It is tempting to believe that some people will never master certain skills, simply because they lack the necessary talent. That view reflects a fixed mindset – a belief that abilities are fixed, that some people have a specific skill and others do not. Most teachers tend to have a growth rather than a fixed mindset, and believe that students’ abilities can change. When teachers have a more fixed mindset, however, their low-achieving students often show a lower level of intrinsic motivation. Teachers who believe that success depends on innate ability may be less likely to create a classroom atmosphere that fosters engagement and learning for all students. But when teachers see student ability as amenable to change, low-achieving students will pick up on this and believe that they have a chance of future success – which boosts intrinsic motivation.
Strengthening a growth mindset in teachers
Teachers want to help students learn and succeed. Many have chosen the teaching profession for altruistic reasons: They want to play a role in shaping children’s futures in a positive way. Such motivations clash with the notion that children’s paths are determined by innate abilities. Why become a teacher if learning is a function of ability that can’t be taught? My colleagues and I wondered whether inviting teachers to reflect on their mission and fundamental goals could help foster a belief that every student can succeed. Could this be an inexpensive way to help teachers create a classroom environment that benefits all students?
In our experimental studies, we asked preservice teachers to reflect briefly on their mission as educators and jot down their thoughts. We posed these questions: How do you, personally, want to have a positive impact on your students’ lives? How can teachers in general shape their students’ lives for the better? Most of the respondents described their mission in terms of fostering motivation for learning, supporting children’s development, teaching them competencies, and preparing them for their future. We also asked the respondents to write a short personal message aimed at convincing future students that teachers can exert a positive influence. Our goal was to elicit the ‘saying-is-believing effect’, which refers to the notion that advocating for a position makes a person more convinced of its validity. This has been a core element of many effective interventions.
“When teachers see student ability as amenable to change, low-achieving students will pick up on this and believe that they have a chance of future success – which boosts intrinsic motivation.”
In the study’s control groups, preservice teachers were asked to reflect on different questions and to write short messages to convince potential students of the geographical region’s positive qualities. These tasks were unrelated to being a teacher.
After working on these tasks for less than 15 minutes, preservice teachers in both the treatment and control groups were asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to measure the degree to which they had a growth or a fixed mindset. Those who had reflected on their mission reported stronger growth mindsets than those in the control groups. It appears that reflecting on the ways in which teachers can positively impact their students’ academic careers and lives made the respondents less likely to believe that school success depends on innate abilities that cannot be taught, and more likely to be convinced that all students can learn and succeed. Although the task was brief and subtle, its effect was similar to the effects of more extensive mindset interventions. One week later, preservice teachers who reflected on their mission still demonstrated stronger growth mindsets than members of the control groups.
While our study did not look specifically at this issue, we theorise that preservice teachers who reflected on their mission would go on to create classroom environments that increase motivation and positive emotions in students, particularly low-achieving students. Since teachers’ mindsets are also associated with their occupational wellbeing, this reflection exercise might reduce stress among new teachers while increasing the job satisfaction of their more experienced colleagues.
“Reflecting on their mission and the fundamental reasons why they have chosen to become teachers in the first place may improve teachers’ occupational wellbeing and students’ education.”
Classrooms that enable all students and teachers to flourish
This brief task could easily be implemented in teacher education programs as well as in the daily lives of inservice teachers. Reflecting on their mission and the fundamental reasons why they have chosen to become teachers in the first place may improve teachers’ occupational wellbeing and students’ education. Simply taking a few minutes to reflect could help teachers to create a learning environment in which all students and teachers flourish.