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In search of a growth mindset pedagogy: A case study of one teacher's classroom practices in a Finnish elementary school

In this article we take up the two-fold task of creating a framework for a growth mindset pedagogy on the basis of our previous studies and exploring the critical points of this pedagogy in the classroom of a mixed-mindset teacher. The data include classroom observations and stimulated recall interviews. The results show how a teacher who is socialized into the Finnish educational system pursues core features of growth mindset pedagogy, despite not having a dominant growth mindset herself. However, we identify critical points in her practices, which suggest that teaching the theory of mindset in teacher education is needed.


1. Introduction

Carol Dweck's (2000, 2006) theory of mindsets deals with implicit beliefs that individuals hold about basic human qualities. People with a growth mindset (also called incremental theory) believe that intelligence, personality, and abilities can be developed. People with a fixed mindset (also called entity theory) believe that these basic qualities are static and unalterable. People have general tendencies toward one mindset or the other, but it is also common to have different mindsets in various domains of the self and others (e.g., intelligence, personality, giftedness) (Kuusisto, Laine, & Tirri, 2017; Molden & Dweck, 2006). Different mindsets provide an explanation for why students with equal abilities in the same situation have different achievement goals and behavioral patterns and thus exhibit differences in learning processes and outcomes (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Students with a fixed mindset emphasize performance goals (“looking smart,” “proving their abilities”) and tend to avoid challenges, whereas students with a growth mindset emphasize learning goals (“becoming smart,” “improving abilities”), appreciation of effort, and understanding failures as learning opportunities (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Mangels, Butterfield, Lamb, Good, & Dweck, 2006). Students with a growth mindset have been found to have higher achievements during challenging school transitions, and these students' completion rates in demanding school courses are greater (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Yeager & Dweck, 2012).

Mindsets are relatively stable, but they can also be altered by educational interventions. Even brief interventions have had long-lasting effects on students' motivation and achievement. The main feature of such interventions has been to teach students about the neuroplasticity of the brain and its potential to change and reorganize whenever people learn and practice new ways of thinking (Blackwell et al., 2007; Dweck, 2012; Paunesku, 2013; Rattan, Good, & Dweck, 2012; Yeager & Dweck, 2012; Yeager & Walton, 2011). It has also been found that teachers play a critically important role in supporting these classroom interventions (Schmidt, Shumow, & Kackar-Cam, 2015). Furthermore, teachers' perceptions of the causes of students' behavior and particularly their implicit beliefs about intelligence powerfully shape their own behaviors and interactions with students (Georgiou, Christou, Stavrinides, & Panaoura, 2002; Rattan et al., 2012; Rissanen, Kuusisto, Hanhimäki, & Tirri, 2018a,b; Ronkainen, Kuusisto, & Tirri, 2018). With subtle cues delivered through the language they use, teachers can shape students' views of their own abilities and influence their motivation and achievements (Cimpian, Arce, Markman, & Dweck, 2007; see also; Schmidt et al., 2015). Teachers with an entity theory more often praise their students' qualities (Jonsson & Beach, 2012; Rissanen et al., 2018a) or comfort students for their limited ability when they are failing (Rattan et al., 2012), which may have negative effects on student perseverance and motivation (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). Furthermore, teachers' mindsets about intelligence predict their views of their own responsibility for student performance: teachers with fixed views of student ability see themselves as being less responsible for students’ academic performance (Patterson, Kravchenko, Chen-Bouk, & Kelley, 2016) and may be less responsive to pedagogical education (Rissanen et al., 2018a).

However, research has mainly focused on interventions, which are often conducted by researchers, while the actualization of teachers' mindsets in the classroom and teachers' everyday pedagogical practices in general, which continuously shape students' mindsets, remain understudied. In three exploratory case studies that included classroom observations and stimulated recall interviews with a total of six teachers, we have previously examined how teachers with a general tendency toward either a fixed or a growth mindset make sense of their students' behavior, learning, and achievements and how this meaning-making influences the teachers' understanding of the teaching-studying-learning process and their classroom practices in general (Rissanen et al., 2018a; Ronkainen et al., 2018), and specifically with respect to moral education (Rissanen et al., 2018b). These studies give evidence of the implications of teachers' mindsets to their pedagogical practices, and, along with studies that depict teachers' role in shaping mindsets (e.g., Jonsson & Beach, 2012; Rattan et al., 2012; Schmidt et al., 2015), they show the need to strengthen connections between the research on mindsets and the fields of teaching and teacher education. There have been no systematic efforts to delineate the core tenets of what could be called a growth mindset pedagogy – pedagogy that is likely to cultivate a growth mindset in students and is associated with the teacher's own growth mindset.

Thus, in this article we take up a two-fold task. First, on the basis of our previous studies, we create a framework for a growth mindset pedagogy in basic education, which gathers together key features of classroom practices associated with a teacher's incremental meaning system (a network of beliefs connected to growth mindset; e.g., Plaks, Levy, & Dweck, 2009). Second, we try to develop the framework further by finding answers to unresolved questions through a case study. Even though the results of our previous case studies indicate a link between teachers' dominant growth mindset and certain features in their pedagogical thinking and practices, these results have also raised questions: to what extent can a growth mindset pedagogy be regarded as the practice of a single teacher and dependent on the teacher's own mindset, and to what extent does it stem from the larger educational system that relies on the core features of growth mindset pedagogy? Furthermore, is socialization into this educational system in teacher education sufficient for promoting a growth mindset pedagogy, or are there some critical points that would require teachers to become familiar with the theory of mindsets and its pedagogical implications? In order to explore these issues, we present Finland as a case example of an educational system which leans toward a growth mindset pedagogy, and we show the results of a case study of a Finnish teacher who is fully socialized into the Finnish educational system, but does not herself have a dominant growth mindset.

2. Growth mindset pedagogy

2.1. Core features of a growth mindset pedagogy based on process-focused pedagogical thinking

A growth mindset is commonly associated with process focus, which means that behavior is explained by means of contextual factors and psychological forces. People with a fixed mindset are more trait-focused and tend to interpret behavior in terms of personality traits and abilities (Chiu, Hong, & Dweck, 1997; Molden, Plaks, & Dweck, 2006; Plaks et al., 2009). Our previous studies (Rissanen et al., 2018a, Rissanen et al., 2018b; Ronkainen et al., 2018) revealed how teachers with a growth mindset rely strongly on process-focused pedagogical thinking. This means they regard emotional processes, learning strategies, and contextual factors as the main indicators of students’ behavior, learning, and achievements and try to influence these factors instead of seeking explanations in fixed abilities. The core features of a growth mindset pedagogy, which we have identified in natural classroom settings, can be traced to the process-focused pedagogical thinking of teachers

Peter Odon

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