December 2, 2021

‘Growth mindset’ takes root

Students chart path to success by emphasizing hard work, learning

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Kira Holland, far left in black, and Shannon Kostuk hand out expression cards Thursday at Homer Elementary School. The two second-grade teachers use the growth mindset to help their students believe that they can overcome challenges to learn.

Cortland High School junior Anthony Brown is pushing 6 feet; he masses 173 pounds. He’s a tight end — the kind of player who does just about everything an offense can require: block, run, catch.

And he was short, chunky and soft when he started playing. Becoming good wasn’t a matter of innate ability. It came with work, sweat, more work, bruises and work.

And that’s exactly what educators say makes any student successful, in a long-held understanding that’s a growing emphasis in the classroom.

The trend is a few decades in the making, called “growth mindset.” It centers around the idea that people who may not be naturally gifted learners will still achieve their goals through hard work, according to a Harvard Business Review article by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor.

“Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset,” Dweck writes. “They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).

This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.”

Brown said this approach to learning is a great benefit to students like him.

“When students can believe and experience success, they achieve and experience success,” said Joseph Menard the program coordinator of the Educational Leadership program at SUNY Cortland.

A couple of years ago, Brown doubted he could be as competitive as his senior teammates, but with a mindset focused on improving, he was able to become stronger and faster. He switched from tackle to tight end.

“It’s so much fun,” he said. “Now, I get to play with the pretty boys.”

Background: Growth vs. fixed mindset

Dweck first introduced the approach in her 2007 book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” She categorizes two mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, separating those who believe their abilities are fixed and those who believe abilities can be developed.

Characteristics of a growth mindset include embracing challenges, persisting in regard to challenges, seeing work as part of the key to success and learning from criticism, according to a Farnam Street article on growth mindset.

Educators, though have taken on different interpretations of the philosophy.

“It’s about how we position our students within our schools,” said Nance Wilson, chairwoman of SUNY Cortland’s literacy department.

Additionally, she said, the growth mindset is the idea that the approach to learning isn’t fixed, either. It changes to meet the needs of the student. “It’s all about what do you need to change that circumstance.”

Teachers: Encouraging change

The growth mindset philosophy has become common place throughout schools in Cortland County.

At the elementary level, students in Kira Holland’s and Shannon Kostuk’s second-grade classroom at Homer Elementary School, students are encouraged to try challenges.

“We remind them that they can do hard things and that they’re willing to try,” Kostuk said. “They’re not just going to give up as soon as they see something hard.”

An example: Students take a spelling test each week. Sometimes they’re hard, and students complain they are too hard. Kostuk reminds them they are capable of learning the words.

“It’s almost like they get a little boost of confidence,” Holland said. “It’s great to see.”

Part of teaching growth mindset is understanding that to be successful, one must understand that there is a process to success, Kostuk said.

Math, she said, is especially one subject where this approach is applied.

When learning how to solve new math problems, students “struggle and get nervous that they can’t do the right thing and then we remind them, what are the steps we go through?” Kostuk said. “Think about where do we start, where do we go to next.”

Students also practice the mantra, ‘I can’t do this, yet,’ Holland said.

“We want the kids to say, ‘yeah this is difficult, but these are the steps I’m going to take to achieve my goal,’” she said.

Brains and brawn

In the high school setting, especially athletics, this approach has been true, said Pete Reif, the head football coach and algebra teacher for Cortland High School.

For his players, he instilled in them that putting in the hard work through practice is the key to their success.

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Cortland High School junior Anthony Brown deadlifts Wednesday inside the high school’s weight room. Brown said that having a growth mindset has helped him be successful in practicing for football and in the classroom.

“It’s not about what your born with,” Reif said. “It’s about how hard are you willing to work to succeed.”

To motivate his players, he shows them success stories from the school like Dan Pitcher, a former quarterback who went on to become the quarterback’s coach for the Cincinnati Bengals.

“He was one of the most focused, most driven players I’ve been around,” Reif said.

Reif also tries to build strong bonds with his players and his students, a key in his mind to improving a growth mindset.

“It can change your outlook and hopefully it carries over past graduation,” he said.

Educating the educators

At the higher education level, growth mindset is just as important as it is in primary and secondary school, especially for teaching future teachers.

For students in SUNY Cortland’s literacy department’s master’s program, the growth mindset is developed through feedback on work right from orientation.

“Criticism isn’t bad,” she said. “It’s what can make you better.”

More so, students work on the idea that learning is accomplished through persistence, that one never reaches a peak.

“We’re very explicit that everybody can learn and persist and when they have setbacks, we help them persist,” Wilson said.

The Educational Leadership program that Menard’s a part of relies on feedback to the students as well to help them develop their growth mindset. It entails them taking on challenges and risk.

“We want to look at those challenges as opportunities,” he said.

Growth mindset, he said, can also be a useful teaching approach for students with learning disabilities as it can help instill a mindset of being able to succeed.

“That’s education,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

Improving every day

AC/DC’s “Are You Ready” echoes off the walls of Cortland High School’s weight room and almost muffles the grunts. Brown has built up a sweat, adding to the sour smells that come with so many young people working so hard.

In between deadlifting weights, Brown said the growth mindset has helped him improve himself.

“I feel like every day during practice that if I can make myself a better person, I can definitely do it,” he said.

It is not the only place though that he has used the growth mindset in school. Like Holland’s and Kostuk’s second-graders, Brown and his classmates are urged by their teachers to repeat “I can” statements at the start of class.

“It’s repetitive, but it actually helps,” he said. “I also go through in my head and say, ‘I can do this, I can do it, I can work through this.’”

“If you believe you cannot do it and say you can’t do it, then you can’t do it,” he said. “If you say you can do it, then you can definitely do it.”