As educators, especially those who have been teaching for some years now, we can get hardened by the policy changes and silver bullets that only last until the next one flies by. It takes persistent and thoughtful leadership to withstand the whirlwinds of educational strategy and push back when powerful ideas get lost in the storm or face criticism. Growth mindset, the theory that ability can be developed through deliberate practice and hard work, is a perfect example of this point. Headlines about growth mindset pull you in with phrases like, “new test for ‘growth mindset’,” “theory misinterpreted” or “the perils of growth mindset education”, only to either simplify the theory to one-size-fits-all or to highlight the issues already pointed out by Carol Dweck, whose research the concept is based.
A lot has been written about growth mindset and the research of Dweck, psychologist and researcher at Stanford University who popularised the term to explain her research. Most of it supportive; some of it critical. Many school leaders say, “We’ve done growth mindset,” solely because they held year assemblies, one professional development day and stuck up some growth mindset posters around the room. In reality, it takes years to shift the climate and culture of school. To get it right you have to be able to invest and to keep going if you get it wrong sometimes. Here are a few tips to help find solutions for some common pitfalls:
ONGOING TRAINING AND TIME FOR DEVELOPMENT
Embedding the concepts of growth mindset into the curriculum will work when scaffolded and delivered over time. Successful schools offer ongoing opportunities for teachers to learn strategies, practise them and then develop growth mindset strategies over the years, without expectations that changes will be instantaneous. Proper training includes strategies like regular mindset CPD that build on the last, short teacher features by leaderships and action research to share good practice (see “Developing Great Teaching” in The Teacher Development Trust Report 2015). According to Kathy Liu Sun from Stanford University:
"Teachers’ mindsets and even their explicit use of growth mindset language were often not aligned with their actual classroom practices and did not lead to their students developing a growth mindset. In fact, teachers who explicitly endorsed a growth mindset often engaged in practices that implicitly contradicted this message and produced more fixed mindsets in their students." (Is it enough for teachers to have a growth mindset?)
Sun's point is that teachers must use strategies that teach how to tackle the complexity of learning, such as multi-entry points and ways of solving problems to reach success.
MAKE IT RELEVANT TO YOUR SCHOOL
There are a number of pre-packaged professional development resources out there as well as organisations that will hold workshops for students and teachers, often run by actors, not educators. If you are going embed the concepts across a school, you must be authentic. Collect examples of what staff, parents and especially students say and do when they learning. Create opportunities for collaboration and creativity around real experiences. Last week, a year 1 teacher invited me into her room to watch students struggling with a difficult maths challenge. What an opportunity! I used speech bubble sticky notes to record their thoughts for them. One student said, “At first I said I can’t do this, but then I thought about it a lot more.” I wrote it down and gave her the speech bubble. That is authentic; and now she can use it for the next challenge and I can use it show others. More importantly, the teacher scaffolded the maths problem making it explicit that learning is a process and we use both strategies and perseverance to get the outcome.
GET EVERYONE ON BOARD
To change a school’s culture and climate all stakeholders need to understand growth mindset and related strategies. While schools often choose to focus training on students and teachers, true culture change happens when growth mindset language, strategies and behaviours are exhibited by the entire school community. This means training all staff, including those at front desk and lunchtime supervisors who interact with students regularly. Parents as well. They are the most important support source for students. If what we are saying at school isn’t followed through at home, it may confuse children. We should explain to parents why saying, “Oh I was never good at maths. That’s just the way our family is,” is sending a false message. Let’s also point out why praising your child only for their special talents may devalue their efforts.
A FIXED LABEL STICKS
When explaining mindsets to students for the first time, it helps to compare what is meant by ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindset, but be clear with students that we all have different mindsets at different times. If a student perceives his/herself as fixed they may disconnect from learning and feel stuck with a fixed mindset. The point is not to label students, but to help them learn how to be more growth mindset, more often. According to Dweck in a recent article, “The whole idea of growth mindset is to say yes they can,” not to reinforce that they can’t. Lastly, with older students, avoid using the phrase “growth mindset” too often. They will rebel against the teacher talk after a while. Sneak it in by using words like perseverance, challenge and hard work instead.
THE EFFORT AWARD
One mistake educators make when discussing the brain and growth mindset is that ‘more effort’ and ‘hard work’ is the holy grail of learning. If students are putting in lots of effort but not changing or developing strategies, they will continue to fail. So instead of just saying, “Try harder,” encourage students to “try differently” or as Dweck suggests, use “effective effort.” This advice is not reserved for students. Teachers and other staff in schools, who could hardly ever be accused of not putting in enough effort, should be encouraged to ‘try differently’. Create opportunities for them to think outside the box and take risks in a supportive environment through coaching or ungraded observations.
OUTCOME MATTERS TOO
Educators who have adopted the strategy of process praise (praising the effort over talent or intelligence as encouraged by Dweck’s research) should remember that it’s still okay to reward the success for the final outcome. Growth mindset feedback is about helping students be aware of their process (effort, strategies, actions); it does not mean that the grade on the exam is not important. It absolutely is—to students, to teachers and to parents—and pretending that it doesn’t is disingenuous. But research shows that when students and teachers value the process, that attitude reflected in a better final product.
THIS IS NOT A SELF-ESTEEM MOVEMENT
People often confuse growth mindset with “thinking positively” or “feeling good.” As educators, we want our students to feel happy. Feeling good helps you learn better by releasing neurotransmitters that enhance memory, alertness and executive functions, according to neurologist and teacher Dr. Judy Willis. But this should not be at the cost of being dishonest. “We can’t first build the students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow,” writes Ron Berger, author of An Ethic of Excellence and well-known teacher in Austin’s Butterfly. Likewise, failing is not fun. Having a growth mindset means developing an attitude and strategies to bounce back from failure and mistakes. It does not mean you have to like it.
IT’S A NOT A MAGIC WAND
In a recent article in TES, Robert Plomin, professor and researcher of behavioural genetics at King’s College, questions growth mindset, but if you look further you will see that what he is really refuting is the silver-bullet approach to teaching growth mindset: “I don’t want to knock it, but what I don’t like is that it’s a silver bullet, quick fix. Change these kid’s minds and they all go to to Oxbridge.” Exactly. It is a strategy among many that we use. Growth mindset is effective when supported by time and realistic expectations.
BIG UP THE BRAIN
The information now available through the use of brain imaging shows us that “cells that fire together, wire together.” This basic idea that through deliberate practice and effort we can get smarter is as powerful to the reception student as it is to the classroom teacher, principal or governor of any school. Teach about the brain and talk about it when feeding back to students. Several years back on my first meeting of Dweck, I asked her for suggestions for bringing others on board. She advised to just point to the neuroscience; it speaks for itself. I’ve been doing this in schools for the past three and half years and it works.
None of the research or readings can teach you as much as being on the ground, teaching the concepts of growth mindset and brain-based learning in schools from primary to secondary. A few weeks ago, a headteacher from a secondary school, told me that parents of year 7 were coming up to her at the last parents evening stating that they noticed a real shift their children’s attitudes toward hard work that they hadn’t seen before. Teachers, she said, have told her the same. In a primary school where I work, a student teacher’s tutor remarked on how powerful the teacher feedback was because it helped the child make the connection between the brain and perseverance. He replied, “That’s the way we all speak to children here.” Daily, I see the small shifts in people’s thinking that change attitudes over the long term. It is a transformative movement. When looked at closely, critics who are cynical about growth mindset are disgruntled by implementation processes, not the concept. It takes reflective leadership to see the difference.