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How Differentiation Fosters a Growth Mindset


This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.

For more on differentiation, click here.

The great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.”– Carol Dweck, Mindset

The theory of growth vs. fixed mindset popularized by the research of Carol Dweck is ubiquitous in today’s educational landscape. A cursory Pinterest search for “growth mindset” produces a plethora of options for bell ringers, bulletin boards, and other resources encouraging students to adopt a “growth mindset.” Similarly, a Google search will show an abundance of professional development opportunities on growth mindset for educators.

Perhaps, for these reasons, Carol Dweck is now cautioning us not to fall prey to a “false” growth mindset. Dweck explains in a recent interview with The Atlantic:

“False growth mindset is saying you have growth mindset when you don’t really have it or you don’t really understand [what it is]. It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time.Many people understood growth mindset deeply and implemented it in a very sophisticated and effective way. However, there were many others who understood it in a way that wasn’t quite accurate, or distilled it down to something that wasn’t quite effective, or assimilated it into something they already knew. Often when we see kids who aren’t learning well, we might feel frustrated or defensive, thinking it reflects on us as educators. It’s often tempting to not feel it is our fault. So we might say the child has a fixed mindset, without understanding instead that, as educators, it is our responsibility to create a context in which a growth mindset can flourish…-another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying “Wow, you tried really hard!” But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better. So this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.”

As educators we can put up beautiful bulletin boards and use growth mindset language with our students, but unless our actions support and match our growth mindset, we are most likely sending contradictory and/or ineffective messages.

What teacher actions are indicative of a growth mindset?

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck addresses the question, “What makes a great teacher?” Simply, a growth mindset is present in almost all “great” teachers. Dweck shares multiple examples of teachers who instruct with a growth mindset, which include teachers who:

  1. Believe talent and intelligence can be developed and are not innate

  2. Embrace the challenge of ensuring all students can succeed

  3. Set high standards for all students

  4. Determine appropriate strategies to ensure all students meet those high standards

  5. Are more interested in learning alongside students rather than imparting knowledge (Dweck 193-202).


Differentiation is an approach to teaching in which educators actively plan for students’ differences so all students can best learn. In a differentiated classroom, teachers divide their time, resources, and efforts to effectively teach students who have various backgrounds, readiness and skill levels, and interests (ASCD).

Teachers can differentiate in a variety of ways depending on need. Teachers can differentiate one or more of the following:

  1. The content (what students learn)

  2. The process (how students learn)

  3. The product (how students demonstrate their learning)

  4. The learning environment (where and with whom students learn)

By differentiating instruction, teachers can better ensure they are promoting an actual growth mindset. Additionally, differentiation allows teachers to focus on the process of learning and provide feedback around learning strategies which is an approach proven to develop a growth mindset.

In contrast, a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction will increase the chances that a false growth mindset is created. When instruction is not differentiated, students are inevitably praised for performing well with minimal effort (too easy) or praised for an effort that ultimately didn’t result in growth (too hard). False growth mindsets over time will inevitably present the same way as fixed mindsets.


Initially, effectively differentiating instruction can be challenging for teachers (you can read more about this here). However, as strenuous as differentiating instruction may be, as I stated earlier, teachers with a growth mindset welcome challenge and enjoy the trial and error that goes into determining the best way to meet students’ needs. Therefore, they tend to differentiate without issue and cut themselves some slack along the way. They look at failure as information to help them determine how to proceed in the future rather than as a reason to not try or give up. The trial and error part of differentiating instruction is an important piece of learning for teachers which in time will streamline the process for teachers.

With these connections between mindset and differentiation in mind, what personal connections can you make? How do you view challenge and failure? What do you see as the potential positive outcomes (for both yourself and your students) of differentiating instruction and fostering a growth mindset? What do you see as potential obstacles?

I would love to hear your thoughts and dig a bit deeper. You can connect with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.

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