Abby Hood explains how a growth mindset gives students the confidence to engage with, and excel in, academics.
Abby Hood is the director of academics at Oliverian and, in her role as administrator of all things classroom-related, feels passionately about the way that students learn to overcome obstacles, achieve success in the classroom, and engage their intellectual curiosity here at Oli.
Oli’s unique approach to supporting every student’s personal and intellectual journey is rooted in the idea of “growth mindset,” a concept formulated by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Hood sat down with us to share more about what growth mindset means, and how it informs Oli’s educational approach to help students flourish at our school and beyond.
A: The “growth mindset” concept basically posits that our intellectual abilities are flexible and can increase over time. In contrast, a “fixed mindset” is the idea that you’ve got what you’ve got, so you’re either smart or you’re not.
What psychologists have found is that students who demonstrate a growth mindset are more likely to work hard, because they believe in their ability to achieve better results. As a consequence of putting in more effort, they earn higher test scores and see improvements in the classroom.
On the other hand, students who think that their intelligence is fixed tend to exert less effort, because they believe their intelligence — or more broadly speaking, their ability — is inherent and cannot be changed. When students don’t believe they can achieve something, they become discouraged, don’t try as hard, and then confirm their negative self-belief when they earn poorer scores — so mindset becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At Oliverian we tend to see many students who have struggled in traditional classroom environments due to executive functioning problems, attention disorders, learning disabilities, or other elements of their learning profile. The issue in these cases is by no means a lack of raw intelligence. Often, these students are quite smart, and were even academic superstars when they were younger. In grade school, they likely excelled in every way and built an identity around being the “smart kid.”
But when they got to junior high or high school and had difficulty with more assignments to manage, faster paced curricula, or hectic school days, they began to have trouble at school for the first time. At this crossroads, if students have a fixed mindset about intelligence and their self-worth is wrapped up in their academic performance, doing poorly in school can really shake their confidence. They start saying negative and self-defeating things to themselves, such as “Who am I if I’m not the smart kid?” and “If I were smart, this would be easy.”
Understanding the relationship between attitude and outcome allows us to intervene as educators, supporting students when they feel down on themselves in order to show them all that is possible. The real value in this concept, and what aligns with Oliverian, is the belief in the capacity of change. When you believe you can grow, you’re more likely to put in the work to grow.
With that in mind, our goal is for students to understand a couple of things. The first is the fundamental idea behind growth mindset, which is that intelligence and ability are not fixed. The brain isn’t a muscle but responds like one in that, when you work it in a certain way, it gets better at doing that work.
The second mindset shift we strive for with our students is retraining how they view difficulty. Difficulty is not inability. We want to move their thinking away from the concept that being smart means school should come easily to you. If students feel that something is difficult to understand, that it’s slightly out of their grasp, that they will need to work harder than someone else or see their teachers after class to “get there” with certain material, then we’re doing our jobs because we’re challenging them to grow.
To support this shift, Oliverian teachers hold office hours three days a week. During this time, students check in with their advisors to check in about their workload and discuss how they’re doing. Then they have the rest of the hour to see the teachers they need extra help from. What this requirement demonstrates, from our view, is that it is okay to have questions and be openly confused in front of peers and authority figures. In fact, students who express confusion help their teachers hone in on what needs to be taught in more detail or from a different angle.
School-wide staples like office hours, in addition to the conversations we have with our students, cement a new understanding that getting extra help is not a failure, but rather a healthy practice and a fundamental part of learning well.