I recently watched dozens of episodes of the television show Gilmore Girls. Please don’t judge me. It was over winter break and I needed some down time. For those who never watched the show it follows the lives of a young, single mom and her teenage daughter living as best friends through major life events. The daughter Rory, is a super student, who was valedictorian of her elite, private high school and later a college student at Yale University, having turned down Harvard and Princeton acceptances. Her character is the quintessential perfect student. She does extra credit, reads constantly, and has achieved straight A’s. During her first internship at a newspaper she is given some tough feedback. Rory is told she does not have what it takes to be an award-winning journalist and she responds by defending herself. “But I did exactly what I was told. Always. I always did what my teachers told me to do.” Her mentor and boss responds, “That is the problem.” While the television watcher in me winced for poor Rory as she received such harsh feedback, the teacher in me nodded in agreement with the message’s content. Rory has been the perfect student, but that does not always translate into becoming a successful, lifelong learner. This feedback utterly crushed her spirit and her confidence. I couldn’t help but think about what Rory did not learn from her years at school and what I wished for her and all students.
What follows are five lessons that can help students of all ages and levels to develop a growth mindset so they are not just successful students, but successful learners. While these lessons are inspired by the fictional character, Rory, they are lessons we can all begin to practice as administrators, teachers and students.
Ask and pursue the answers to your own questions.
If you spend all of your time answering someone else’s questions you miss out on developing your own curiosity and agency as a learner. Make a list of questions you have about anything and everything you are studying. If at first a topic does not seem very interesting, spend even more time generating questions about that area until you find something that gets you excited. Then pursue the answers over time. Some you may never find the answers to and some answers may evolve and change. Jot down your learning and thinking so you can revisit it later on. This helps you build an inquisitive and curious mind.
Try It: Write down at least one question every day in a question journal. Notice what happens.
Set goals for yourself regularly.
If your goals are solely to please your boss or teacher, reconsider what you want to learn and develop. Consider a larger purpose and benefit from pursuing a study in a given area. Ask yourself, “What do YOU want to learn?” and set a goal for yourself. Make sure the goal is specific and attainable through hard work and effort. The goal does not need to focus on an outcome such as “I want to get an A on my next history paper.” Instead it can focus on your beliefs and behaviors such as “I want to keep an open mind about my ability as a mathematician and notice my growth and progress.” This helps you work hard toward something you care about.
Try It: Set a goal for yourself that helps you develop a growth mindset in an area. That means the goal is focused on effort and progress.
Celebrate successes and learn from them.
Take time to reflect when you experience success. Let yourself bask a bit. Ask yourself, “What did I choose that helped me attain this success?” Focus on the process you went through and not just the end result. See if you can learn some larger lessons about what helps you be successful. Notice the difference between a fixed mindset focused celebration, “I aced that presentation because I am good at public speaking” and this more growth mindset focused celebration, “Because I took the time to plan, rehearse, and get feedback on the presentation is went really well.” This helps you connect your hard work to successful outcomes.
Try It: Set aside celebration times on your calendar to make space for reflection.
Feel the heartbreak of failures and learn from them too.
While this is my least favorite lesson, it is a vital one. When you face a setback instead of wallowing in self-pity or getting angry at others with the blame game, feel the heartbreak. Let yourself feel the pit in your stomach, the throbbing of your chest, and the burn of tears in our eyes. When we feel our pain in our bodies it allows it to keep moving rather than getting stuck. After the feeling period, take time to think about what caused the failure. In the same ways you reflected on success it is important not to focus solely on the end result but instead on the process that got you there. Instead of reflecting like this, “I bombed that presentation because I am a terrible public speaker,” consider this, “My message was not clear at all in that presentation because I procrastinated and waited until the last minute to put it together.” Notice how the first example reinforces a fixed mindset and the latter reflects a growth mindset because it acknowledges the process that led to the result. This helps you connect setbacks with choices you made.
Try It: When you face a setback, find a quiet space to feel what is happening. Later spend time considering what you did or did not do that led to this result. Use this reflection to set a goal for yourself about the next time you face a challenge.
Be kind to yourself.
Having a growth mindset means we can acknowledge and see where we came from, where you are, and where you are going. It is not about judging or punishing ourselves for where we are today. Try to use language that is growth mindset based when you talk to yourself. Ask yourself, “Would I ever say that to someone else about their ability and performance?” If not, don’t say it to yourself. For example, if you find your self-talk to be quite negative try to notice it and come up with other phrases you can use instead. Rather than say, “You are terrible at…” or “You will never learn to…” replace it with “You have grown because…” or “Look how far you have come.” If we are busy beating ourselves up verbally we have no time to learn and grow. This helps us have the mental and physical energy to keep trying.
Try It: Pay attention to your self-talk and notice (without judgment) what you say to yourself about your ability. If you find yourself being negative and mean to yourself, choose a new phrase and force yourself to use a kinder language choice until it becomes more natural.
Sometimes in our quests to be the best students, teachers, and leaders, we can lose sight of being our best selves. Having a growth mindset is a foundational element of becoming a lifelong learner who can handle setbacks, reflect on growth, and develop the confidence to face the challenges that pursuing knowledge and expertise require. If we settle for doing exactly what we were told, like Rory, we may be missing out on vital lessons that develop our mindsets and dispositions.