Bring History to Life: Infuse Learning Mindsets Into Social Sciences

By now, most educators have heard about the impressive impact of student mindset on learning and achievement. Students with a learning mindset more often demonstrate many of the 21st-century skills needed to “succeed in work, life, and citizenship.” In particular, these students have shown to be more persistent, receptive to instruction, willing to take on challenges, resilient after failure, and more. 

This may be why teachers are so curious about how to help their students develop these mindsets. A 2016 survey of K-12 teachers found that 98 percent of educators believe growth mindset has great potential for improved learning and higher-quality instruction.

Time is often the most precious resource in schools. Finding ways to incorporate mindset lessons is no small accomplishment. However, social studies can be an ideal pathway to shift student understanding of belonging, purpose, and agency. Broadly speaking, social studies is the study of human society. So what better pathway is there to help students understand themselves? 

What is a Mindset Intervention?

Unfortunately, telling students not to have a fixed mindset or lecturing students on the benefits of learning mindsets likely will not produce the positive outcomes found in research. Developing mindset interventions begins by developing “…a precise understanding of people’s psychological reality—what it is like to be them and how they construe themselves and their social world,” according to a study by Gregory Walton, professor of psychology at Stanford University.

Once we have developed an understanding of this sense we will want to identify the beliefs or mindsets that seem to be holding students back. This can be challenging for even the wisest teacher. Of all the thoughts, beliefs and mindsets rolling around in the average student’s head, which are the most important to address? Fortunately, the Mindset Scholars Network has identified learning mindsets as: 

  • Growth Mindset: The belief that intelligence can be developed; 
  • Belonging: The belief that one is respected and valued by teachers and peers;
  • Purpose and relevance: The belief that one’s schoolwork is valuable because it is personally relevant and/or connected to a larger purpose. 

David Yeager and other researchers summarized these intervention pathways as: “Students can show greater motivation to learn when they are led to construe their learning situation as one in which they have the potential to develop their abilities (agency), in which they feel psychologically safe and connected to others (belonging), and in which putting forth effort has meaning and value (relevance).”

The next challenge is to design an intervention to actually shift a child’s mindset, which is no small feat! Telling a student how much better they would do if they had a learning mindset is likely not an effective intervention. Rarely does telling a student they have the wrong mindset cause them to adopt a new one. However, teaching students about neuroplasticity and how the brain grows is more likely to help them understand that if they work hard, they can grow their brain. Finally, Walton from Stanford warns us that mindset interventions affect long-term outcomes only if they alter critical recursive processes. A mistake that can undermine mindset interventions would be delivering lessons about the value of struggle and making mistakes, then only praising and rewarding students for work done quickly and easily.

Infusing Mindset Interventions Into Social Studies

Let’s look more closely at how a skilled teacher can infuse mindset interventions into social studies instruction. Again, mindset interventions are designed to shift a person’s thinking when faced with a challenge. Fortunately, there are numerous stories that explain how quick, easy, and fun it was to accomplish a historical feat.

Agency Interventions in Social Studies

Creating the type of lasting change that is studied generations later does not happen without persistence, resilience, humility, and the other traits associated with learning mindsets. The wise teacher can incorporate these principles into the curriculum. For example, the women’s suffrage movement or Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom are inspiring examples of individuals coming together and sacrificing greatly for a shared purpose. These examples fortunately align with the key levers of learning mindsets: belonging, purpose, and agency. 

To capitalize on these examples, we can ask questions that center around these three mindset categories. Having students identify examples of women facing and overcoming adversity may help them identify the role of agency in achievement. But if we want to align the elements of a mindset intervention, we should find questions, such as the following, that may cause students to internalize the experience of working to overcome adversity:

  • Having identified examples of how women in the suffrage movement overcame adversity, recall a time in your life when you overcame a challenge. What factors caused you to persist when things got difficult?
  • What advice would you offer other students when they are faced with similar challenges?  What about these women’s experiences could inspire you as you approach challenges in your future life?
  • The African National Congress overcame great losses and hardships to create a better life for their children. What are some examples of your family members taking action and making sacrifices to provide you with a better life?

Belonging Interventions in Social Studies

Another theme commonly seen in mindset interventions is a sense of belonging. Many topics in current affairs and history are deeply connected to the role of belonging, so they offer opportunities to infuse mindset interventions. Whether examining the Revolutionary War or the Great Migration, there is a platform for students to explore the need to be a part of a community.   Yet once again, if we want to shift students’ mindsets about belonging we have to do more than simply talk about the importance of belonging and its role in historical events. We want our students to internalize the sense that they are psychologically safe. So we could ask questions such as:

  • Thinking of a time when you moved to a new place, what was it like to be the new person? What did you do to make new friends? What did others do to make you feel welcome?
  • Recalling some of the things African Americans did to create a community in their new urban communities, what are some things you do to build community at school? Could you do more? If so, what?

Purpose Interventions in Social Studies

The third avenue often explored in mindset research is how to elicit a sense of relevance. Social science again can provide a natural context to help students develop this sense of purpose.  The 19th-century doctrine of Manifest Destiny or President John F. Kennedy’s race to land on the moon can provide a natural context for exploring the impact of a sense of purpose and then extending it to help students identify what things are important to them and why the want an education. 

Learning Mindsets in Early Elementary

At the early elementary grades, there are resonating themes such as “the relationship between myself and others,” or “we all come from families and cultures that are to be respected just as we expect others to respect ours.” These can be great platforms to infuse learning mindset interventions to cultivate a early learners’ sense of belonging in their school and community. At these early grades, there is often a theme of character education focusing on important skills such as respect, trustworthiness, responsibility, fairness, caring, and patriotism.

To effectively utilize the learning mindset themes of belonging, relevance, and agency, we should go beyond designing lessons that simply tell students these are important skills. We need to explore activities to help them connect these messages to their own experiences. For example, highlighting activities related to responsibility or being a member of the learning community and a family can help students see the relevance of their actions and develop an early sense that it’s important to do my best at school to help my family and friends.

Distinguishing Features of Mindset Interventions:

  • Based on an understanding of students’ actual experiences
  • Target a limiting thought, belief, or mindset in students
  • Are reinforced by learning community feedback
  • Create a sense of belonging, relevance, or agency
  • Are discreet, brief, and internalized

Less is Often More With Mindsets Interventions

Mindset interventions are designed to be brief, typically less than an hour, and are delivered directly to students without requiring any changes as far as the teacher, classroom, or school climate. Ideally, mindset interventions are discreet. In the research, mindset interventions typically don’t directly tell a child that their beliefs about their intelligence are wrong or that they need to make friends. Instead, teaching and reinforcing to students that the brain grows through experience can allow them to view learning as a process (and they can do it, too!), or that it’s common to feel awkward when trying something new.

The interventions are designed to help students identify a sense of belonging, relevance, or agency in themselves. Finally, mindsets seem to be most relevant when students are grappling with adversity. History lessons often center around individuals, groups, or nations overcoming challenges, making the social sciences a natural platform to shift student mindsets.

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Learn more about HMH’s K-6 Into Social Studies program, which embeds learning-focused mindset strategies into its lessons.