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The Flip Side

True Growth Mindset Blossoms at Boarding School

The words “growth mindset” have become one of the most influential phrases in the field of education. The concept was pioneered by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, who published her bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in 2006. Based on 35 years of research, this seminal work demonstrates how students’ perceptions of their abilities affect their achievement. Most recently, however, Dweck has been writing about common pitfalls in how people apply her research that interfere with a true growth mindset.

Traditionally, many believed that whatever intellect and talents people had were innate. Thus some excelled at drawing or math, while others simply didn’t have artistic or mathematical instincts. Dweck calls this a “fixed mindset” because it assumes that a person’s basic performance does not change. With a growth mindset, however, people understand they can use thoughtful, sustained effort to make the most of their natural aptitudes. Parents and teachers can nurture a growth mindset by focusing feedback on students’ efforts rather than results. This is the true source of the growth mindset’s power. It is also the origin of critical misunderstandings.

Because the mindset philosophy emphasizes process rather than product, it is sometimes misinterpreted to suggest practicing the same task repeatedly. Well-intentioned teachers and parents might say, “Just keep trying, and you’ll get it.” But no amount of repetition will make every gymnast into an Olympic gold medalist. Another misconception is that students should accept failure if it follows their best effort. Adults might tell children, “That’s ok. You tried your best.” A true growth mindset, however, does not rest on subpar performance. In the last year, Dweck has been speaking out to clarify: The quality of the effort is as important as the quantity, and a true growth mindset evaluates each flop for lessons that can be applied to future attempts.

In a growth mindset, the learning is in the journey—even with its bumps and bruises. Students find strength in this approach because failures are part of an ongoing process rather than the end of an activity. Dweck encourages adults to be thoughtful about the messages they send to children. Adults adept at a growth mindset will help students see each failure as an oppurtunity and work with them to identify new approaches to a challenge.

Independent schools in general—and boarding schools in particular—are masters at nurturing growth mindsets. Inspiring faculty encourage students to take healthy risks, put failing in perspective, and identify new strategies. The immersive community of boarding school deepens these mentor relationships, reinforces self-directed learning, and offers students an uncomparable breadth of academic, athletic, and extracurricular opportunities. In totality, the boarding school experience builds awareness, cultivates, and actively supports a growth mindset that will guide students long past graduation.

Audrey Noyes Ludemann helps families seek independent school education, ranging from day schools to boarding schools and from elementary to secondary grades. She also is an invaluable resource for planning across different learning styles—serving families whose students are gifted and/or have moderate learning differences. She can be reached at audrey@thebertramgroup.com