Adrian Leis is a full-time tenured Associate Professor at Miyagi University of Education in Sendai, Japan. Originally from Australia, he has now been teaching English in Japan for close to 20 years. He obtained his Ph.D from Tohoku University and his main fields of research are L2 learning motivation and computer-assisted language learning.
I recently found myself with a couple of hours to relax at home and so decided to watch an old movie. When I was looking through my DVDs, I stumbled across the 1999 science fiction film, The Matrix. At one stage in the movie, the main character, Neo, is told to “free his mind” in order to jump from one building to another while in a computer program. This reminded me of the idea of Mindsets – if we want to reach our full potential, we need to learn to free our minds.
The idea of Mindsets was proposed by Dr. Carolyn Dweck of Stanford University. Ever since, it has received a lot of attention in the field of psychology and, more recently, in the field of second language acquisition (SLA).
Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
Dweck (2006) looked at the thought processes of humans, or Mindsets, describing these two traits: the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. So which are you? Try answering the following questions:
- Imagine you see your friend eat something a little unusual, like inago (locust) or escargots. Your friend says, “Yuck!” Would you still try it?
- Imagine you have a chance to play tennis against a very strong player. You will most likely lose. Would you still take on the challenge?
- Your English teacher gives you an assignment to read a difficult 500-word passage from your textbook in front of the class. If you read straight from the textbook, you can get a maximum score of 80%. If you memorize the passage, you can get a maximum score of 100%. Would you choose to memorize the passage?
If you answered “Yes” to the above questions, you probably have a Growth Mindset. Dweck describes a person with a Growth Mindset as someone who sees intelligence not as innate, but something that can be developed and improved on over time. These people are flexible in that they are willing to take the risks of difficult challenges, even at times when failure may be inevitable, in order to reap the benefits of learning from such experiences.
On the other hand, people with Fixed Mindsets, who would probably answer ‘No’ to the three questions, are those who believe intelligence is innate and regardless of how hard they study or work, their intelligence will not change. They prefer to take easier classes and avoid the risks of failure, even if they could benefit from participating at a slightly higher level. Sound familiar?!
Anxiety, self confidence, and language learners
So, what does this mean for you, and your English classes?
Well, Dweck also wanted to find ways of promoting attitudes to learning similar to the Growth Mindset. One way was to look at the effects of praise on students’ approaches to learning. Mueller and Dweck (1998) concluded that when children were praised for the efforts they had made in their studies (e.g. “You thought really carefully about this question!” or “I can see how hard you practiced!”), the children became more willing to take on challenging tasks – the Growth Mindset. However, when children were praised for their intelligence (e.g. “You are really smart!” or “You are a natural athlete!”), they tended to avoid challenging problems in which they might fail, because they were afraid that they may not be praised the next time – the Fixed Mindset.
This suggests that in the classroom, teachers should think carefully about the way they talk to their students. In my own research, I have recommended teachers think about the timing of when they praise students (Leis, 2014). Rather than saying, “Well done!” after a student has given the correct answer, which is praising for her intelligence, teachers could say, “Thank you!” after the student has raised her hand but before she has given her answer. This puts value on the effort and willingness to solve the problem given by the teacher rather than whether her answer was correct or not.
Anxiety and self-confidence have been proven to be vital factors in the success of language learners. The studies mentioned above verify how important it is to look at the behavior of teachers in the classroom and how it influences the mindsets of our students. Students’ mindsets, in turn, affect the confidence with which they approach challenging tasks. When teaching languages, we should be encouraging students to choose the risks of making mistakes in order to achieve the ultimate goals of communicating with others in the language of their choice.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Dweck, C. S., & Reppucci, N. D. (1973). Learned helplessness and reinforcement responsibility in children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25(1). pp. 109-116.
Leis, A. (2014). The self-confidence and performance of young learners in an EFL environment: A self-worth perspective. JES Journal, 14. pp. 84-99.
Mueller, C. M., & Dweck. C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s performances. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1). pp. 33-52.