'We can do hard things' — The power of a Growth Mindset

As part of my AP English summer assignment, I ask my students to write me an introductory letter describing what they hope to achieve by taking AP English.

Some are brutally honest: “It’s for my Honors diploma.”

Some are flattering: “I’ve heard you’re a great teacher, and I had to take your class because I’d love it!

But the most common personal descriptor I see is students who describe themselves as “Bad at English.”

A few years ago I attended a seminar on research by a Stanford psychology professor named Carol Dweck. Her work on mindsets has revolutionized the way I present material to my students.

Dweck’s basic premise is that people either have a “fixed” or a “growth” mindset. Those who have a fixed mindset believe that the qualities they have cannot change, including intelligence. They are born “good at math” or “bad at music.” They will only find success if they have natural talent. Failure means they can’t do something, and they often quit when things get hard.

People who have growth mindsets see failure as a challenge. If they work harder at something, they will see improvement. They believe that qualities are malleable, and with effort and direction, they will grow. My students encounter this principle in their summer reading book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, when he explains the “10,000 hour rule” for the making of experts. There is not a professional anything out there who has not put in at least 10,000 hours into their discipline.

The first week of school, I offer my students a basic claim: when they pick up a tennis racket, basketball, violin, or get behind the wheel of a car for the first time, they are “bad” at it. My students point out right away this is because they have never done it before — how can they be NBA players the first time they pick up a basketball? They get better with practice. Duh, Mrs. Hoham.

I then ask them who is “bad” at math. Or chemistry. Or English. Tons of hands go up.

They don’t see how the first scenario logically applies to the second. If they have never done calculus before, never seen how physics formulas can explain the forces around them, never read an article from a peer-reviewed journal, how are they supposed to be “good” at it the first time? Why do they see practicing music or athletics or rifle-throwing as different from practicing vocabulary or compound interest formulas?

The brain’s neural pathways need practice to be strengthened, and the same way that repetitive free throws improve the chance of scoring points, repetitive reading and writing will improve comprehension, analysis, and argument skills. The more students read and engage in my AP class, the more they grow. Notice I didn’t say, “the better they’ll do on the AP test,” but I do see STRONG correlation between how much buy-in I get from students and AP scores.

I grade my first essays in AP Language hard. Straight-A students get Cs. They are shocked. But after my growth mindset lesson, most are galvanized to take those improvements and fix them the next time. They keep their graded essays in a file and review them before they turn in the next one, to fix any mistakes they made.

And shock of shocks, students get better. As the year progresses, I see stronger thesis statements. Less passive voice and first and second person. Better citations. I praise their effort rather than their results: “You worked really hard at this, and I can tell!” instead of “You’re a great writer!” Our in-class motto is the word “Yet,” as in, “You’re not there ... yet.” But you will be.

When I first started teaching AP English, I would lose a few students in the first week due to drops. Since I started teaching my growth mindset lesson, I haven’t had a student drop. They see that even if they don’t get the A, they grow significantly as readers and writers from August to May.

They practice, and they improve. This life lesson is more important than any rhetorical device I can teach them. My own 5-year-old can tell you this with our mantra: “We can do hard things.”

For more resources on failure and growth mindsets, check out:

  • Dweck, Carol S. “Mind-Sets and Equitable Education.” Principal Leadership, January, 2010, pp. 26-29. LINK
  • Lahey, Jessica. The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. HarperCollins, 2015.
  • Ragan, Trevor. “Carol Dweck - A Study on Praise and Mindsets.” YouTube, 30 Jan. 2014, https://youtu.be/NWv1VdDeoRY.
  • Sesame Street. “Sesame Street: Janelle Monae - Power of Yet.” YouTube, 10 Sept. 2014, https://youtu.be/XLeUvZvuvAs.

Elizabeth Hoham,
English Teacher