How to project growth in K12

Educators adopt growth mindset to tap into students' capacity to boost intelligence

A frustrated student cries out “I can’t do it.” A teacher redirects: “You can’t do it, yet.” This may be the simplest way to define “growth mindset” the increasingly popular learning approach in which K12 leaders affirm their students’—and their staff members’—lifelong capacity to boost intelligence.

“An individual with a fixed mindset has a fear of not succeeding because that’s tantamount to failure” says Superintendent Ed Condon of River Forest District 90 near Chicago. “Those with a growth mindset approach learning through the perspective of ‘This may be difficult, but if I dedicate myself, I can get better at this because success comes from forward progress.'”

Many K12 leaders say school climates improve and become more supportive when adults adopt a growth mindset and guide students to think more optimistically. These administrators also see a crucial equity component.

“If you believe in a growth mindset, you can’t say, ‘Look at those parents, that kid’s going to struggle forever because of their home life,'” says Adam Young, superintendent of the White Pine County School District in Nevada.

“You can’t talk about poverty or country of origin being a barrier. If you really believe in growth mindset, those are all obstacles that can be overcome.”

You are what you say

Adjusting the language used with students can change how students think of themselves, Young says. One White Pine County teacher and her class made a chart of “legal” and “illegal” language. For example, “this is too hard” was no longer permitted. Students instead now say something like, “I’m not sure how to do this yet, but I’m working on it.”

They replaced “I hate math” with “Math may not be my favorite, but I’m learning to get better at it.”

“This teacher found that if a student can say it differently, then eventually their thoughts are going to change” says Young. However, some language shifts may be counterintuitive, adds Superintendent Larry Spring of the Schenectady City School District in New York.

“‘You must be so smart’ is a really bad way to give feedback to a kid” Spring says. “What we wrestle with is, how do we give appropriate feedback in a way that rewards hard effort but provides a student with an accurate notion of where they are compared to where they need to be?”

Mind is what matters

Educators say they have improved behavior and academic performance by following these 10 growth mindset principles:

  1. Use positive language.
  2. Let students assess their own work.
  3. Let students choose daily class activities.
  4. Allow students to retake tests.
  5. Try to reduce the number of F’s and zeros given.
  6. Recognize students have diverse backgrounds, but that this is not an obstacle to academic achievement.
  7. Establish personal trust with students.
  8. Make honors and other advanced classes more inclusive.
  9. Make homework optional, but show students the connection between practicing skills and passing tests.
  10. Include more administrators, teachers and other staff in building and district decisions.

Spring and his educators also counsel parents about how to speak to their children. Adults are encouraged not to simply get angry when a student comes home with a bad grade.

“We talk to parents about how failure is an important part of getting better” Spring says. “A bad grade is an opportunity to talk to children about how they’re going to respond, how they’re going to learn.”

Students grade themselves

When it comes to feedback, teachers, of course, give much of it through grades. That’s why educators in the Sevier School District in Utah have made a concerted effort to give out fewer F’s and zeros, Superintendent Cade Douglas says.

“When a student fails in our district, we question ourselves—because the student didn’t fail, we failed the student” he says. “I’m not going to rest until we have zero students with F’s. It’s more work for all of us but it pays off big time.”

In the last five semesters, the number of F’s given in the 2,500-student district has dropped from from about 1,000 to 700, Douglas says. Sevier’s educators increasingly allow students to grade and assess themselves, which is not as simple as it sounds.

For example, a high school biology teacher has made homework optional. However, he makes it clear that a poor test performance is likely the result of not doing enough homework practice. Students can retake tests when the homework shows they are likely to get better scores, Douglas says.

Students at Humble ISD near Houston toss a roll of toilet paper around their classroom to demonstrate how intelligence grows when the brain creates new connections.
Students at Humble ISD near Houston toss a roll of toilet paper around their classroom to demonstrate how intelligence grows when the brain creates new connections.

“The door is open for students to improve on any assessment as long as they have proven worthy, through practice, for the opportunity to try again” he says.

In another growth mindset initiative, one of the district’s high school language arts departments has made honors classes more inclusive. Teachers have publicized a list of standards that any student—even those not enrolled in the advanced classes—can master to receive an honor point on their report cards.

Teachers in River Forest District 90 have options on how to incorporate the growth mindset into their classrooms, says Condon, the superintendent. Some teachers have focused on student voice and on allowing their classes to choose daily activities.

“If students take a role in communicating what they want to do, they have a more positive attitude about the classroom” he says. Other teachers have rethought how they ask questions during class discussions.

“We want to frame questions in ways that are more inviting as opposed to setting students up for the wrong answer” Condon says. “Dialogues in class can sometimes be threatening unintentionally.”

Growth mindset has also steered Condon and his team toward a more collaborative management style.

“We look at things more broadly and we solicit input more broadly, in a way that encourages people to engage more deeply and thoughtfully” he says. “We want schools and the district to be an inviting place, and we want to ensure we have space available for people to engage in a positive, collaborative way.”

Scientific facts

The equity components of growth mindset compel educators to recognize that some students likely had very different life experiences, says Spring, in Schenectady.

“Schools, generally speaking, are staffed with people who were pretty good at school, people who loved school so much they chose to spend their lives in the institution” he says. “When we encounter people who don’t seem to be investing in it themselves, it’s hard for us to understand and we respond with a bad grade.”

Students from underserved communities also may have internalized negative messages about their academic abilities from “a system that is tailored to meet the needs of other kids—a system that would like them to be somebody else, somebody wealthier or whiter” Spring says.

Schenectady students gain a sense of accomplishment by completing challenging assignments.
Schenectady students gain a sense of accomplishment by completing challenging assignments.


To undo this damage, teachers must first establish trusting relationships with students. “Before you can get a kid to excel, you have to make sure they know you care” he says. “Show you’re willing to work for them and they will work for you.”

Instructionally, teachers must engage students in “productive struggle.” This means giving them assignments that, while challenging, will also give them a sense of accomplishment.

“When we talk about giving kids books to read at grade level, we want them to internalize fluent reading and gradually stretch their abilities,” Spring says. “We don’t want to give them five grade levels above, because they’ll internalize disfluent reading. We want to give them just enough so they can be pretty good.”

To demonstrate this concept of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to grow academically and emotionally—a counselor at Humble ISD in the Houston suburbs gave small groups of students a ball of yarn or roll of toilet paper to toss to each other.

“It created a web between them to illustrate how the brain creates connections that make it easier to learn,” says Lesa Pritchard, the district’s director of counseling and behavioral services. “We showed them that growth mindset is not just warm-and-fuzzy, it’s a scientific fact.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor. 

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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