Growth Mindset: How to Normalize Mistake Making and Struggle in Class

Second grade teacher Maricela Montoy-Wilson listens as students explain how they solved a number sense problem. (Teaching Channel/PERTS)

Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset has become essential knowledge in education circles. The Stanford psychologist found that children who understand that their brains are malleable and can change when working through challenging problems can do better in school. Now, many school districts are attempting to teach growth mindset to their students. At the core of this practice is the idea of “productive failure” (a concept Dr. Manu Kapur has been studying for over a decade)* and giving students the time and space to work through difficult problems. Another key idea is to praise the process and effort a child puts in, not the final product.

These mindset changes are easy to describe and dictate, but more challenging to implement. To help both teachers and parents, Stanford’s PERTS Center has teamed up with the Teaching Channel to produce videos that demonstrate process praise and productive struggle. PERTS has developed a toolkit to support the adults in children’s lives who are struggling to change their practice.

In the video below on classroom struggle, second grade teacher Maricela Montoy-Wilson repeatedly asks her students to justify their thinking using reasoning and evidence. She encourages students to critique one another’s thinking and ask for specific kinds of help. She highlights that problems can be solved in different ways and normalizes struggle in her classroom so students don’t feel bad if they don’t understand.

“Everyone is going to feel stuck,” Montoy-Wilson said. “Everyone is going to feel challenged by it. So they can get excited and think about the strategies they can implement to tackle the problem.”

Look out for the moment near the end of the video when Montoy-Wilson checks in with a group of students who haven’t even been able to solve the first problem. She asks them how they feel and they respond “good” because “we’re working hard.” She calls attention to the struggling group in front of the whole classroom, prompting one boy to say, “We were happy because we were growing our brains.”

*A previous version of this article neglected to mention the scholarship of Dr. Manu Kapur who is an authority on the concept and design theory of productive failure. We regret the omission.

Growth Mindset: How to Normalize Mistake Making and Struggle in Class 27 January,2017Katrina Schwartz

  • Christine Lowry

    This could describe some basic components of the high quality Montessori classroom (one taught by a Montessori credentialed teacher). The extended work cycle of 3 hours gives students the time and space to work with a project. The focus has always been on the process rather than the product, and student’s allowed to solve their own problems and mistakes from a very young age, with the “just right” amount of guidance or support from their teacher, learn that mistakes are really just learning opportunities. Dr. Montessori uses the word “normalized” to describe the student who is comfortable, confident, concentrated, and internally motivated by the joy of self- directed learning. Observing a well run Montessori classroom could give many the “teaching strategies” to put these ideas into practice.

  • I wrote about this also on my blog – Teach Your Students How To Fail.

  • Thanks for this piece. We support Project-Based Learning, which deliberately integrates low-stakes risk taking in the learning process.

  • Great piece! We encourage students to learn from their “failures” in our SmartLabs.

  • Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC

    We often think of science and math as the subjects best suited to problem solving and inquiry-based methods, but we are using these methods and applying the concept of “normalized struggle” to teaching struggling readers and writers to read, spell and define words. Powerful!

  • Joe Seba

    I became a fan of B.F. Skinner a long
    time ago. He resolved the educational process a long time ago by
    clearly demonstrating positive reinforcement was much more effective
    than negative reinforcement. And that’s what this approach boils down
    to. Maybe this can catch on.

    • Jeff Gaynor

      Beware of anyone who claims someone has “resolved the educational process.” Also, I do believe this article points to something more substantial than praise. It’s a recognition that what is of educational value is not easily reached.

    • Melissa Stanley

      Skinner and Dweck are actually pretty much polar opposites! The most glaring difference is that Skinner believed motivation was entirely extrinsic, while Dweck sees motivation as intrinsic. But obviously we can all agree that negative reinforcement doesn’t do any good. 🙂

    • Joe Seba

      of anyone who has resolved an issue”? Really? Than what?

      I admit, I know little about Dweck. Unfortunately psychology has
      become a trendy science. Even if (as I believe) some one has
      demonstrated a concrete theory of behavior somebody can always
      pretend to demonstrate an alternative. But regardless of the approach
      it always boils down to stimulus and response with positive
      reinforcement being the superior motivator.

  • Kitty Ward

    Here are some tips to helping your students be comfortable in the struggle. I wrote a piece on my blog about ‘failing up’;postID=8678654614382225704;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=2;src=postname

  • anna

    We must be careful. The jump to focus on our children’s mindset with regard to learning should not replace the more important work of making curriculum meaningful & pedagogy strong.

    • Jeff Gaynor

      These are not mutually exclusive – but the warning is on target.

  • Deb Ashlynn

    We had a math teacher who would never make you feel bad about mistakes. It got to be kinda comical though. If the question was, how much is 50+50 and the student answered, “one!” The teacher would say, “Close, real close! We just need to add a couple of zeros to the end of that number you gave.” He’s now the principal. 🙂

    • Jeff Gaynor

      As a math teacher – though I never want to make a student feel bad about a mistake, I cringe at that response because in no way does it help students make sense of the math. In fact, ‘1’ is NOT close to ‘100.’ In line with this article, I’d ask, “Does this answer make sense?” or “Please explain how you arrived at this answer.” Note: I am just critiquing this example, not the teacher / principal. He may be a positive spirit, or he may be condescending; I do wonder which.

      • Deb Ashlynn

        He wasn’t condescending. He was the sweetest teacher we had. He went on to become principal of the school much later.

  • Jeff Gaynor

    Deb, point well made! Basic needs (love, caring, etc.) come before understanding math concepts.

    • Deb Ashlynn

      Yeah 😀

  • These kids need and deserve regular doses of nurturance and acknowledgement in the ‘safer’ environment of school. School (or afterschool) is where social-emotional learning, if structured along totally genuine and relevant principles, can touch and bring some degree of healing to how these kids see themselves and the world – beyond the crushing confines of their immediate circumstances. They do not need to be told how to feel or how to think, but to be drawn into collaborative engagement that mitigates their victimhood (even to a small degree) through the process of peer group discovery of solutions to problems they actually care about. This process wordlessly communicates respect for who they are and what they’re capable of. If repeated often enough, they can get used to being problem-solvers… a mindset that has the potential to eventually spill over into other dimensions of their lives.

  • Erin Turgeon

    Great piece! I believe that as educators it is our number one job to make sure students feel like the classroom is a safe environment. The definition includes both physically and spiritually as this type of safety net is not present in many of our students’ homes. A great way to set an example for our students is to show them how we work through problems as adults. Modeling this type of think aloud demonstrates a way to ask questions to work through the concepts or material we are struggling with. One example I have found to be helpful is writing with my students and being vocal when it comes to word choice and organization. As I work through a draft it gives students confidence that although their draft is not where they think it should be or want it to be, they can work to improve it. I also think the idea of providing teachers and parents with a set of strategies and ideas to help is an incredible idea. The ability to teach parents how to supplement what it taught in school is the piece to the puzzle that is so often the hardest to find in education.

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  • Julian Josland

    Interesting to see growth mindset here in action with the focus on task completion removed. I like how the emphasis is on taking time to persevere on tasks, and it appears the children are happy with what they are doing, i.e not giving up on a difficult task. Common misconceptions, however, can be where there is a focus on effort and perseverance alone, as this can lead to stubbornness and repeatedly trying the same method over and over again. What interests me the most is the conversations taking place where the children critique their thinking, which is hopefully trying new things and approaching the problem from different angles?


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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