Growth Mindset: Three Phrases to Throw Out

Growth Mindset: Three Phrases to Throw Out

This year my school is collectively reading the book The Growth Mindset Coach by Annie Brock and Heather Hudley for professional development. Many of the ideas presented in this blog post are inspired by this text, which has proven to be a quick and helpful read. A growth mindset is an ideology of learning that explains  all people have the ability to get better at anything. With the right attitude, hard work, and persistence, any person can improve a skill. 

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Since we’ve been reading about the growth mindset as a high school, my colleagues and I have had many conversations about how best to encourage students to work consistently, appreciate challenges, and grow from their mistakes. Students who don’t have a growth mindset often sell themselves short on their own abilities. Specifically, their ability to learn. Phrases like, “I can’t do this!” or “It’s too hard!” are known to invade almost all high school classrooms. These moments of negativity are not only discouraging for teachers, but defeating for students. 

In order to combat students who feel that they are incapable of learning, one of the changes that I am implementing in my classroom is to use diction that shows students I appreciate it when they push through difficulties. Our technology coach refers to these accomplishments as having ‘productive struggle.’ It is critically important for anyone learning something new to value the productive struggle. Using positive feedback that lets students know that I am proud of them for encountering difficulties and making mistakes can change the atmosphere of failure in my classroom. With some time, my students’ cries of “I can’t do this!” will hopefully become, “I need to spend more time on this” or “Can you explain this to me in a different way?” 

Not only does cultivating a growth mindset benefit a student’s schooling experience, it develops skills they can use for the rest of their lives. There will always be something that we need to learn, even as adults! In order to help my students create a growth mindset, these are some phrases I’ve been trying to eliminate from my repertoire of classroom encouragements: 

#1 “You can do it, the assignment is easy!” 

There are many occasions in my classroom in which a student gives up on an assignment before they even begin. Without reading the directions, asking their peers, or raising their hand, they already dismiss the entirety of the experience. During these scenarios, I find myself imploring to the students that the assignment is quite “easy” or it will “only take fifteen minutes.” While this sort of language might offer a quick fix for that student, on the long term it teaches my students that my assignments lack value and aren’t something to spend time on. Instead, I’m going to use some of the following phrases:

  • “I know you can learn to do this assignment.”
  • “What steps have you taken to learn how to do this assignment?”
  • “What specific questions do you have for me about this assignment?”

Through these new statements and questions, I will be able to better help my students find agency in their work. No longer will I be selling my curriculum short by calling it ‘easy,’ which essentially translates to ‘useless.’ Instead, I’ll be giving my students the tools to achieve their goal of completing the assignment independently.

#2 “Wow, this project is perfect!”

This sentiment is one that I often express in my classroom. When kids produce top notch work, I instinctively want to reward them for their final product. At its core, that doesn’t seem like a terrible classroom technique. Should we not verbally reward students who go above and beyond to produce stellar work? 

Well, yes and no.

We should verbally reward students who go above and beyond, but not by complimenting their final products. Instead, teachers should be complimenting all of the hard work and productive struggle that students put into their work. The theme here is process, not product. In the end, this gives teachers many more students to congratulate, because it’s not about recognizing every student who put out A+ work, it’s about recognizing all of the students that ran into an issue and pushed past it. By rewarding students’ ability to accomplish their tasks in the face of hardship, we are giving them the tools to be successful in the future. To achieve this result, here are some ideas for alternative classroom encouragements: 

  • “I remember that you said in class this part of your project was very difficult. I can see you worked past that difficulty and it has all come together very well! Congratulations on your struggle!”
  • “I am so proud of how hard you worked on this!”
  • “You are really progressing in your learning!”

#3: “I really like how your finished product looked exactly like the example I showed the class!”

Okay, okay, this one is maybe a little hyperbolic. Obviously, most teachers want their students to think a little outside of the box. Teachers are generally not enthused by finished products that exactly mirror classroom examples. However, I don’t think we always do a good job of encouraging our students to take risks in the classroom. A huge part of showing students what a growth mindset is, is praising them for risk-taking. When students take an extra step in an assignment that adds more meaning to their learning, it’s critical that we celebrate that. In my own classroom, when we were completing our Nonfiction Text Unit, where students create their own blogs, a student of mine requested to format her blog differently from the rubric-instructed formatting. At first, I was hesitant. But when she explained to me that her changes were inspired because she wanted to continue adding posts to her blog for longer than the required project, I was blown away. She had made the lesson I had implemented something a thousand times more impactful by taking a risk. Due to her risk-taking, this lesson became more meaningful for her learning experience. And, as a result, I changed my assignment requirements so that they were more friendly for students who wanted to write blog posts outside of the class assignment. To inspire your students  to take risks, try some of these phrases:

  • “If you have any helpful feedback or suggestions for this assignment, let me know!”
  • “Let’s create the rubric for this project together. What do you think I should look for? What part of the assignment should be valued the most and the least?”
  • “You get to choose how you demonstrate your knowledge for this assignment. Here are some options, but feel free to ask me if you can do something else!”

It is much harder than expected to dislodge the aforementioned phrases. I teach very similar sections of English five times a day, and it’s comfortable for me to say these things repeatedly. However, in order to help my students develop a growth mindset, I need to make this change. Who knows, maybe I’ll even ask my students to help keep me on track! 

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at You can also find me on Twitter at @msmarshbank, Instagram at @amarshybank, and Linked In at Andrea Marshbank

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