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Learning how to learn: The trilogy of growth mindset, grit and process praise

We welcome Safa Shahkhalili, who graduated from the Jakarta Intercultural School, to the graduate voices series. She connects with her former IB teacher to discuss the concept of growth mindset and learning through the lens of a third culture kid.

The trilogy of growth mindset, grit and process praise

By Safa Shahkhalili

Do you ever reflect on what you were taught about learning styles when you were in school? Do you remember what your teachers, caregivers, peers or mentors told you were the best methods to learn or achieve academic success?

I think about this frequently and that’s not just because I’m an educational anthropologist. It is also because I grew up living in different countries, going to different schools and experiencing first hand that there are so many different ideas concerning best approaches to learning.

In Iranian public schools, learning was mostly demonstrated through memorization. At the International School of Islamabad, learning involved more interaction and games. In Canadian public schools, it required a lot of essay writing. At Jakarta Intercultural School, it included self-reflection. At the University of Toronto, learning was individualistic and competitive. At Aarhus University, it was much more collaborative. Everywhere I went, students achieved success in different ways based on what they were taught was the best way to go about the process of learning and achieving good academic results in their context.

Recently, I came across a concept that really struck me. Growth mindset.

The growth part seemed to suggest a process, a step-by-step journey, achieving something over time. The mindset part seemed to suggest a deliberate approach, a choice of how to think, a philosophy.

What is a growth mindset?

I wanted to learn more so I reached out to one of my favorite former teachers, who now provides educational consultancy services and is the founder of the connect2learn platform and the Intercultural Education Consulting Group—Beata Mirecka-Jakubowska or Mrs. M as I am used to calling her!

Mrs. M was the most encouraging teacher I ever had.  All her students loved how her lessons were always creative and project based and that she fully believed in each student’s ability to learn and do well.  Mrs. M created a classroom environment where a growth mindset could flourish in all her students well before she had first heard about the concept!

Mrs. M explained that growth mindset is a concept coined by Carol Dweck.  It is the idea that the ability to learn is not fixed and that it can grow with effort. It requires approaching the process of learning with perseverance and the belief that:

“Difficulty just means not yet.”—Carol Dweck

Mrs. M said that, in her experience, the best way of practicing and developing growth mindset was through a combination of two other concepts—grit and process praise.

Grit in students has been studied most by Angela Lee Duckworth who describes it as:

“Passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future—day in and day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years.”—Angela Lee Duckworth

Grit is the part of growth mindset that perseveres. Grit is when a student doesn’t stop trying even in the face of a challenge or a set back until they get the results that they want.

However, this perseverance requires encouragement and support. No student can maintain it without someone believing in them, helping them and cheering them on in the journey. This is where process praise comes in. Carol Dweck explains:

“When we praise kids for the process they are engaged in, their hard work, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, they learn … resilience … this creates greater confidence and persistence. This changes students’ mindsets.”

Implementing the growth mindset concept

For Mrs. M, the combination of having a growth mindset by believing in your ability to learn through effort, practicing grit by persevering no matter what and receiving process praise in the form of positive feedback on the hard work and choices you make in the journey are the key to learning and achieving in any subject matter and in life.

Mrs. M said:

“For thousands of years, as evolution happened, we were wired for danger. So, we remember negative input better than positive input. This is something that Rick Hanson talks about in his book Hardwiring Happiness. So when you are growing up and you hear you are dumb or you can’t do math—because we are wired for negativity—we react by running away from it … the negativity bias is what makes students withdraw and not want to try as a way of self-protection We need to re-wire the child in order to avoid that fixed mindset. I could spot the kids that don’t believe in their own capacity. I was always encouraging—yes you can, you did this part well, so try it again, you improved a bit here, so give it another try … that process praise allows the child to keep learning and keep getting better.”

As I reflected on the idea of process praise and remembered the constant encouragement that Mrs. M always showed her students, I realized that once growth mindset, grit and process praise are practiced in a school environment they can carry over to life beyond school as well. Grit and process praise are behaviors that young people can internalize, so that after they graduate and move on to life outside of school, they can continue to apply the trilogy to other life experiences.

Mrs. M confirmed this and explained:

“You’re 19, 20, you get a job, you get an apartment, you are elated with your new life at first, but then the first trouble comes along, something breaks, something doesn’t work, maybe the job offer that you got petered out, now you are out of a job and you can’t find one and you start panicking … and then what do you do? How do you reinvent yourself? How do you change things? millennials change their jobs so often. This is the new era, the 21st century. It is not the jobs that I remember—I taught at one school for 36 years … many of my friends in my generation worked in that one job forever. What is happening now is that the stability of a job is not necessary anymore because you can reinvent yourself and follow your passion and do something else. But who does it? Those who have the growth mindset. Those who believe that if they work hard and break their journey into small steps and have support and mentorship they will actually achieve that.”

As a millennial who has had countless work experiences in my 20’s, I can relate to what Mrs. M is saying. To be able to navigate the challenges that come with adulthood and working life, a growth mindset seems indispensable. In an era where an increasing amount of jobs are contract based, where more and more people have to have multiple streams of income to make ends meet and where entrepreneurship is trending, a growth mindset, grit and process praise are invaluable.  Learning to approach learning and life with a growth mindset can give us the mentality and discipline necessary to believe in our ability to succeed in a rapidly changing global economy.

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Safa Shahkhalili lived and studied in five countries before graduating from Jakarta International School in Indonesia. She has worked on various international development research projects and is the founder and host of the “Rethinking Development Podcast.” You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

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