We’re born with an innate desire to learn, spending our earliest years tackling challenges – like learning to walk and talk – that cultivate lifelong skills. Yet having a fear of failure can hinder a young person’s learning potential.
Where does this fear of failure come from? While some students seem to be able to use mistakes as learning tools, most of us become accustomed to avoiding challenges so as to avoid failure, and this creates personal impacts early in life. It manifests itself in school-aged children through hesitancy to raise hands in class, desire to avoid challenging coursework and intimidation with public speaking. In some cases the fear of failure can produce lifelong consequences.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
Consider qualities that define humans such as intelligence, personality and talents. Are these traits something you’re born with that remain carved in stone or can they be developed and refined as you progress through life? That’s the fundamental question psychologist Carol Dweck posed in formulating her groundbreaking idea regarding the power of mindset. In her book – “ Mindset: The New Psychology of Success ” – Dweck explains how altering people’s basic beliefs about themselves and their qualities (intelligence, personality and talents) can have profound effects on personal happiness and achievement.
According to Dweck’s research, the fear of failure comes from having a fixed mindset. Some people believe that you’re born with set qualities like intelligence that can be measured (such as by an IQ test) but not altered. So if you can’t do anything about how smart you are, why try harder? Consequently, fixed-mindset individuals shy away from challenges that might expose the weaknesses they believe can’t be changed.
People with growth mindsets, conversely, interpret qualities like intelligence and talents as traits that can be cultivated over time through hard work and determination. Believing a person’s longterm potential is only unlocked through making mistakes, they view learning as a lifelong experience and continually strive for personal betterment. Growth-mindset individuals recognize the lessons failure affords and attack challenges head-on.
From a teaching standpoint, students with fixed mindsets often represent those who fail to apply themselves. However, students who successfully adopt growth mindsets tend to flourish in school. They recognize that failure is a part of the learning process as they take ownership of their education and increasingly acknowledge the link between strong effort and academic success.
Using Survey to Determine Student Mindset
Today it’s understood that people possess a strong capacity for lifelong learning. But, as a teacher, how can you leverage this realization regarding brainpower to chart a course for nurturing growth mindsets among your students? You can start by evaluating the mindsets of your students.
How would your students answer these questions?
- Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change much.
- You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
- No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
- You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.
Answering yes to the first two questions reflects a fixed mindset, but answering yes to the last two questions reflects a growth mindset. The same is true for Dweck’s personality-based questions:
- You’re a certain kind of person, and there’s not much that can be done to really change that.
- You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed.
- No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.
- You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.
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Introducing Your Class to Growth Mindset
When it comes to introducing growth mindset to your students, here are some guidelines for starting this process:
- Introduce your class to both fixed and growth mindsets, making sure the distinction between the two is clear.
- Drive home the learning point that it’s necessary to accept mistakes as part of the learning process. As the phrase goes, “There are no mistakes, only lessons.”
- Offer examples of people throughout history who were initially perceived as ordinary and had many failures yet accomplished monumental achievements through hard work and relentless practice. Examples range from Ludwig van Beethoven (his teacher called him a “hopeless composer”) to Michael Jordan ( he was cut from his high school varsity basketball team ) to Abraham Lincoln (he lost eight political races before being elected president). Such people are considered to have succeeded with growth mindsets.
- Utilize an analogy to help explain the merits of growth mindset. For example, having a growth mindset is like having the ability to trade in your cards – rather than having to play the hand you’re dealt – in order to achieve better results during the card game of life.
Ultimately, it’s worthwhile to consider adopting growth mindset as a classroom theme that’s revisited regularly throughout the school year. This approach can encourage your students to take on new challenges head on, recognize their own potential for growth and value the passion, practice and perseverance that come with lifelong learning.
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