Teach Your Students Grit and Growth Mindset

November 13, 2017

During my first year as a teacher, I was hopeless, frustrated and overwhelmed with my students for “not trying.” I felt like I was teaching a brick wall – an apathetic and unmotivated brick wall, unconcerned with current grades or future prospects.

As a special education teacher in New York City, I taught middle and high school students with reading disabilities in high poverty public schools. All of my students were over-age for their grade and performing below grade level. They had all been retained (held back to repeat a grade) at least once, and were accustomed to failing multiple classes every semester. My students expected to fail and they identified with their failure. I thought that if I could teach my students to read, then their grades would improve, and then they would gain the self-reliance, hope and motivation to work hard and achieve their goals. I was wrong.

I was teaching the wrong skills in the wrong order. Academic success does not lead to self-esteem, optimism and work ethic. If I ever wanted my students to experience success, I first had to teach them grit and growth mindset.

More than IQ, natural ability or parental education levels, grit and growth mindset are the most accurate predictors of whether or not a student will succeed or fail. Students with a fixed mindset identify with their failure and become too discouraged to take risks and work hard to achieve their goals. Students with a growth mindset view failure, disappointment and obstacles as learning experiences. They believe they can and will succeed through hard work and perseverance, a.k.a. grit.

Like most teachers, I focused on teaching hard skills like reading and writing, while assuming soft skills like emotional intelligence, resourcefulness, grit and growth mindset were too abstract too explicitly teach. Once again, I was wrong.

I realized my error while watching Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED Talk on grit. I decided to play the video for my students the very next day. This decision transformed my classroom and would permanently change my approach to teaching. I sincerely hope you decide to do the same.

After watching the Ted Talk, my students discussed their experiences with failure and disappointment, and the importance of persevering through challenges. To help break students away from the habit of identifying with failure, we then discussed famous historical figures and celebrities who failed but also demonstrated grit and growth mindset in order to succeed.

I shared with students that Thomas Edison failed between 1,000 – 10,000 times before creating the light bulb. Most individuals never fail 1,000 times, let alone 100 or even 10. When asked about his repeated failures, Edison exclaimed: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Edison is an excellent example to prove to students that growth mindset leads to success, and that disappointment is a choice – not an automatic response to failure.

My students then discussed how Will Smith embodied grit and growth mindset. We related student goals and obstacles to Will Smith’s self-professed journey to success: “The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me — you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple. If it was something that I really committed myself to, I don’t think there’s anything that could stop me becoming President of the United States. Whatever your dream is, every extra penny you have needs to be going to that. I’ve always considered myself to be just average talent and what I have is a ridiculous insane obsessiveness for practice and preparation. While the other guy’s sleeping? I’m working.”

After using film clips and real life examples to explicitly teach students how to exhibit grit and growth mindset, we kept these “soft skills” at the forefront of every lesson. Whenever possible, I framed reading and writing assignments around “gritty” celebrities or growth mindset themes. I highly suggest reading, writing about, or discussing excerpts from Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The Psychology of Success, including the following quote: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” Every day for the next three years, I started every single class period with a motivational quote to inspire students to display grit, growth mindset, and an undying dedication to their goals and dreams.

Incorporating grit and growth mindset into daily lessons transformed my students’ levels of motivation, positivity, self-reliance and self-confidence. They were more engaged in class and more accountable for their academic responsibilities outside of class.

I have learned that with some thoughtful planning, teaching soft skills like grit and growth mindset is just as easy as teaching academic skills, except students will be far more engaged, and they will remember your lessons for a lifetime.

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