The critical nature of the ‘growth mindset’
Robert Stensrud is the keynote speaker for the Iowa Adult Education and Literacy Virtual Conference, Expanding Possibilities, to be held Jan. 30-31.
Stensrud is a professor at Drake University’s School of Education Department of Leadership, Counseling, and Adult Development. He has worked in the field of counseling and disability for over 30 years as a counselor, consultant, and professor. A substantial aspect of Stensrud’s experience has involved working with people with serious and persistent mental illness and all of the related educational, treatment, legal, and vocational issues they confront. Additionally, he has consulted with private and public organizations regarding organizational change, program evaluation, and quality improvement.
Below, Stensrud discusses the importance of building a growth mindset to break through barriers and enhance learning for adult learners facing significant challenges.
What is a growth mindset and how does it impact learning?
There is a continuum that exists between growth and fixed mindsets. At the one end is the fixed mindset. This is the belief that one’s intellect and abilities are set and unchangeable. In this mindset, people often feel that trying or putting in a lot effort is a waste of time because they don’t think they are smart enough or have the skills to accomplish something. This creates intellectual helplessness.
At the opposite end of the continuum is the growth mindset. This is the belief that circumstances are changeable. People also talk about growth mindsets in terms of resilience and optimism. In this mindset, failure is seen as a part of the learning process. Rather than giving up, people with a growth mindset seek feedback, analyze what didn’t work and try again, or try a new approach. This creates intellectual hardiness.
One challenge we face when working with adult learners is how much a fixed mindset has established itself over time. It takes new approaches and changing the way adult learners view challenges in order to move along on the mindset continuum.
How can you help adult learners get past a fixed mindset?
We must realize that as educators, we too can operate with fixed mindsets. If you think things like “I can’t get through to them” then you most likely won’t. It is easy to fall back on a fixed mindset: Single parents are already pulled in too many directions; these students are on public assistance and just barely getting by. It becomes vicarious trauma. Instead of feeling hopeless and that our efforts don’t matter, we have to make it possible for our students to rise above their circumstances.
The idea of learned optimism is a way to work toward a growth mindset. This involves thinking of every challenge as an opportunity and focusing on how we can grow from it. Additionally, the feedback we give students also influences their mindset. Lowering expectations or providing comfort-oriented feedback to struggling students has been found to lower motivation in students. In comparison, providing strategy-oriented feedback that offers concrete suggestions has been found to increase students’ expectations of their ability to perform.
How can educators incorporate a growth mindset into teaching practices?
When students come with a fixed mindset, they see any grade as a failure unless it is an A. But giving an A that isn’t earned also creates a fixed mindset. One thing we can do is integrate a problem-solving approach to the grade and feedback processes. Listening and empathizing is a way to diffuse the person who is stuck in a fixed mindset.
Empathy involves listening and responding instead of lecturing and advising. This means helping students find ways to solve problems themselves rather than giving them advice on what to do. Failure traps are part of adulthood, so positive support systems, mentors, and advocates are important. There is actually a lot of counseling that goes on in teaching.
Why are growth mindsets important?
Part of Iowa’s state plan for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which is the federal public workforce system legislation, aims at building closer ties between public and private stakeholders to seamlessly deliver integrated job-driven services. As such, we have to own the systemic barriers or failure traps that are part of our creation – think of the single parent who loses his job when he can’t get to work because he has a sick child at home.
There is a book called Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty by Zygmunt Bauman. In Bauman’s terms, if people don’t see any value in you, then you are a “surplus human.” If you are surplus human, then society tends to send you to a surplus human waste system – prison, homelessness.
Adult education and literacy is often the last stop before people become “surplus humans.” Our job is to keep our students from feeling useless. That is why what we do is important, we are a line of defense against that fixed mindset.