Cognitive psychology focuses on our thinking. It does not deny the impact of biological and genetic factors, but it does focus on cognition – how we think – as opposed to the influence of genes and biology. Cognitive psychologists suggest that our thinking has a significant impact on our behaviour. How we think influences what we do, the decisions we make and the consequences which follow.
When it comes to learning the argument we can take from Dweck’s research is that the mindset a student possesses underpins their thinking. For example, if a student believes that they simply can’t do maths and that no amount of effort, persistence or perseverance will change this then certain behaviours, decisions and consequences are likely to follow. On the other hand, if a student believes that you can get better at maths and that effort, persistence and perseverance have an important role to play, then different decisions, behaviours and consequences will follow.
This illustrates the extent to which fixed mindsets and growth mindsets are representative of two different ways of thinking about learning and your own potential for change. Students operating under a fixed mindset set an arbitrary limit on what they believe they are capable of achieving. Students operating under a growth mindset set no such limit. This doesn’t mean that these students believe they can achieve anything and everything. But it does mean they don’t circumscribe their ability to act – and to benefit from the cumulative gains which stem from consistently acting in a positive and determined way.
One way of cultivating growth mindsets is to think of it as akin to promoting a change in how your class, school, or individual students think about learning. This also indicates how effective embedding of growth mindsets takes time. This is an intervention which is as much about forming new habits as it is anything else.
Those habits are habits of thought. Some of them are general, such as the habit of thinking that your abilities are open to change. Some of them are specific, such as the habit of persisting even if the work feels difficult. And some of them are about dealing with emotions, such as learning to separate emotional reactions from rational decision-making. To illustrate the last point, consider how a student can learn to put the disappointment of failure to one side so that they can instead focus on using the information failure reveals. This habit of thought allows a student to learn from failure even if there is an emotional reaction attached to it.
Decide which growth mindset habits you feel are most important for your students. Having selected three to five of these, introduce them to your class and lead a discussion activity in which all students have the chance to analyse and talk about why the habits matter. In addition, you might like to display the habits on your classroom wall and refer to them on a regular basis. Finally, invite students to select which habit they would most like to focus on developing over a given time period. This gives students a sense of agency and ownership, helping them feel part of the process.