. I asked if it was statistically possible, as a human being, to be perfect. I conceded that you could argue it was possible for androids, but even they fail because they are programmed by humans, after all. They admitted it wasn’t. I also commented that I personally would find it boring if I got everything ‘right’ all the time. They met me halfway in agreeing that it was hard to be perfect, but they were going to keep aiming for it. I admired their chutzpah.

It is times like these when I remember that Frozen song ‘Let It Go’. They needed to learn from their own experiences, and they would, when they were ready, no matter what their somewhat annoying English teacher said. On a side note, English was their only Band 5 subject in the HSC, in the rest they achieved a Band 6. When they received their results, they made a point of reassuring me that they still liked me anyway and a year later told me that the skills they’d learned in our class came in very handy at uni, as I’d taught them how to think and trust themselves. Cue: my warm feelings of pride in their developing growth mindset.

Students with a growth mindset are less angsty, less reactive when receiving feedback and they understand that they’re on a learning journey with you. They get that to F.A.I.L. is to make a first attempt in learning and not a cataclysmic doomsday event. They have developed resilience and an understanding that learning is a process. This knowledge is developed through experiences with family, sport, friends and school. They know that delight (“Yay! I got an A”) and disappointment (“Oh, I didn’t expect that, I got a D”) are emotions that they’re able to feel and move on from. They have been taught that effort counts more than result and that their value as a human being is not determined by the mark or grade, they receive.

You can help students to develop a growth mindset. James Nottingham and his team at Challenging Learning have developed fabulous ideas and resources about how you can do exactly that in a practical way, in any classroom. I highly recommend Nottingham’s books, Challenging Mindset and Challenging Learning. The effort you make in fostering a growth mindset within your classroom is so worthwhile for them and you. When they see you as more of a guide who co-constructs learning experiences with them and less as a judge who imposes a curriculum upon them, they are more open to taking risks in their learning and to trying new things.

They are also more likely to take ownership over a learning experience and to ask questions. Students with a fixed mindset tend to be more passive in their learning. They want an HDMI connection between your brain and theirs so you can just pour the information in. But learning is so multidimensional that such an aspiration is narrow and reductive. It doesn’t stop some people trying this approach, though.

Developing and sustaining a growth mindset is hard because it means you have to feel your feelings, and in our world that’s tough for so many people. As a society, we like to protect our young people - and ourselves - from unwelcome feelings. We need to teach them that all emotions are valuable and that they can feel difficult emotions like disappointment, anger and shame and move through an uncomfortable moment where things hurt emotionally and still be OK. They have space in their body and mind for all these emotions and more.

Image by Chris F