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Leadership Matters: Growth Mindsets…Do Our Actions Match our Words?

by Kate Wolfe Maxlow

The term “growth mindset” is a well-worn phrase in education. Yet, sometimes we see schools where the staff talks a good talk about growth mindset, but certain actions or beliefs undercut the philosophy. It turns out, this can actually negatively impact the growth mindset of students.

Why does this happen? Let’s take a quick dive back into our Psych 101 courses. You might remember learning about something called “Self-efficacy theory.” Albert Bandura (1977) coined the term to describe whether an individual believes that they are capable of completing a specific task. People with higher beliefs in self-efficacy tend to be more successful in school and careers.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you believe you can accomplish something, you’ll often work harder and seek out more resources until you finally accomplish it. If you don’t have faith in your ability to get the job done, you’re more likely to give up more quickly. In other words, self-efficacy is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And it’s pretty obvious how this relates to a growth mindset. Young people who have a strong sense of self-efficacy often also have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. They believe that they can grow and accomplish goals and are therefore more likely to persevere through obstacles. They see challenges not as barriers but as opportunities to grow and learn.

What does this mean for us as teachers? Well, lots of schools have recognized the importance of a growth mindset and have a lot of important discussions with their students about it. The question is, though, how often do our instructional and grading practices actually support this growth mindset?

Let’s look again at self-efficacy theory. According to Bandura (1977), there are four main influences on self-efficacy. Some are more influential than others. We’ll look at each one in turn and how it relates to the classroom.

1. Previous Personal Accomplishments

This is the strongest influence on beliefs of self-efficacy. If a person has been successful in the past, they is more likely to believe that they will be successful in the future.

As teachers, we might be tempted to think that we cannot influence previous personal accomplishments for students, but we CAN. In fact, we do so every day.  Except for the first day in our classroom in a given school year, every day we teach has a day that came before it, in which we designed learning experiences for students and gave them opportunities to learn and grow.

To help students be successful, therefore, there are specific actions that we can take, such as:

  • Have a mastery mindset. Let students do assignments over until they get them right. Let them retake tests until they get the information down cold. I often have teachers counter this by telling me this undermines student accountability, and I can honestly say that this has never been my experience. Students work HARDER because they know that success is possible. The caveat is that you have to have interesting activities waiting for them when they meet a level of mastery on the current assignment. Human brains inherently LIKE challenges that are just challenging enough. If you just have a pile of busy work waiting when they finish…that’s when they might stop taking personal accountability for their own mastery.
  • Chunk assignments into small pieces and give tons of feedback along the way. This is the easiest way to build self-efficacy: have students experience small successes multiple times a day…by showing that you’re there to help them. If you give a giant assignment and students don’t even know where to start, they may give up just to feel a sense of control. For instance, I am not a runner. If you asked me to run a marathon tomorrow, I would laugh in your face. If you asked me to do a Couch2FiveK program, however, you might be able to convince me.

2. Vicarious Experiences

Turns out that we DO learn by watching others. Students are likely to learn vicariously from their peers and from their adult models. Try some of these techniques:

  • Share your own (appropriate) challenges with students. Take two minutes to talk about your Couch2FiveK program (or whatever challenge you’re currently tackling). Let them know about that doctoral stats class problem that you spent an hour working on, only to realize you had the wrong answer and have to do it all over again. Show them what it looks like to persevere.
  • Do more peer conferences. When you give a challenging assignment, give students time to talk to one another about obstacles and how they overcame them. This also helps build empathy and social awareness.
  • Keep in mind how students hear you talk to other students. It’s fine to have high expectations, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But the whole point of school is that students should feel safe to try new things, and if they see their peers getting lectured without also seeing how the teacher supports all students for greatness, it’s possible that students will feel like failure is an option in the classroom…and one that might be easier to take than not.

3. Verbal Persuasion

This is a fancy way of saying, “Telling students they can do it.” This is probably the most commonly applied method of growth mindset, but, unfortunately, it also tends to be the least influential when it comes to building beliefs of self-efficacy. Quite frankly, this is why it’s important to walk the walk as well as talk the talk when it comes to growth mindset.

Think about it like this: Remember that marathon someone was going to convince me to run? That person could tell me all day long that they believe in me and I can do it, and the only result will be that I will no longer trust their judgment if there’s no other evidence to suggest that I can.

It’s the same with our students. We can talk about a growth mindset all day long, but if we’re not giving students appropriate feedback and we’re not giving them opportunities to learn from their mistakes, to redo work, and to keep working toward mastery no matter how long it takes…nothing we say will convince them.

4. Affective States

This is another fancy term that basically means, “Students who are nervous or anxious don’t learn well.” Self-efficacy and highly emotional states tend to have an inverse relationship. Some students, of course, ARE able to channel their nervousness into working harder, but for lots of our students, it shuts down the creative processes and they simply focus on doing things to check off a box and become abnormally concerned with whether something is “right

So, what do we do? We not only talk about “failing forward,” but we cultivate an environment where failure isn’t seen as an “end” but rather than a step on a journey. This goes back to those personal accomplishments. Here’s what it can look like:

  • Don’t let students turn in sub-par assignments. Assignments should be redone and resubmitted until they reach a certain standard. Sometimes teachers will tell me: “But that isn’t how the real world works!” Right. School is NOT the real world, and intentionally so. Our job, as educators, is to prepare students for the real world by teaching and modeling the process of redoing things until it’s right. It’s a skill that has to be taught, and if we just have students turn something in and give them a D or an F, we teach them that yes, failure is an option.
  • Think carefully before giving “busy work.” Are we giving classwork homework because it’s actually something a student needs to work on…or because we want to give classwork or homework? Adding more assignments (especially if students have already mastered the skills) creates that compliance attitude that ratchets up the anxiety for some and causes others to shut down.

In Summary

What are we doing each day as educators to promote a true growth mindset? How are we giving students opportunities to be successful? How are we letting them know that we won’t let failure be an option? How are we developing positive cultures where failure is a first step rather than an end? The more that we adopt instructional practices that actually promote self-efficacy beyond just telling kids we know they can do it, the more likely our students are to actually experience success.

Kate Wolfe Maxlow is the Chief Creative Officer at eObservations and DCD Consulting. She has worked as an elementary school teacher, an instructional coach, a Director of Innovation, and a Director of Curriculum. She’s taught classes from PreK-PhD. In her spare time, she enjoys learning bizarre animal facts. She can be reached at

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