Are You Modeling a STEM Mindset?

shutterstock_233767498After years of research, Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck seems to have found a way you can develop grit and perseverance in your students: instill in them a "growth" mindset where they see challenges and mistakes as opportunities for real learning. Luckily there is already one subject that lends itself to the discovery, questioning, and inquiry that sparks this type of learning: STEM. 

Scientific discoveries and technological advancements that occur are the result of hard work and effort, not a scientist’s or engineer’s innate abilities. When students believe that they too can develop their own abilities over time by working hard, they are motivated to keep going in spite of any hurdles they may encounter.

Types of Mindsets

The question all STEM educators need to ask is, "Am I modeling a mindset that encourages all students to develop their abilities through hard work and perseverance, or do I believe that abilities are fixed and unchangeable?" It all depends on how you approach a challenge.

According to Dweck, people can have one of two mindsets: fixed or growth. Children who are made to believe they have achieved success because they're smart often exhibit a fixed mindset  one in which they assume their basic qualities, such as intelligence or talent, are static, unchangeable givens. When faced with challenging work, they give up easily, assuming they're not intelligent enough to complete it and are unable to rise beyond their innate abilities. 

On the other hand, children who have a growth mindset – one that thrives on challenge and sees mistakes not as evidence of unintelligence but as the impetus for growth  view achievement as the result of hard work. When they make mistakes, they ask why, move forward, and try harder the next time, working toward eventual success.

Labeling students 'smart' instead of 'hard working' discourages them from pushing their own limits. The implications are far-reaching, affecting a student's diligence, motivation, and ability to work through problems toward solutions in school and beyond. Implementing an inquiry-based STEM curriculum that rewards questioning, promotes trial and error, and lets students solve problems on their own can help. So, how do you model a STEM-based growth mindset of your own?

Tips on Modeling a STEM mindset

In her book, Dweck provides a number of intervention strategies teachers can use in modeling a growth mindset in the STEM classroom. Some specific suggestions:

  • Have a growth mindset yourself. To make the idea real, educators should practice a growth mindset themselves, analyzing the way they view their own life experiences and reactions in the classroom. Whereas someone with a fixed mindset often sees the negative, a person with a growth mindset views negative experiences as a chance to try again, work harder, explore new options, and focus on improvement.

    In the classroom, seeing a growth mindset in action can benefit students immensely. For example, many students get frustrated when something they do doesn't work. While students with a fixed mindset may decide to give up, teachers can model a growth mindset by asking questions that help students see the potential in mistakes. Questions like "Why might this not have worked?" and "How can we learn from what happened to make things better next time?" are great ways to turn a negative into a learning experience.

  • Model the mindset with feedback. Offer constructive feedback that emphasizes the work put into a task rather than how "smart" a student is for getting a right answer. For example, replace language like “You must be really smart to have gotten the right answer on that difficult problem in math,” with something like “I noticed you tried several approaches to that math problem and worked hard until you found one that solved it!”

  • Focus on process, not product. Replace traditional lectures and quizzes with an inquiry-based approach to STEM learning that makes students real engineers and scientists in the classroom. When students are problem solvers, they learn that there are many solutions to an issue, and that with work, trial and error, and the willingness to experiment, anyone can succeed.

What Will a Growth-Focused STEM Mindset do for Your Students?

When presented with the tools to unlock discovery, students with a growth mindset learn they can find success while doing difficult tasks, and that they are not limited by how  “smart" they are. The result is student engagement, appreciation, and more effort put toward the task. As Dweck reports, one formerly disruptive student said, "You mean I don’t have to be dumb?"


“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”