With the right tools and the right mindset, the science classroom is an unparalleled opportunity for students to become scientists and engineers because STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—is the perfect opportunity for teaching critical thinking skills: how to create, evaluate, and analyze.
This is where a growth mindset comes in. When educators focus on a growth mindset—both in themselves and in their students—they enhance students’ ability to use creative, evaluative, and analytical thinking skills, which in turn prepares students for higher education and beyond.
The mindset with which we approach our goals—whether we believe our qualities are carved in stone or that they can be cultivated through our efforts—plays an important role in our successes and failures, according to the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.
This has implications for all classrooms, but we will focus on science classrooms because understanding the power of a growth mindset will help students, educators, and administrators as they implement and teach the Next Generation Science Standards.
The difference between growth and fixed mindsets—and their relevance for success—was first described by Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
According to Dweck, people with a “fixed mindset” believe they cannot really change their character, intelligence, or creative abilities. Because of this, they believe success is a result of those inherent qualities and that failure is a sign that they aren’t as smart or capable as they thought they were.
People with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrive on challenge. They see failure not as a sign that they lack inherently what it takes to succeed, but as a way to grow and stretch their existing abilities.
The difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset can be boiled down to the difference between “I am” and “I can be.”
The “Tyranny of Now” vs. the “Power of Yet”
Dweck explains that praising ability rather than effort creates "the tyranny of now." Children who are told that they're smart, that they're good at something, that they have fixed qualities are the ones who run from failure and choose to avoid harder tasks. Through her research, Dweck has found that these students choose to do easier tasks because they fear a loss of that No. 1 status.
This causes them to avoid failure, to try to maintain their elite status by not trying something harder. Why? Failing at something harder is a negative that challenges their status as a smart winner.
Rather than the tyranny of now, Dweck talks about the “power of yet.” It’s not a question of “if I’ll achieve,” but rather “when I’ll achieve.” It’s just a matter of time.
Dweck found that when adults praise process, challenge, and hard work, they create an environment in which children actually work harder, delight in the challenge, and invest themselves more deeply.
Therefore, one of the key takeaways of Dweck's work is the importance of shifting away from an educational approach in which students are praised for the smartness of what they do to one in which effort is the highest goal.
With this new approach, mistakes become an opportunity because students learn and meet new challenges through them—necessary ingredients for a next generation learning environment.
This post was updated on Feb. 16, 2018.