How to Build a Growth Mindset into School Culture

growth mindset

Tiffany Della Vedova

For all of us as educators, a growth mindset must be a prerequisite belief and an easy one to champion. However, where Dweck’s idea presents us with a narrow gap in comprehension, the divide between comprehension and practice can be quite wide. As school leaders, how can we bring awareness to this gap and implement practices to cultivate a growth mindset within our schools?

To impact school culture and enable any mindset to grow, we have to reach all facets of the community and its members. Thus, thinking about how to foster mindsets at the student, teacher, and parent level is important. We also need to identify the components of the mindset we want to create. For example, Tom Vander Ark outlines both the teacher and student components of an innovation mindset in Innovation = Growth + Maker + Team Experiences . In Growth Mindset Parenting, author Eduardo Briceño focuses specifically on the components of parenting decisions to nurture a child’s belief in their ability to grow in a malleable manner.

Applying this to fostering the growth mindset within a school culture, we benefit from first breaking down the components of a growth mindset as it applies to teaching and learning within our schools. At our school, we have identified four areas of focus in nurturing a growth mindset.

Flexibility & Adaptability

Dweck’s work informs us that a fixed mindset stems from a static definition of self; thus, in our school, we have focused attention on the value of flexibility. To establish and maintain a flexible, evolving definition of self and one’s abilities, it seems important to experience flexibility. While there are a number of conditions which cause teachers and students to flexibly adapt, the practice of intentional flexibility allows teachers and students to experience it themselves in different contexts and to develop skills and mindset associated with each. Here’s how it looks in action:

Teachers. Developing a culture of flexible grouping and collaboration among teachers is one way in which teachers can experience variety in their practice. At our school, we have teacher committees, taskforces, and flexible team teaching which serve this purpose. We also award green rubber bands of collaboration during faculty meetings to acknowledge sharing of flexibility and collaboration stories which have yielded progress. Faculty members then place the bands around a ball which grows throughout the year. Teachers who earn the ball and bands for the week keep it in their classrooms until the next share. It’s a somewhat silly, yet effective symbol of our growing strength through flexibility and collaboration.     

Students. Teachers who differentiate instruction are likely familiar with the concept of flexible grouping in which students are placed in a variety of learning or project groups throughout the year. In their book Leadership for Differentiating School and Classrooms, authors Carol Ann Tomlinson and Susan Demirsky Allan outline a method for flexibly grouping students by readiness, interest, and learning profile, sometimes through teacher design and other times through student choice. At our school, we employ these methods and Google Forms to solicit student responses which help inform our flexible groups.

For both teachers and students, the use of data to inform both the grouping methods and learning pathways is important. Students and teachers can utilize data from such sources as surveys, adaptive e-learning programs, ongoing formative assessment, student reflections on progress, and teacher observations.   

Passion Pathways

Circling back to Dweck’s definition of a growth mindset, the opportunity to explore new passions is key. However, passion-based learning and the conventional definition of a passion are two different concepts. The question, “What is your passion?” comes from a fixed mindset as the answer is expected to be unwavering in commitment and interest. In contrast, passion-based learning, which asked the question, “What are you most excited to learn about in this moment?” promotes a growth mindset. The following approaches can generate passion pathways for both students and teachers.

Teachers. Though standards are important in learning, teachers can still experience high creativity and academic freedom if empowered as partners in building learning experiences for students. At our school, teachers are key constituents in designing project-based learning and the overall curricular experience. However, it is important to approach this planning with the right amount of time set aside for collaboration.

Students. Students can also be empowered as drivers of their learning so as to discover new passions. The mini-mester or internship are examples of student-driven, passion-based projects. At our school, we use Google Forms to solicit passion project ideas from both teachers and students, and then collaborate to build out experiences. Student-run clubs are another way schools are promoting passion learning among students, but where this kind of passion pathway can make its way into the classroom, growth mindset is enhanced.

Agency & Empowerment

As individuals, we most readily believe we can change something if we have control over it. For teachers and students, that means learning must be something that happens through us, and not to us. By personalizing both the professional pathway for teachers and the learning pathway for students, we are able to instill a driver mentality for both groups within our school. The questions, “What do I want to go?” and “How am I going to get there?” can become mantras to this type of practice. In action, we see this through our approach to professional development and through student-led conferences.

Teachers. Teachers at our school participate in a personalized professional development process, starting with their own self-reflection and goal identification in the Professional Growth Plan. This living document is then used to guide both PD experiences and classroom observations, with teachers as active agents of their journey. Last year, this involved a choice-based PD day where teachers set their own agenda. We have also led “unconference” style learning days where teachers run workshops. This year, teachers have a variety of pathways at their fingertips through the implementation of the Redbird Professional Development Platform.

Students. To build agency and empower students as drivers of their own learning, we run student-led conferences instead of traditional parent-teacher conferences. In the driver’s seat, students set the agenda and lead the discussion about their performance in each class, their growth, and their goals. In preparation for the meetings, teachers work alongside students to identify each of these components to share in the conference report.

Fail-Forward Mentality

Failure is an essential experience to developing grit, but while teachers and parents see value in failure on a theoretical level, the reality of it is still very uncomfortable. In a recent post, Carol Dweck Revisits Growth Mindset, the author addressed this very concern:

“My advisee and research collaborator Kyla Haimovitz and I are finding many parents who endorse a growth mindset, but react to their children’s mistakes as though they are problematic or harmful, rather than helpful. In these cases, their children develop more of a fixed mindset about their intelligence.”

We can easily fall into this trap as teachers and school leaders in reaction to failures as universally high stakes. More often than not, we admonish mistakes as not to be repeated and use systems of consequences to reinforce this message.

At our school, we have asked, “What if we celebrated mistakes instead?” Of course, there is a balance that needs to be maintained so that students do not run wild with failure and celebration, but in the context of mature conversations, thinking about our missteps as opportunities can be empowering.

Teachers. Too often, when parents get upset about a new tool gone awry or an innovative approach veering sideways, our inclination as school leaders is to restrict or prohibit. Instead, we have instilled a golden plunger prize for teachers who share innovative teaching moments which have gone off the rails a bit. Teachers can earn the right to display the team’s gilded innovation plunger for the two week period in between faculty meetings when sharing takes place. The first one awarded this year was to our art teacher, who had used a Gopro camera in his class, placing them on the heads of children to record their artistic process…just prior to an incident of head lice discovered! Taking this approach encourages a safe space for failing forward as a team and making strides in our innovative practices.

Students. It is difficult to systematically achieve a fail-forward mentality through whole-group activities. Using inspirational stories such as Nick Vujicic’s No Arms, No Legs, No Worries, we have run successful assemblies around failure and getting back up. However, the most important work in this area occurs through our advisory program, utilizing Developmental Designs activities to build trust and engage in reflection, and through the one-on-one conversations we are able to have. Sometimes, consequence is still involved, and this time used as an opportunity to reflect. For example, I recently had a student start off on the wrong foot and land in trouble early in the day. During our reflection (a.k.a. detention) time together, she shared she had gotten lost on the way to school as it was her first time taking the train by herself. I shared that I thought it was wonderful she got lost. She looked at me quizzically and we then discussed how she managed to figure out how to get here anyway…so she had solved it. By the time she left, she had a strategy for getting out of a stress zone and avoiding trouble and a better sense of how she could fail forward from getting lost. Even better, she had an appreciation for the whole experience.

In a Nutshell

In schools and in our daily lives, overcoming our orientation to a fixed mindset can be quite difficult. Thus, we have to design our pathway to resilience and growth mindset. In our school, we use the following roadmap. How can we share our best practices and build this to scale across our schools?

Mindset For Students For Teachers
Flexibility & Adaptability Flexible Grouping & Data Adapting Flexible Teaming
Passion Pathways Passion-Based PBL Creativity Partnerships
Agency & Empowerment Student-Led Conferences Personalized PD
Fail Forward Mentality Don’t-Bring-It Policy The Golden Plunger


For more check out:

Tiffany Della Vedova is Head of Upper School at The Mandell School. Follow Tiffany on Twitter, @TeachOnTheEdge.

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Doug Wycoff

Very interesting and very innovative. I would expect nothing less from my daughter. I am going to print this out and share with some of my former colleagues,

Jackie Westerfield

Great insights on both the why and how regarding growth!

Jennifer Bowers

The ideas to build and embed structures for a growth mindset for teachers and students are very intriguing. Do you have any pieces in place (or being considered) for parent education?

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