If success in school depends on an innate, fixed ability that cannot be taught, what's the sense of being a teacher? This provocative question formed the basis for our research program on teachers' beliefs about intellectual growth. They could have a "fixed mindset" meaning they think a student's abilities are fixed and not up to change, or they could have a "growth mindset" meaning they believe every student's abilities can grow. Fixed mindsets imply that some children have the ability required to be successful, and others do not, and there is not much you can do about this. Such beliefs represent an obstacle for student learning, particularly for struggling students or students belonging to underrepresented groups. In an earlier study, for instance, we found that the more teachers believed that being good in math required innate math ability, the lower the intrinsic motivation of their students with low grades.

Therefore, we wanted to develop a cost-effective way to foster growth mindsets in (future) teachers. Former efforts were very extensive and not very practical, for example lasting more than 40 hours. Also, we wanted to do a better job of testing for the impact of our efforts.

Our thinking about how to foster growth mindsets in teachers brought together three ingredients:

  • First, there is a tension between being a teacher and believing in abilities that cannot be taught as illustrated by the introductory questions.
  • Second, many teachers chose the teaching profession for altruistic reasons, such as shaping children's futures or contributing to society. That is, they have a mission or goal they would like to achieve through their work.
  • Third, many past studies have shown that asking participants to actively advocate for a position subtly changes their personal beliefs toward the advocated position (the so-called saying-is-believing effect). We reasoned that inviting teachers to reflect on their mission as educators should activate their initial motivation for becoming a teacher, increase the tension between their goals and a belief that ability is innate, and, as a consequence, reduce their belief that success in school depends on innate ability.

Our brief program went like this: At first, we prompted teachers in training to reflect on what they would like to achieve through their work as a teacher and write down their thoughts. Exploiting the saying-is-believing effect, we then asked them to write down a personal message that they thought would convince future teachers in training of the many ways teachers can positively impact their students' lives. Both tasks lasted no longer than 15 minutes on average.

Did This Brief Program Actually Work?

In order to test whether our brief program was effective, we did two studies, one online and one via paper and pencil. In total, more than 500 teachers in training did one of three tasks: One group reflected on their mission as described above and then reported their mindset. A second group reflected on the qualities of the region they studied in and wrote down a personal message that they thought would convince future students to enroll at a university in that region. Then they reported their mindset. And a third group did the same task, but reported their mindset before rather than after. Because this was a study with random assignment of participants to their tasks, we can be sure that any changes we see are due to those and not other factors.

In both studies, those who reflected on their mission as teachers subsequently reported stronger growth mindsets than those who wrote about the region they studied in. Reporting their mindsets one week later again, the differences between the groups were still of similar size, suggesting that the effect of our mindset exercise was not ephemeral. Further, even though our mindset exercise was very brief and economical, its effects were of similar size to those of much more extensive programs for developing a growth mindset. Because our method is so brief and self-reflection is an important part of developing a professional identity as a teacher, it could easily be implemented in regular teacher education programs.

For Further Reading

Heyder, A., Steinmayr, R., & Cimpian, A. (2023). Reflecting on their mission increases preservice teachers' growth mindsets. Learning and Instruction, 86, 101770. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2023.101770

Heyder, A., Weidinger, A. F., Cimpian, A., & Steinmayr, R. (2020). Teachers' belief that math requires innate ability predicts lower intrinsic motivation among low-achieving students. Learning and Instruction, 65, 101220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2019.101220

Anke Heyder is Junior Professor of Educational Psychology and Lifespan Development at Ruhr University Bochum and studies how teachers' and students' beliefs influence their motivation, learning, and well-being.