Developing a growth mindset in the classroom/

This article first appeared in Sec Ed magazine in April 2014.  To read the original, click here.  

As a kid I wanted to become a cliché when I grew up so I bought a guitar and grew my hair. I successfully learnt all the chords but struggled to combine them in a meaningful way (perhaps I should’ve joined an experimental jazz band instead of churning out 1980s power ballads). When my dreams of rock stardom eventually withered on the vine, I turned my attention to mastering magic, then to conquering chess, and to all manner of other hobbies.

What all these childhood endeavours had in common – apart from their mutual failure – was that I took it for granted that I’d have to work hard at them, I knew I’d have to practise endlessly and that I wouldn’t become expert overnight.

I played that old six-string every night after school till my fingers bled, readily accepting that improvement would be incremental.

Most of us feel this way about our interests. We know, for example, that to run a marathon we’d have to train hard for months beforehand (or, in my case, to walk to the pub without getting out of breath I’d have to stop eating chocolate).

And yet when it comes to schooling – to mastering English or maths or science – we often forget the importance of hard work and practice. We assume that academic ability, that one’s IQ, is somehow fixed, innate. We might not do it consciously, but we say things like “maths isn’t his forte” or “she’s not a natural artist”. That’s why most students who start the year in the bottom set, end the year in the bottom set.

By creating a culture in which students believe that their abilities are preordained, and in which they are either good at a subject or not, we discourage them from taking risks, from making mistakes. After all, if ability is fixed, then if at first you don’t succeed, you may as well give up.

Sir Ken Robinson argues that every child starts out willing to take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go; they’re not frightened of being wrong, he says. However, he contends that by the time they are adults, most people have lost that capacity because in schools we regard mistakes as the worst thing you can make and we educate people out of their creative capacities.

In her book, Mindset, Dr Carol Dweck calls the belief that “your qualities are carved in stone” the ‘fixed mindset”. But does it really have to be this way?

What if we applied the same mindset to schooling as we do to our hobbies and interests? What if we taught our students that, although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience?

What if we instilled in our students what Dr Dweck calls the “growth mindset”, the belief that “your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts”?

Even Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test, believed that education and practice could bring about fundamental changes in intelligence. He said, in his book Major Ideas About Children, that “a few modern philosophers assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest against this brutal pessimism … with practice, training, and above all, method, we become more intelligent than we were before”.

Practice, training, and method – these three words uttered a century ago – remain the perfect definition of what the best teachers do. They provide a safe and secure environment in which all students can learn without fear of failure and in which all students can increase their intelligence with deliberate practice.

So let us look at five practical strategies which can help instil the growth mindset in our classrooms.

1, Use frequent formative feedback

Dr Dweck’s research found that people with a fixed mindset “greatly misestimated their performance and their ability (while) people with the growth mindset were amazingly accurate”.

Why should this be? Because, as Dr Dweck says: “If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even if it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented towards learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively.”

We should, therefore, ensure that our students are acutely aware of their strengths and areas for development. We should frequently assess our students and give them formative feedback so that they know what they do well and what they can do better. We should dedicate quality time in our lessons for our students to act on this feedback, to redraft work in order to improve upon it.

2, High levels of challenge for every student

Dr Dweck and Binet agree that everyone can improve with practice; they agree that effort is more important than “talent” or “innate ability”. Therefore, we must challenge our students to be the best, we must have high expectations of all our students and must encourage them to take a leap of faith, even if that means falling over a few times.

Teachers’ attitudes directly affect their students’ learning and, ultimately, the grades they get. A teacher who has high expectations of every student in his or her class will reap the rewards: more students will rise to the challenge and succeed.

Many teachers think that lowering standards will give students a taste of success, boost their self-esteem, and raise their achievement. But all the evidence suggests it doesn’t work. Instead, it leads to poorly educated children.

Instead, we should believe in the growth of the intellect and talent. We should set high standards for all our students, not just the ones who are already achieving.

3, Explicitly welcome mistakes

Teachers must actively encourage their students to make mistakes, they must foster a safe and secure environment in which falling over is not only accepted without criticism or humiliation, but in which it is actively encouraged as evidence of effective learning and of getting better at something.

Every teacher knows that some students do not raise their hands in class to answer a question because they fear they will be criticised or made to feel embarrassed for being wrong. And yet the opposite should be true: students should be eager to raise their hands because to get an answer wrong is to learn from their mistakes; to get an answer wrong is to learn the correct answer.

Equally, raising a hand to say, “I don’t understand this … can you help?” is not a sign of weakness or low intelligence, it is a means of increasing one’s intelligence.

Of course, making a mistake – even if you have a positive mindset – can be a painful experience. But a mistake shouldn’t define you; it’s a problem to be faced and learnt from. We teach this by modelling it, by publicly making mistakes and by making explicit our own implicit learning.

4, Engaging in deliberate practice

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that as a society we value natural, effortless accomplishments over achievement through effort. We endow our heroes with superhuman abilities that lead them inevitably towards greatness. People with the growth mindset, however, believe something very different. For them, even geniuses have to work hard for their achievements. After all, what’s heroic about having a gift?

Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the lightbulb but he wasn’t an innate genius who single-handedly, effortlessly discovered his invention in – forgive the pun – a lightbulb moment. This is what Professor Anders Ericsson calls the iceberg effect: beneath the visible tip of genius, Edison had 30 assistants, including highly trained scientists, often working around the clock in a corporate-funded state-of-the-art laboratory.

“His” invention was the culmination of a lot of time-consuming work involving mathematicians, chemists, physicists, engineers and glass-blowers. Yes, he was a genius; but he wasn’t born one. He was, according to his biography, an ordinary boy. He just worked hard, tried and tried again. He never stopped being curious, never shied away from taking on a new challenge.

Similar stories could be told of many geniuses such as Charles Darwin – whose Origin of Species was the result of years of research, a lot of effort and toil involving hundreds of discussions with colleagues and mentors, and went through several drafts, taking Darwin half a lifetime to finalise. In other words, his book wasn’t created in a big bang, it evolved over time.

Jack Nicklaus, the most successful golfer of all time, famously said: “Nobody – but nobody – has ever become really proficient at golf without practice, without doing a lot of thinking and then hitting a lot of shots. It isn’t so much a lack of talent; it’s a lack of being able to repeat good shots consistently that frustrates most players. And the only answer to that is practice.”

Matthew Syed, author of Bounce, quantifies the amount of “purposeful practice” that is required to achieve excellence. He says that “from art to science and from board games to tennis, it has been found that a minimum of 10 years is required to reach world-class status in any complex task”.

Malcolm Gladwell, meanwhile, asserts that most top performers practise for around 1,000 hours per year. We should, therefore, provide our students with plenty of opportunities to practise and perfect their knowledge and skills.

Professor Daniel Willingham says that deliberate practice “reinforces (the) basic skills required for more advanced skills, it protects against forgetting, and improves transfer”. Professor Siegfried Engelmann says that students need “five times more practice than many teachers expect”.

There are two kinds of practice proven to be the most effective: first, distributed practice which is “a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time”, and second, interleaved practice which is “a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session” (Dunlosky et al, 2013).

5, Reward effort not attainment

Dr Dweck conducted research with hundreds of students. She gave each student a set of 10 problems to solve from a non-verbal IQ test. Most of the students did well and when they’d finished, she praised some of the students for their ability (“you got a high score, you must be smart”) and some for their effort (“you got a high score, you must have worked hard”).

Both groups were exactly equal to begin with but, after receiving praise, they began to differ. The students whose ability was praised were pushed into the fixed mindset. When they were given a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from, favouring more of the same instead because they didn’t want to do anything which would expose flaws in their intelligence and bring their talent into question. In contrast, 90 per cent of the students whose effort was praised wanted to try the challenging new task precisely because they could learn from it.

Dr Dweck concluded that praising ability actually lowered students’ IQs whereas praising effort raised them. She also said that praising children’s intelligence harmed their motivation because, although children love to be praised, especially for their talents, as soon as they hit a snag their confidence goes out of the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t praise children, Dr Dweck argues. But it does mean we should only use a certain type of praise. We can praise our students as much as we want for the “growth-oriented process – what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies”. But we should avoid the kind of praise that judges their intelligence or talent, and we should avoid the kind of praise that implies “we’re proud of them for their intelligence or talent rather than for the work they put in”.

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