Quality Design Principle #4: Foster the Development of a Growth Mindset

“It starts with a growth mindset that values all of us as works in progress. It’s the joy of learning that motivates all of us to do our best. We have to let go of fixed mindsets that make us afraid of taking risks that might lead to failure. We must have a culture that understands failure is temporary, focusing one’s efforts and supports to conquer the challenge.”

 – Don Siviski, former Superintendent of Instruction, Maine Department of Education and currently School Change Coach, Center for Secondary School Redesign, 2018


Undergirding the traditional system is a belief that there are winners and losers based on the idea that intelligence is fixed, and there is little to do about it. The result is some students are well-served receiving the education that prepares them for college and others are underserved. By contrast, a growth mindset culture means believing that intelligence is malleable. It anticipates failure and uses it to advance learning. The importance of the growth mindset applies to students and adults alike. Competency-based districts and schools strive to create growth-oriented cultures and structures to support learning.

Key Characteristics

  • Productive feedback. Students receive productive feedback to learn and grow. Teachers have strong assessment literacy related to the domain-specific concepts, as well as knowledge about how to construct effective feedback related to the learning target.
  • Building blocks for learning. Students are supported in building the skills and traits related to building a growth mindset and become active lifelong learners, including metacognition, self-regulation and perseverance.
  • Meeting students where they are. Stakeholders in growth-oriented systems believe all students can learn with the right effort and support. Accordingly, they commit to meeting students where they are on a learner continuum and providing timely and differentiated supports to ensure they progress.
  • Opportunities for improvement. Growth happens through trial, error, sustained effort, feedback and supports. Growth-oriented systems provide students and teachers with opportunities to practice, fail, revise and learn. Grading systems provide meaningful feedback and increase engagement of students in their learning.
  • Professional support. Teachers are supported to create the culture and provide the coaching for students to develop a growth mindset. Likewise, they are supported to develop the competencies necessary to teach in highly personalized environments. Finally, teachers experience the same growth context as students: they, too, need opportunities to receive timely supports, collaborate, fail, revise and learn.

How Is a Growth Mindset Related to Quality?

The traditional system of education is built upon the belief that intelligence is fixed: there are smart people and not-as-smart people, winners and losers, and little anyone can do to change someone’s innate ability or potential. As a result, the traditional system expects that some students will do well and receive an education that prepares them for college, while others will not. This worldview, when combined with bias, can normalize inequitable allocation of resources and outcomes that vary predictably along lines of race and income.

By contrast, a growth mindset culture believes that intelligence is malleable and that all students can learn with effort and support. On its own, growth mindset is a theory of psychology. We speak of growth mindset as an internal phenomenon: it primarily resides within the individual, influenced by individual’s experience in the world, and it affects how the individual makes meaning of learning, effort and performance. While all of this is true, it is not complete. As a cultural phenomenon, growth mindset is important for quality because it enables learning that improves individual and organizational performance. Without trying things, discovering what works and what does not, and using that knowledge to guide future action, neither individuals nor organizations can improve learning and performance. Thus, we introduce the idea of “growth-oriented organizations.” Districts and schools that are growth-oriented promote continuous learning and progress, and they anticipate and exploit failure to advance learning and progress. They attend to the pedagogy of adult learning and help adults become more adept through personalized professional learning in response to data on student learning.

There is a reciprocal relationship between growth mindset as an internal phenomenon and as a cultural and organizational property. As described earlier, specific organizational practices and structures can help individuals develop growth mindsets. Curriculum can include teaching about brain science to help students understand how intelligence is malleable. Grading and assessment practices can allow for revision and emphasize growth. Projects and tasks can be designed to include opportunities for failure and revision. Feedback structures can be put in place to help students and teachers reflect and adapt. Students identify and monitor progress toward a goal including how failure promotes progress toward their goals, just as a scientist has systems to capture hypotheses, findings and implications.

Schools working with students (especially older students) who have had overwhelmingly negative learning experiences have a particular challenge to help students overcome past failure and trauma and see themselves as lifelong learners with potential. This requires “unlearning” as well as learning. Students who have been disenfranchised in and traumatized by their past educational experiences will need help to critically analyze their past experiences, understand the systemic and individual forces that shaped their experiences and identify and move past negative perceptions of self and school. They are likely to need help in adjusting the ways they have learned to cope in the past as they begin to think of themselves as learners and scholars. In these situations, educators have to invest more deeply in building relationships, provide more frequent check-ins and pay more attention to emotional issues. Furthermore, they have to attend to gaps in students’ metacognitive, self-regulation skills and other building blocks of learning.

When an organization becomes growth-oriented, investing in everyone developing a growth mindset and establishing structures that support growth, the learning becomes collective. It becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Beyond contributing to better performance for individual students and teachers, collective learning results in better performance for the entire system. Learning protocols such as plan-do-study-act cycles can help leverage individual learning to promote collective learning. These protocols allow learning communities to focus on improvement in shared priorities and contribute individual learnings to the common improvement process. It can also occur through learning infrastructure that captures, surfaces and shares key individual learning, making it available to others. Whatever the process, the important point is this: growth mindset matters for quality because it enables individuals and learning communities to improve performance over time.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • Districts and schools invest in nurturing a growth mindset among students including providing knowledge about the brain and building specific skills, such as managing self-talk and goal-setting.
  • Students receive feedback, instructional support and time for revision in the pursuit of fully reaching mastery.
  • Grading policies reward learning and do not penalize mistakes.
  • Students are taught the building blocks of learning including metacognition, self-regulation and habits of success.
  • Adults have opportunity to learn about and strengthen their growth mindsets for themselves before teaching it to students.
  • Teachers receive ongoing feedback and support in building their competence.
  • Staff can provide an example when there was a mistake or failure and how they or the organization learned from it.
  • The district and school recognizes that the effectiveness of continuous improvement efforts depend on the effectiveness of adults as learners.

Examples of Red Flags

There are posters about the growth mindset on the walls but traditional grading practices do not allow for revision in pursuit of mastering the learning targets. The walls of some schools are decorated with posters about growth mindset. However, teachers have not been fully supported in coaching students in how to develop a growth mindset, and many practices remain aligned with a fixed mindset. For example, teachers may provide grades on summative tests without helping students to understand and correct misconceptions. Students do not have opportunity for revision, and they move on to the next unit with gaps in their learning.

Incentive and performance structures reinforce a culture of competition and the idea that there are good students and bad students. The GPA is a powerful artifact from the traditional system used to rank and sort students. When schools continue to offer daily ranking of students, they emphasize competition between individuals and label some students as good students and the others as mediocre or poor. Although parents will raise concerns that students will be disadvantaged by proficiency-based transcripts, colleges and universities have consistently stated that as long as there is an accompanying letter the proficiency-based transcript is acceptable. See Great Schools Partnership’s list of colleges and universities accepting proficiencybased transcripts.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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