Growth Mindset and Learning Differences

I’ve been tinkering around with my thoughts about growth mindset for a while when I read this Salon article by Alfie Kohn about the Perils of Growth Mindset last summer. For me, the main argument was that we shouldn’t simply be encouraging kids to “try harder,” when there are systemic problems within our education system. Relatedly, he argues that particularly for kids who come from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds, their narrative should not imply that if they are not succeeding, it’s because they have not adopted the growth mindset theory well enough. There are also arguments about the (understandable) differences between internal and external loci of control for various populations, which is interesting in its own right.


Image Source

I agree with all of the above, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater: Last April, I had the privilege of being in the audience at an event Dr. Carol Dweck spoke about her groundbreaking book, Mindset, and all of the juicy, inspiring, recent research she has done that continues to validate the tangible differences between those who adopt a growth mindset vs. those who maintain a fixed mindset. I have worked with students for whom the mindset theory was perspective-changing (and dare I say life-changing). It has been a useful motivational tool, and a failure-acceptance tool. These, along with the explicit neuroscience that comes in the introduction to the Mindsetworks program are all obvious strengths of the theory as a pedagogical tool.

The last mental holdout I had was with using the concept of growth mindset with students with learning disabilities, but I have recently been using it to great success. Read the excerpt (below)

from my new book, Differentiated Reading Instruction: Strategies and Technology Tools to Help All Students Learn to learn how.

On Growth Mindset and Learning Differences

I used to struggle with the concept of growth mindset for students with Specific Learning Differences because I often hear them saying they try really hard but get nowhere. Here, too, the tree metaphor is an apt one: it’s about applying that effort to the right learning style.

You can “water” a tree with acidic water, and it will not grow.

Similarly, some students with learning differences astutely point out that some of their peers do not appear to need to work that hard. Sometimes this is an illusion, but other times, their observations are accurate. To them, I point out that some trees (for example, a Leyland Cyprus) grow only 3-4 feet per year, but grow to be 60-70 feet tall whereas others (for example, a Eucalyptus tree) grow 6-8 feet per year, but grow to be only 30-40 feet tall.

This metaphor aims to show that the rate at which you learn (grow) has no bearing on how much you will learn (grow).

Growth mindset needs to be modeled as well. Students love to see teachers make mistakes (sometimes too much), so I encourage you to embrace these moments to communicate how you noticed your mistake, what self-talk you will use to move on from this mistake, and how you will use this information to become a better teacher/person/learner.


How you care for your tree matters!

How you care for your tree matters! Image source




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *