On the Power of a Growth Mindset


By Guest Blogger Mike Knutz, Oregon State University

As a youth development professional of nearly 20 years and former high school teacher, making a positive difference has always been the passion that drives my work with youth. The goal to impact young people is even more attainable with the 4-H Thriving Model. It is derived from years of research in developmental psychology and youth development.

In my quest to better understand the components of the 4-H Thriving Model, I have explored resources available from the Search Institute.  Since 1958, the Search Institute been studying how to strengthen youth success and bring research-based solutions to the most pressing challenges in the lives of young people. The 4-H Thriving Model aims to help youth develop a Thriving orientation (a mindset or outlook for continual growth). The Search Institute identified six indicators for a thriving trajectory that have been incorporated into the 4-H Thriving Model.

  1. Openness to Challenge and Discovery
  2. Hopeful Purpose
  3. Transcendent Awareness
  4. Positive Emotionality
  5. Pro-Social Orientation
  6. Intentional Self-Regulation

There is a wealth of research and some amazing researchers behind the studies that support each one of these indicators. I started by delving into Openness to Challenge and Discovery, which comes from research on Growth Mindset led by Carol Dweck, Professor of Phycology from Stanford University. Growth Mindset is an approach to life that where skills and abilities  can always be improved through effort and hard work. Challenges are embraced as an opportunity to grow and learn.  Feedback is something that is useful in trying new strategies to master and improve a skill or ability. Setbacks or failures are part of the learning process and should just spur you on to work harder and preserver.

I am sure we can all recall a time where we faced a challenge in developing a skill or ability. I recall my first time public speaking as a freshman in high school. It was the FFA Creed Speaking Contest which required one to memorize five paragraphs verbatim. That task alone demanded persistence, practice, and effort. I had written each paragraph on a 3 x 5 card and kept them in a pocket while I did my farm chores. I would recited the first paragraph until I master it and then move on to the next. When I couldn’t recall a sentence, I would pull out my card to serve as cue. The day of the contest came, I did fine on the delivery, but froze and failed to answer the judge’s question. To me it was a failure to overcome the daunting task of memorizing five paragraphs. That setback served to propelled me on my journey to develop public speaking skills through further contests and opportunities to serve in leadership.

One of the greatest obstacles in this journey to growth is being ruled by a Fixed Mindset; the belief that qualities are fixed traits and therefore cannot change. People with a fixed mindset focus energy towards validating their intelligence and talents rather than working to develop and improve them. It’s holding the belief that talent alone leads to success, and effort is inconsequential. This gives way to avoiding challenges for the risk on failing. Failure communicates that you are lacking talent. When this happens, a person with a Fixed Mindset may respond defensively or blame or make excuses for the setback. Carol Dweck reminds us that, “we’re all a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets”. We need to be aware of our thoughts and actions when facing a challenge. Anxious feelings, an inner voice saying you’re not competent, or being crushed instead of interested in learning from a failure are signs of a Fixed Mindset.

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I picture an elephant restrained by a rope tied to a stake in the ground. Like that elephant, youth need to know that their current abilities have potential for growth. This message is freedom to rise to one’s potential. Those who work with youth can help them understand the dynamics of a Fixed and Growth Mindset and thereby free them to experience that effort and the right practice, leads to improvement in skills and abilities.

In Extension, we are accustomed to providing research-based solutions to problems. Teaching youth the Growth Mindset can help them succeed. In one of Dweck’s studies, 7th grade students were taught about neuroplasticity – how the brain changes when you learn new things. They were shown the evidence that you really can change your intelligence by challenging yourself and learning new strategies. Those students did significantly better on their math test than students in the control group who were not taught the lesson on Growth Mindset.

How we encourage and praise youth can support either a Growth Mindset or a Fixed Mindset. This illustration from Carol Dweck shows examples of both.

This is just a brief look at one of the six Thriving indicators. There is so much more to learn about how we can up our game at empowering youth to reach their full potential through the 4-H Thriving Model.

Mike Knutz is an Associate Professor at Oregon State University and 4-H Educator in Yamhill, County Oregon. Mike currently co-leads the Professional Development subcommittee of the Advancing the 4-H Thriving Model -Program Leaders Working Group (PLWG) Task Force.

On Words, Jargon, and Terminology

By Guest Blogger Mari Glatter, University of Maine 4-H

October 4-H Thriving Model Training in Maine

In October, the Maine 4-H team had the pleasure of working with Mary Arnold for an introduction to the 4-H Thriving Model.  Our staff had a blast diving into the background and structure of this positive youth development framework.  One of the key takeaways from that time was how we (as 4-H staff) were already doing so much of the Thriving Model, but that this conceptual model holds all of the practices in tension with the research. 

As much as our Maine team loved what Mary taught us we also knew that to truly incorporate the Thriving Model into our everyday 4-H work we needed time spent with the vocabulary, the lingo, embedded into the framework.  So, in December I had the thrill of leading our staff into another encounter with the words and concepts of Mary’s work – a retrieval practice of sorts. 

We also used this time to explore some technology platforms that might be helpful in different 4-H contexts.

We also used this time to explore some technology platforms that might be helpful in different 4-H contexts.  We started with a Kahoots competition where teams challenged each other on their memory of the parts of the Thriving model.  Then we talked through the Developmental Context, looking again at definitions of Youth Sparks, Youth Program Quality Principles, and Fostering Developmental Relationships.  Following that review staff, in their small groups, went over to Padlet to brainstorm one 4-H program area that connects with the Developmental Context. 

To work on the Thriving Trajectory, I created a document that staff had to hunt for the missing words by using a QR scanner and finding giant QR codes placed around the building.  Each QR code led to a unique pdf that had information about one of the seven markers of a thriving youth.  I had planned for us to create screencasts to describe the Developmental Outcomes but our time ran out. 

The staff concluded the professional development time by retaking the Kahoots quiz to assess growth during our re-investigation – great news, they jumped from 40% initial accuracy to 90% post PD!  The biggest impact for our staff team was comfort and familiarity with the specific terminology of the 4-H Thriving Model.  Understanding this terminology is crucial to implementation of the model in 4-H programming.

Mari Glatter is a 4-H Youth Development Professional in Maine.  Her primary duties entail coordinating and managing the 4-H education program in Aroostook County, with a special emphasis on 4-H STEM programming and technology integration.  Mari has 20 years of experience in education and volunteer recruitment and management.

On Thriving in the New Year

My last blog post was written around Halloween from the NAE4-HA conference at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. The conference itself was an exciting whirlwind of teaching, networking, leading in my role as VP for Professional Development, and meeting a whole bunch of new people who want to help youth thrive! I came home to weeks of phone calls, meetings, and other things needed to set up the next phase of development on the 4-H Thriving Model. That time is a bit of a blur for me, but I also remember it as marked with the feeling of being in the flow like James Carse describes in Breakfast at the Victory, and loving every busy minute of it.

By the time Christmas rolled around I found myself reluctantly caught up in all the preparatory holiday things as we got ready to host family, which now includes two delightful (and very active) young grandchildren. I was definitely caught off guard this season, and found myself scrambling rather breathlessly as Christmas drew near.

One morning I found myself in Trader Joes, the feeling of being in the flow replaced by tension when I heard Kenny Chesney’s Christmas in Dixie coming across the store’s sound system. Now let me say straight up, I am not a country western fan, and while I had heard this song before, I had never heard the song before. When I got back in my car I pulled it up on my phone and found myself instantly in a better mood, with a feeling of the spirit of Christmas for the first time in the season.

For those of you unfamiliar with the song, it is a sweet, if not a tad sappy, imagining of Christmas peace from sunny California to Memphis, Tennessee among other places. For me, that busy morning, the song evoked the special names, faces, and places I have encountered in my 4-H work, and how fortunate I have been to meet so many people and visit so many lovely places. I thought of all of you, my colleagues, getting ready for your own holiday celebrations all across the country, with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and good fortune. The network of 4-H professionals we have is inspiring, and I feel so lucky to call you my colleagues and friends.

Also inspiring, and very exciting, are the number of 4-H and youth development professionals from across the country who have stepped forward to lead the next phases of “Advancing the the 4-H Thriving Model,” which is now an officially sanctioned national 4-H Program Leader’s Working Group (PLWG) task force. Three sub groups are getting underway as we start the new year. One will focus on professional development for 4-H professionals and volunteers. The second will conduct additional research on the model to determine “what works for what youth under what conditions?” And the third will provide guidance for organizational alignment across our complex 4-H system to ensure a uniform understanding and implementation of the 4-H Thriving Model.

When I began work on the 4-H Thriving Model in 2013 I had no idea this was where we were heading. In many ways the work is really just now beginning, but I can’t wait to see what happens as the working groups guide our next steps. What I do know is that I am relieved to have so many smart, creative, and dedicated colleagues working on the project now, and the gratitude I felt that rainy December morning in the Trader Joes parking lot is stronger than ever!

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

Mary E. Arnold, Ph.D.
Professor and Youth Development Specialist
Oregon State University