Learners hold a range of beliefs about language learning – some of which may stem from their own experiences, but many of which they have picked up from media, family, or friends. One set of beliefs which can be impactful on how learners approach language use and learning are called mindsets. This refers to whether a learner fundamentally believes that their ability to learn a language is a fixed, given talent that cannot really be changed by anything a person does (fixed mindset), or whether they feel language learning ability is something you can develop with the right strategies, motivation, and investment of time and energy (growth mindset). In reality, most people lie somewhere along a continuum between fixed and growth.
Naturally, it is empowering to hold a growth mindset and believe you can make a difference to your learning and improve. Not only does it give you some control over your learning, but it means that what you do matters to your learning outcomes. It implies that a mistake does not have to define you, but instead can offer an opportunity to learn. Getting things wrong is not a statement about one’s ability or talent, but merely a normal part of the language learning process. It allows you to see engaging consciously with mistakes is a valuable strategy to help you improve. Having a growth mindset is a cornerstone of a positive frame of mind which is likely to facilitate learners’ willingness to take risks and use the language.
So, how do we foster a growth mindset and how to we work with learners who hold more of a fixed mindset? Here the notion of a continuum is vitally important. Mindsets have typically been positioned as binary opposites with people considered as having either a fixed or growth mindset. However, when we understand we are all along a continuum with a more or less fixed/growth orientation, it becomes easier to understand the positive potential for change. We are not asking learners to make a radical shift from one set of beliefs to another but to move along the continuum to a more growth rather than fixed orientation. Beliefs change gradually and take time, but they are fundamentally open to change. Below are three areas teachers can actively work on to boost a growth mindset orientation.
Raising the topic of mindsets explicitly
To raise learners’ awareness of this set of beliefs and how they might be impacting on their approaches to language learning, it can be worth discussing the topic explicitly. There are many resources online that explain what mindset beliefs are and show how the fixed mindset beliefs can hold learners back from taking proactive action to enhance their learning. Students can also be given a series of statements about ability. They can reflect on which ones mirror their own opinions and examine whether this suggests a fixed or growth mindset orientation. It is important learners do not feel judged in their orientation but see this as a chance to become aware of any unhelpful beliefs that may be holding them back.
A growth mindset does not suggest everyone can reach the same level of ability. Rather, it stresses that everyone can improve their current abilities with motivation, an investment of time and energy, opportunities to practice, and a knowledge of useful learning strategies. Knowing that everyone, including themselves, has the potential to improve on where they are now can be extremely empowering. It implies that it can be helpful to accompany a discussion of mindsets with an exploration of learning strategies and how to learn. Learners can be helped to recognize the power and control they can have of their own learning through goal setting, use of strategies, regular practice, and actively learning from one’s mistakes.
Discussing the nature of mistakes and their value for learning.
Similarly, it can be important to have an open discussion about mistakes and the potential they offer for learning. This in turn can strengthen a growth mindset. Teachers themselves also serve as critical role models in how we respond to mistakes – we must take care not to jump on learner mistakes as problems but embrace them with enthusiasm and show learners how they can be a learning or teaching opportunity. Of course, teachers are not perfect either, and we are certain to make mistakes too – students will learn a lot from watching how we respond to our own mistakes, and we can use those moments to model growth mindset behaviours. Have learners look for examples in real life of people who struggled, experienced failures or setbacks, but overcame them through effort, perseverance, strategies, and seeking out support from others.
Thinking about teacher language and feedback.
As with all beliefs, learners will often pick up on how the teacher talks about language learning and how they respond to mistakes. When we provide feedback to learners, we need to focus less on the outcome and be wary of praising ability or intelligence. Instead, we need to focus on the aspects learners can control and influence such as how they approached the tasks, the strategies they can use, celebrating effort and progress. Naturally, we must take care not to inadvertently imply that progress is only about effort and a growth mindset. Instead, we can show how it is also requires an active approach and we can highlight these aspects in the feedback we give. Finally, we need to talk about the meaning of the word ‘yet’ and its importance for mindsets. If a learner says, ‘I cannot do this’, we can tell them, ‘ok, you cannot do this YET but with the right kind of approach and time, you will be able to do it’. Teachers need to have positive expectations of all learners and communicate that directly and indirectly. If we can show learners that we believe in their potential for improvement, it will be easier for learners to believe this about themselves.
In sum, having a growth mindset can help learner believe in their potential to improve through practice and the learning potential of mistakes. This can reduce their anxiety, boost their confidence, and empower them to speak up and use the language seeing it not as a potential threat or risk of failure but an opportunity for growth.
- Think about your learners. Do you know whether they have a more fixed/growth mindset?
- Are you aware of ways in which you talk about challenge, mistakes, difficulties, and abilities – to what extent are you consistently communicating a belief in growth for all learners?
- Can you think of a class where it might be worthwhile doing some explicit activities and work on a growth mindset?
Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author, and co-editor of several books in this area including, Exploring Psychology for Language Teachers (2015, with Marion Williams and Stephen Ryan), Teacher Wellbeing (2020, with Tammy Gregersen), and Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms (2020, with Zoltán Dörnyei). She has published over 150 book chapters and journal articles and has served as Principal Investigator on several funded research projects. In 2018, she was awarded the Robert C. Gardner Award for excellence in second language research by the International Association of Language and Social Psychology (IALSP). Sarah is the author of this paper.