Researcher of the Month
How do teachers’ mindsets impact on children’s academic outcomes?
Growth mindset interventions have received a great deal of attention in schools and among researchers. These interventions teach the belief that intellectual abilities can be developed, encouraging children and young people to tackle challenges rather than avoid them, and to persist, rather than give up. A growth mindset is one which encourages students to view mistakes as opportunities for learning, rather than indicators of low ability. Growth mindset interventions tend to be short, scalable and easy to apply, and are therefore appealing to schools. Research has shown that when growth mindset beliefs are put into practice, they can improve outcomes months, or even years, later.
However, few studies have considered the impact of teachers’ mindsets on the children in their class. Can students independently implement their growth mindsets in virtually any classroom culture, or must students’ growth mindsets be supported by their teachers’ own growth mindsets?
In this new paper, our Researcher of the Month, Professor David S. Yeager, and his team, consider whether simply teaching students a growth mindset really goes far enough?
Professor Yeager’s study hypothesises that growth and fixed mindset beliefs might influence teachers’ attitudes and classroom practices, and impact on students’ application of growth mindset interventions. They speculate that teachers with a growth mindset might present mistakes as learning opportunities and reinforce this with assignments and evaluations that reward continual improvement. In contrast, teachers with a fixed mindset might suggest that only some students have the talent to get an A or say, for example, that not everyone is a “maths person”. This could discourage students from asking questions or revealing confusion.
They analysed data from the National Study of Learning Mindsets – an intervention experiment conducted in the US, with a large, nationally representative sample of 9167 14-15 year old students and their 223 maths teachers. Initially, they surveyed students and teachers on their existing growth mindset beliefs. Students were then assigned to a growth mindset intervention or a control group. Students in both groups attended two 25-minute sessions held one to four weeks apart.
Students taking part in the growth mindset intervention were presented with information about how the brain develops like a muscle, growing stronger as it learns. The intervention suggested that struggles are signs of development, rather than inability. Students were asked to generate their own suggestions for putting growth mindset into practice.
Students in the control group were provided with interesting information about the brain and its relation to memory and learning, but were not told about the malleability of the brain or intellectual abilities. All students then completed a second survey.
Results showed that providing students with a growth mindset intervention resulted in more growth-mindset beliefs. However, whilst students in classrooms with growth mindset teachers made meaningful gains in their maths grades, students in classrooms with fixed mindset teachers did not.
In addition, Professor Yeager’s study showed that students who initially reported a fixed mindset, but who were then taught by a maths teacher with a growth mindset, made larger gains in achievement than students who began the study with more of a growth mindset.
“This finding suggests that students cannot simply carry their newly enhanced growth mindset to any environment and implement it there. Rather, the classroom environment needs to support, or at least permit, the mindset by providing necessary affordances.”
The key takeaway for all teaching staff from Professor Yeager’s paper is that supportive classroom contexts matter. For growth mindset interventions to be impactful, attention also needs to be paid to the messages that teachers present about ability, learning and mistake-making.
Resources Created from and Related to this Research
Professor David S. Yeager, Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin
Professor David S. Yeager is based in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. He is interested in understanding the processes shaping adolescent development, especially how social cognitive factors interact with structural and physiological factors to create positive or negative trajectories for youth. He is also interested in learning how to influence these psychological processes, to improve developmental and educational outcomes for youth. Professor Yeager is the co-PI of the National Study of Learning Mindsets, the Texas Mindset Initiative, and the Texas Behavioral Science and Policy Institute (TxBSPI).