Nurturing a Growth Mindset in English Class: Encouraging Resilience and Perseverance
There’s a story about a successful golfer. After he hit a hole in one, someone said to him:
‘I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life,’
To which he replied:
‘Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get.’
Although we can’t be sure who said this, or whether the conversation even happened, it perfectly sums up what it means to have a growth mindset: the more you practice, the better you get, despite mistakes and failures along the way.
What it means to have a growth mindset
Growth mindset is a theory first developed by psychologist Carol Dweck. It is the idea that skills and abilities can be developed through persistence, so people with growth mindsets to seek challenges and embrace their failures as opportunities to learn and improve. They have the resilience to deal with failure and not become angry or frustrated when they don’t get something right.
You probably see examples of growth mindsets every day. When you correct a student so they stop making the mistake and use your correction instead, this shows a growth mindset. They’ve learned from the mistake and used it as a learning opportunity without losing motivation.
The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. This is when someone believes their intelligence and abilities are unchangeable. If they are good at something, it’s because they’re naturally good at it, and if they make a mistake, it’s because they have no natural ability. You might also see this quite regularly. When students become frustrated or demotivated because they can’t understand something, or even get a language point right, this might be because they think their skills can never improve past a certain point.
As a protective mechanism, students with a fixed mindset may avoid getting into situations where they fail, seeing it as a sign of weakness. They may also put in less effort, fearing a mistake will confirm their lack of talent. This can lead to them sticking to what they already know they can do well, limiting their learning.
While the idea of a growth mindset has gained acceptance over the past few years, there are still uncertainties about it. Factors such as individual differences between students, cultural influences, students’ past experiences and even the subject studied can affect attitudes to learning.
So it’s best not to think of mindsets as either completely fixed or completely growth. The reality is that in different situations and even at different times, students will have varying levels of confidence and self-efficacy depending on many different factors.
The benefits of a growth mindset
When learning English, the benefits of having a growth mindset are obvious. Making mistakes is an essential part of the process of becoming proficient in any language. Understanding that mistakes shouldn’t cause you to give up is essential for students to get through the difficult learning process, no matter what level they are at.
If students can make mistakes without fear, and learn from them, then their English will improve faster than if they take no risks.
Here are a few tips for encouraging a growth mindset.
Embed a growth mindset into your school’s culture
First of all, developing a growth mindset is more than simply telling students to deal with mistakes better. It also depends on the culture and attitudes of the class, school or even the community. Developing a growth mindset therefore needs a holistic approach. The rewards policy of your school and the tasks you set for students can all be adapted to make sure that students can benefit from making mistakes and learning from them.
A fun activity: Wrong answers only
You probably know the meme ‘Wrong answers only’ where someone posts a picture and asks for people to give wrong and hilarious answers. For lower level students, try to do this by showing them pictures and asking them to describe them incorrectly. This says to students that there are many possible answers to a question, and that no answer is any better than another. It’s actually impossible to fail in this activity, so when students make any sort of mistake, it sends a subtle message that sometimes when you learn a language, it's enough just to try, regardless of whether you get the answer right or wrong.
Show them how you fail
Finally, set the example and don’t try to be a model of perfection. Let students see you make mistakes. For example, if your students speak another language, try to bring that into the class. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to pronounce it well, so attempt to learn a few words and show students your attitude to mistakes and your strategy for correcting them. Alternatively, try to share stories where you’ve struggled to achieve perfection and have had to work to achieve success.
What having a growth mindset won’t do
A growth mindset won’t magically transform your students’ English. Like everything else, it’s a lot more complex than that. Don’t understate how difficult it is to learn a language. If students fail repeatedly, it might not mean that they're not trying hard enough.
So to conclude, it’s a commonly accepted truth that having a growth mindset will help students to achieve their goals and develop fluency in English, but it’s also important that this comes as part of a wider approach where you make sure the learning environment is supportive and provides clear and effective feedback to students.