Psychologist Carol Dweck’s growth mindset approach to education is revolutionizing schools. Is there a place for it in your ministry?
How many times have you asked a question and the children in your ministry shouted out “Jesus” as their answer? Maybe you were asking kids to talk about Abraham’s faith, or Solomon’s wisdom, or Peter’s leadership—but you still got that single-word, enthusiastic “Jesus!”Your kids had anticipated what they thought the “right” answer would be before the question even left your mouth.
You’re in church, so Jesus is the most likely answer, right? As sweet as it is to see little ones excitedly shouting Jesus’ name, correct answers aren’t your ultimate goal. You don’t want kids to simply know the answers. And you definitely don’t want kids to focus on appearances over true heart change. If you’re like me, you want your kids to develop a relationship with our living God. You want them to know how God fits into their days and nights.
A Change in Mindset
So how do you break kids free of this tendency to focus on right answers and appearances? Believe it or not, there’s a wave of educational practice making its way through school systems that may give us insight into how to do this effectively. Stanford professor of psychology Carol Dweck is at the forefront of this movement, held up by decades of scientific research that stemmed from her interest in students’ mindsets. Dweck and her colleagues wanted to understand why students were impacted by failure in different ways.
Fixed Mindset Versus Growth Mindset
Dweck found that a student’s mindset has more to do with success than IQ. She coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” saying, “In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.”
In contrast, Dweck’s “growth mindset” refers to a belief that anyone can learn and grow with time and effort. “When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement,” according to Mindset Works, an organization Dweck co-founded.
You might say schools themselves are beginning to have a change in mindset. Mindset Works is the leading organization that’s helping schools apply practices to change students’ and teachers’ mindsets from fixed to growth mindsets. This is making a difference not only in achievement, but also in learning behavior. Schools find that when students alter their mindsets to where they believe they’re not stuck with a certain amount of ability and they can change with effort, surprising amounts of improvement occur, even in students who were previously uninterested in academics.
In one case study at Fiske Elementary School in Lexington, Massachusetts, the teachers studied Dweck’s growth mindset model and changed the way they gave praise and feedback to their students. In this school where there’s a diverse population of special-education students and English-language learners, they saw amazing improvement in statewide test scores after altering their praise and feedback. Their growth was about 25 percent higher than the school’s previous year’s growth—and about 25 percent higher than the stagnant results of other schools in the state.
What it Looks Like
Here’s what fixed mindset versus growth mindset looks like in a standard classroom setting.
The Fixed Mindset
In a class where children have a fixed mindset, kids have difficulty dealing with failure and being wrong. These children have fixed beliefs about their abilities to learn, so when they fail, they walk away thinking they’re just not good at that particular skill. If they have to put a lot of effort into an activity, they determine they’re not good at the skill—even if they don’t fail. Students with a fixed mindset aren’t interested in learning how to improve because they don’t believe they can.
Teachers reinforce the fixed mindset when they give praise and feedback that ties to a fixed trait or characteristic. For example, “You’re smart,” “You’re good at that,” or “You’re a natural” all reinforce a belief that the child is simply living out what he or she already is. It works the same way with negative reinforcement as well. For example, statements like “That must not be your thing” tell a child he or she might as well give up on trying.
The Growth Mindset
With a growth mindset, children walk away from an activity wanting to learn more, try again, and put new or more effort into the skill because they know their abilities aren’t fixed. Children with a growth mindset don’t dread failure because it sets them up for a new learning opportunity. You might say children’s potential is unlocked when they believe they can learn from challenges and that time and effort can get them where they want to go.
Teachers reinforce the growth mindset when they give praise and feedback that tells students they have potential. For example, “You worked really hard at that,” “All your practice paid off,” or “That didn’t work out this time; what can you try differently next time?” Statements that praise effort, practice, and the application of new strategies or angles tell children they had a choice in their success and they always have the potential to learn more.
A Simple Difference in Feedback
In one of Dweck’s studies, she gave hundreds of students challenging problems. She then offered one type of praise to one group and a different type of praise to the other group. Everyone performed well, but Dweck found that children who were praised for their abilities instead of their effort reacted with a fixed mindset. She said, “When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent.”
When these students who were praised for their ability were given more difficult problems, they performed poorly. “If success had meant they were intelligent (the first time around), then less-than-success meant they were deficient,” Dweck said.
However, she said the students who were praised for effort reacted with a growth mindset: “Ninety percent of them wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from.” Even more encouraging, when these students were given more difficult problems, they made significant improvements.
What Does This Mean for Children’s Ministry
“In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful—especially if you’re talented,” Dweck said.
Here are implications of fixed versus growth mindset in the world of kids’ ministry.
Fixed Mindset Messages
When we reinforce a fixed mindset in children by praising them for the facts, they can memorize and their ability like good little Christians, we send them messages such as:
- If life has challenges, there’s something wrong with my faith
- I’m bad, and there’s nothing I can do about that.
- I must not expose my failures and sins to others.
- If I don’t know all the answers about God, my relationship with God isn’t good enough.
- I’m not as close to God as my friend who doesn’t mess up as much as me.
Dweck points out that “people’s interpretations of their successes and failures could really influence their motivation.” That’s one reason to promote a growth mindset in the way we give feedback to the children in our ministries. If we reinforce kids’ beliefs by focusing on their current knowledge and characteristics, we lock them into a stagnant faith and we encourage them to “prove” their worth as Christians. If we give them the impression that they’re “bad” when they’ve been disobedient, it’s like we’re telling them they don’t fit into our churches.
Growth Mindset Messages
But if we reinforce children’s choice to grow their relationship with God through time and experiences with him, we help them know they’re safe in our churches to be authentic. When we give feedback that develops a growth mindset in kids’ faith walks, we tell them:
- Challenges are part of life, and when I trust God through them, I grow closer to him.
- I made a sinful choice, but Jesus can help me change.
- It’s okay to share my failures with others; everyone has struggles.
- I can always become closer to God by learning more about him and spending time with him.
- God loves me even when I do mess up.
Where does our God-given worth factor in?
Because Dweck’s research has to do with intelligence and potential, it doesn’t translate 100 percent into faith. When it comes to our innate value as defined by God, that’s something we do want to be fixed in kids’ minds. We’re all made by God, and he loves each of us despite our sins, flaws, and failures. We’re valuable to God, and he wants to be in a relationship with us despite our shortcomings.
John Ortberg, author and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California, helps us understand where the growth mindset can come into faith. He says, “Every day, in my life and yours, we face challenges too big for our little abilities. But with God, it’s another story.” He points out that a growth mindset is what helped Joshua and Caleb see opportunity when the other spies couldn’t get past their fear of failure.
The difference is in what success looks like. In faith, “success” looks like a genuinely close friendship with God and a trust in him that surpasses our fears. Our motivation with a growth mindset isn’t to prove our worth in Jesus. It’s already been proven that God wants a relationship with us—God sent Jesus to die for us. So we promote a growth mindset in children where they view success as a deeper, more trusting relationship with him.
Do’s and Don’ts
The good news about the growth mindset is that it’s as simple as altering the praise and feedback you give to kids. Often it’s a matter of a change in syntax. Here are ways to help kids have a growth mindset with their faith.
- Let kids know God already loves them no matter what.
- Remind kids often that the goal is to be best friends with God, not to look good.
- Praise kids for the effort they put into resisting a temptation.
- Praise kids for the time they spend getting to know God, not just knowing about him.
- Encourage children to openly share their failures with close, trusted friends and adults.
- Encourage children to ask Jesus for help when they’re struggling with something.
- Help children think of new ways they can approach a situation when they struggle with making good choices.
- Praise kids with ability-focused words such as “You’re so good.”
- Promote memorization of Bible facts for the sake of winning a contest.
- Scold a child with value-driven words such as “I thought you were better than that.”
We do a disservice to kids when we fixate on their outward abilities rather than their efforts to know God and be known by him. Everything comes down to relationships, and with a fixed mindset, there’s no room for a growing relationship with God. There’s only room for proving oneself to be worthy—which we aren’t even capable of doing. But with God, we’re already worthy because of Jesus. Because of that, all that remains is to become closer to him and trust him more deeply. When we motivate kids with a growth mindset to become better friends with God, that’s a success.
Sources consulted for this piece include: “Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff” by Keith Heggart, “Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives” by Maria Popova, “Stanford University’s Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and Education” by James Morehead, “The Growth Mindset” by John Ortberg, “Decades of Scientific Research that Started a Growth Mindset Revolution” by Mindset Works, Inc., and “Growth Mindset” by Great Schools Partnership.
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