Schrödinger's Mindset

Mindsets are ever-changing, from day to day, class to class, and even task to task.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
March 19, 2021

Imagine a cat in a box. Also inside this box is a flask of poison that may or may not be released. Until you look in the box, this poor cat is technically both dead and alive, as we have no proof either way. Opening the box is the only way to confirm what’s happened… Now you’re probably thinking: ‘great, now I’m sad before I’ve even started my day’ but I promise there is no cat in danger and the thought experiment will make sense! We’re actually talking about Schrödinger's theory; a thought experiment on possibilities. We could chat about cats all day but the crux of the message is that until you know for sure what state the cat is in you are really just guessing. 

So let’s adapt Schrödinger's theory to our cause: a student possesses both a fixed mindset and a growth mindset until we place them in a situation that opens the box. Mindsets are ever-changing, from day to day, class to class, and even task to task. Understanding where your students are along the mindset continuum will better help you tailor feedback and encouragement to support them with developing or maintaining their growth mindset. Posters, discussions, and thoughtful language are all a great starting point to developing a growth mindset culture in your class. Carol Dweck has even had success eliciting growth mindsets by simply providing an article for students to read. But while it’s easy to plant the concept of growth mindset, it’s much harder to maintain it.

Energisers and Rich tasks provide the perfect environment to pop the lid on student mindsets. The accessibility of these tasks provide a safe entry and the open-ended structure creates a mistake-friendly context and one that encourages effort and progress over attainment. There isn’t just one answer that students are racing to find, but a vast array of solutions - and more importantly, strategies - to try out. Activities like these leave plenty of room for you to hand out praise and encouragement that continues to foster the idea that practice and effort are what lead to success, rather than natural talent. 

With this in mind, it’s important to be intentional about praise, feedback, and questioning during these activities. A helpful lens to adopt is to look for the process over the person. Implicit messages really do impact classroom culture in an ongoing fashion so focusing on the journey rather than the destination will help you shape your classroom conversations to help foster the mindsets you are looking for. 

Let’s look a little closer at teacher questions. Asking ‘Did you get a solution?’ or ‘What was your answer?’ implicitly suggests that a specific solution to the task is what was important. This style of questioning can be alienating for students who did not reach that solution. They’ll look at all of their unsuccessful attempts as a waste of time and might not be as keen to jump into the next task.  We can elicit the same sort of information by asking questions more focused on processes like ‘What strategies did you start with?’, ‘What did you not have success with?’,  ‘What steps did you take to get to where you are now?’, or even ‘What mistakes did you make, and what did you learn from them?’. All of these questions are focused on giving students a chance to reflect on their journey through the task rather than where they ended up. 

Praise is always a valuable tool for harnessing student motivation but unless it’s carefully phrased it can end up causing more damage than good to your students’ mindsets. Again we need to separate the person from the process. For example, praising the person might sound like ‘You got this! I said you were good at maths!’. While on the surface this comment seems encouraging, it reinforces the idea that maths is a skill you either do, or do not have. As soon as this student comes across a problem they don’t have success on, this form of praise circles around and is no longer encouraging. A better approach is to praise the process. Something like, ‘I like the strategies you used here’, or highlighting the persistence needed to try more than one strategy, focuses on the effort they have put into their problem solving rather than their ability to find a solution. 

Feedback is a great place to really drive your growth mindset messaging. Naturally, you’ll need to be addressing what did, and did not work well during the task. Asking students to reflect on what did not work is a great way to implicitly demonstrate that even unsuccessful work was still valuable. You’ll be swimming against the tide at first, with your students needing to overcome not only years of traditional education but also any messaging they receive from their community outside of school. Bit by bit, with repeated effort, thoughtful word choices, and tasks that provide space for this style of learning, you will be able to ensure that all of your students have the opportunity to develop and maintain a growth mindset. 

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