Nurturing growth mindsets in STEM education
by Ripal Nathuji | March 28, 2018
It’s commonly accepted that the assumptions we make about the world around us directly impact the way we approach our daily lives. In this way, an individual’s mindset affects how they perceive their place within society as well as their capacity to realize personal growth and improve their abilities. A specific framework offered by psychologist Carol Dweck categorizes individuals as having either a growth or a fixed mindset. A person with a fixed mindset believes their abilities are set at birth. They therefore perceive any failures they encounter in life as being due to their running up against natural limitations which cannot be overcome regardless of effort. A fear of failure is a common symptom of fixed mindsets due to the fact that failures can lead others to statically label one as “dumb” versus “smart.” On the other hand, a growth mindset entails believing that one can acquire any ability so long as enough time and effort are invested into the endeavor. Through this lens, failures take on a different, more positive meaning as they are a natural part of the process of iterative learning.
While we should strive for students pursuing any academic discipline to adopt a growth mindset, it is in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) where the fixed mindset can have a particularly profound negative impact. Whether it’s the gender bias associated with “girls aren’t good at math,” or a misplaced assumption that if something seems difficult at first attempt it means it’s not the “right” subject for you, a fixed mindset can quickly drive students away from pursuing STEM. Therefore, it’s critical that we not only nurture students from an early age to adopt a growth mindset, but that we foster and reinforce that philosophy throughout their learning journey.
Experiences and the Growth Region
The figure above depicts a slight derivation of a well-known illustration from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The graph highlights the potential regions of experience when balancing a person’s current skills versus the relative level of challenge during an activity. If the level of skill relative to an exercise is too high, the person will find it boring and quickly lose interest. For example, once a child has mastered a bicycle, the option to ride a tricycle or bicycle with training wheels has no appeal. On the other hand, having the level of challenge well beyond what can be expected from the current level of skill can lead to overwhelming anxiety and frustration. Taking the same scenario, a child that has never ridden a tricycle or seen a bicycle but attempts to ride a full sized version will likely grow frustrated and give up on the endeavor altogether (if not injure themselves!). Mihaly labels the region in between, when the level of challenge is commensurate to one’s current skills, as the state of Flow. For the purposes of this article, I’ll simply relabel that as the Growth Region.
Inherently, both suboptimal zones outside of the Growth Region suffer from a lack of ability to learn from mistakes and failure. When the level of skill is well beyond the challenge, the only mistakes come from lack of effort or concentration. These tasks feel repetitive and “work for the sake of work.” On the other hand, when the level of challenge is relatively too high, there is no ability to perform without mistakes thereby subverting the natural learning mechanism when errors are offset with enough successes to keep the overall experience enjoyable. It’s by effectively selecting the next level of skill development and correspondingly increased level of challenge that students can stay within the Growth Region and self-reinforce a growth mindset for long term success. I believe there are three elements critical to implementing this in practice within K-12 education: 1) enabling and promoting autonomy, 2) integrating self-awareness and reflection, and 3) providing a support network of peers and mentors.
In many educational settings, students are effectively managed throughout their day and course of studies by some form of external motivation. Whether that be a desire to get a good grade on a report card or score well against some predefined rubric, the general result is the same: individuals look to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. While this may feel like a reasonable approach for scalability and repeatability, it is counterproductive when the ultimate goal is to produce self-sustaining learners with growth mentalities. If, instead, we place the onus on students to determine what / when / how while executing their individual learning goals, they can self-regulate themselves to help ensure that what they strive to achieve relates to their current skills in a manner that pushes them further “upstream” in the Growth Region.
Self-awareness and reflection
While autonomy is valuable and a key enabler for growth, an implied assumption is that students are effective at recognizing their own personal strengths and weaknesses. Again, as opposed to calibrating against external evaluations such as the ability to score well on a subject test, this type of awareness comes from an individual’s own sense of self-efficacy based on their experiences applying a skill or ability in practice. Indeed, it is quite possible that one’s self-assessment of ability may not always align with external measures. For example, we often hear of students that are either “good at taking tests” but can’t attack a problem in the wild, or vice versa, students that demonstrate prowess in practical situations but consistently underperform on structured tests. This type of self-awareness therefore requires dedicated time for periodic self-reflection and evaluation.
Sustaining a growth mentality over time is significantly more likely when individuals are part of a larger community of practice which embraces a similar mindset. Within education, access to a network of like-minded peers and mentors is integral to initiating and actualizing a growth trajectory. Peers help form a sense of identity and camaraderie when a group adopts a common goal of embracing challenges and working towards them. As the old saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, and this peer-to-peer support network provides value not through competition, but through cooperation. To help address knowledge and experience gaps, students also benefit from mentors that can aid them in navigating sources of frustration and ambiguity. Again, the key here is that mentors don’t provide prescriptive next steps (in order to maintain the student’s own autonomy), but instead offer perspectives and advice that help students overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges so that they can continue to aggressively pursue challenges that stretch their existing capabilities.
The inherent value of growth mindsets is unquestionable in both professional and educational contexts. While there are a variety of professional development and executive coaching programs for the former, there’s a relative dearth of options for students to build the same capacity while in school. At STEMed Labs, we’ve developed our Innovation Learning Pathways (ILP) offering as one option for parents and students looking for supplemental educational opportunities that focus on growth and personal development as key enablers of success in STEM. As we continue on our own journey as an organization, we look forward to meeting and collaborating with this growing group of like-minded learners and parents!