What is mindset?
You hear a lot about mindset in education these days. But what is mindset?
Mindset is your beliefs about learning and intelligence. For example, do you believe learning should be easy and quick, or that it’s generally slow and difficult? Do you believe intelligence is something you’re born with, or something that can change over time?
What students believe about their intelligence can have a big impact on their learning behaviors and their ability to become self-directed learners. Research done by Carol Dweck and her colleagues showed that beliefs about learning and intelligence can profoundly influence students’ learning behaviors. (Dweck 2006)
When students believe learning should be fast and effortless, and that intelligence is something that you’re born with, they don’t work as hard, are more easily discouraged, and learn less. But, when students believe learning is slow, that learning takes effort, and that anyone can get smarter, those are characteristics of a growth mindset. And, students with a growth mindset tend to work harder, are less easily discouraged, and learn more.
What does this mean for STEM education?
There’s an idea in our country that science, technology, engineering, and math are hard, and that if you don’t fit the profile of someone on “The Big Bang Theory,” STEM might not be for you. But, by telling kids that STEM is hard, or that not everyone is cut out for STEM, we may be sending the wrong message and affecting students’ abilities to be successful.
How can you encourage growth mindset in your STEM Classroom?
Show students that learning is a process, and that making mistakes is a natural part of learning. The way you frame your lessons is an important factor in encouraging growth mindset. For example, you don’t want to start a lesson by saying “this will be easy,” because if its not easy for some of your students, those students will likely be discouraged and shut down. A better approach is to frame the lesson by saying, “I know that you will make some mistakes as we work on this, but that’s OK because that is how we learn.”
Structure your lessons so they build in complexity towards a larger capstone project. This will help students see how their learning and knowledge progress over time. They’ll also get a chance to experience small successes along the way, which will help keep them motivated. For example, in a computer science course, you could start by introducing students to a block-based programming application, such as Scratch. After learning and practicing the basics in isolation, have your students progress to a final project that requires them to apply everything they’ve learned in a larger program, like programming a virtual fish tank. This will give them a chance to see how each step of their learning process help create the final product.
Focus on building an understanding instead of finding short-term results and quick fixes. One way to do this is by designing activities that connect learning to real-world applications so students can see that their work has a purpose. One example from our curriculum is a search and rescue challenge that’s modeled after robots that have competed in the DARPA Challenge. This allows students to see the larger implications of their work, and understand how it applies across domains.
Praise students for their effort, not their intelligence. According to Carol Dweck, a professor of developmental psychology at Stanford University and author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” praising children’s intelligence doesn’t give them confidence, nor does it help them learn more. “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck said, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”
Instead of telling students that they’re smart, praise them for being a hard working, and persevering to solve the problem. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” Dweck explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
When thinking about how to help your students succeed in their STEM learning, keep in mind that if students don’t see people like themselves succeeding in STEM fields, they’ll be less likely to study those fields because they may not feel welcomed or feel that it fits with their view of themselves or their place within the community. Students are influenced by numerous beliefs and cultural factors, all of which can have an effect on students’ mindset and whether or not they think they can be successful.
The bottom line is this: students’ intelligence and abilities aren’t fixed traits and, as a teacher, you hold the power to help develop students who will face educational challenges instead of being overwhelmed by them.