At one time, the ‘growth mind set’ was a phrase on every school leader’s lips and Carol Dweck, its progenitor, was the ‘it’ person in education. But where did it all lead? And where are we now in thinking about how pupils think about themselves as learners? It seems to me that for many schools, the new curriculum and so called new approaches to assessment have not led to any real change in learning orientation, as people like Tim Oates might have hoped for. There seems widespread confusion in what mastery in learning really means. Yes, people on twitter seem to get it, and educators that put themselves out there may not be confused, but these are the minority I feel. There are hundreds of teachers and leaders who are very much stuck in ‘level land’. Teachers are still asked every few weeks to sort children into numerical data groups and pressured to get children to a certain threshold by a set time resulting in just what the abandonment of levels sought to do away with: the sacrifice of deep learning for speedy surface progress. Worst still, many schools still reserve mastery for the ‘top’ children and have the so called ‘bottom’ children sat counting their fingers in the corner with a teaching assistant while the teacher gets the rest to ‘expected,’ and ‘challenges’ those pupils who are ‘exceeding’. This got me to thinking – where is the precious growth mind set in all this?
To remind myself: what does it mean to have a growth mind set?
To being with, the term growth mind set is a phrase created by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe a belief system built on the understanding that intelligence is incremental and ultimately changeable. In her book, ‘Self Theories,’ she explains why some pupils possess a ‘mastery –oriented’ approach to learning, where they seek challenge and persist in the face of obstacles, while others avoid failure at all cost and rarely enjoy challenge.
As educators, we know that children who love learning, are motivated by effort and enjoy overcoming setbacks fair better, not just at school, but also in life. We also know that assessment for learning techniques work better for pupils hooked into learning in this way. These are the children who don’t slump into a miserable pile over the desk when learning gets tough, or go quiet and try not to get noticed, but rather become energized by difficulties and won’t rest until they ‘get it’. These are the children who keep us on our toes because they aren’t satisfied going over old learning for long, but they also make the fastest progress and have an infectious way of motivating others too. We want children to be like this. If we want schools to be truly effective and for children to leave school imbued with this love of learning, then we need to understand that this attitude can be cultivated in all pupils and we owe it to them to ensure this happens.
So what happened to the mind set?
The problem is that, as with many new things in education, complex ideas are quickly précised into bite sized bullet points so that leaders can feed this to teachers in hourly staff meetings, then tick off evidence of implementation in learning walks and observations so they can tell themselves they have disseminated this new practice across the school. Sometimes this might work, but this cannot work with the growth mind set because, as Dweck says, ‘people develop beliefs that organise their world and give meaning to their experiences;’ this creates our ‘meaning systems.’ People’s beliefs about themselves and others, their ‘self theories,’ are not something that can change in a few staff meetings. Whether or not one has a growth mind set goes to the heart of who you are and how you think, feel and act.
Too many school initiatives have used Dweck’s theory merely as an motivational device to attempt to get pupils to work harder rather than committing the whole school community to a complete change of heart in relation to learning and ability. Importantly, this applies to everyone, including teachers, parents and most definitely leaders as well. Some of the most fixed mind sets in schools can exist in the minds of leaders in how they think about their staff and in the way they treat them, which ultimately sets the tone of the whole school environment.
If leaders and teachers really want to cultivate a growth mind set in their pupils the whole school needs to check up on what they think and feel about ability and intelligence. It is my firm belief that schools who still label children by ability, and separate pupils into closed ability groups might very well pay lip service to the growth mind set vogue, but do not really believe in it all.
At the heart of the growth mind set is the understanding that wherever a pupil is, their intelligence can be increased; there is no set quota of intelligence that a child is endowed with at birth. This goes against the way many teachers think and talk about children because our theories about others, and indeed ourselves, tend towards being fixed in nature. Let’s face it, first impressions stick, just like first loves; once you feel something about someone or something it’s hard to shift it and nine times out of ten we spiral into a repetition of the same thoughts and feelings about people and situations. Intelligence is no different. It is after all only the sum total of one’s present skills and knowledge which is open to change during every waking hour; we must get away from the idea that somehow intelligence is a sealed box inside the head that is, to a greater or lesser degree, filled with a kind of mental elixir.
Dweck found that pupils who had a less fixed theory of intelligence regularly sacrificed opportunities to appear ‘clever’ in favour of opportunities to learn something new. We all know pupils like this: those tenacious kids who ask question after question and won’t rest until they have succeeded. Whereas, pupils with more fixed ideas about intelligence feel the need to look clever and avoid looking ‘stupid’. They seek easy success to demonstrate this and regularly disengage from tasks that pose a threat to their perceived intelligence. We all know plenty of children like this too! (We know plenty of adults too.)
In practice, we know that children (and adults) who will persevere through adversity regardless achieve more because for them failure motivates rather than undermines. If you think and feel that you have a fixed amount of intelligence then whatever you do it will remain the same, therefore failure only exposes the truth about how much intelligence you have. If this is true then it makes sense to hide failure and avoid anything that exposes this unchangeable truth. However, if for you intelligence is fluid and can be built upon through effort and practice, then a failure is a signal for you that growth and change are just around the corner – so failure takes on a whole different meaning, it becomes a motivator.
In truth, too many classrooms have too little cognitive discomfort for places of learning. A classroom should be a place full of quizzical looks, small frowns and lightly chewed lips, interspersed with eureka moments followed by yet more finger tapping and head scratching. Why this seems to frighten teachers is not a mystery, but a result of intense pressure for progress and evidence of lots of ‘learning success’ with little or no mention of the horrible F word. These days, there is little time to fail in class. Why failure seems to frighten pupils is because we’ve disconnected failure from the concept of learning when there is no learning without failure first, as Samuel Becket said: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Growth mind set: Failure = a challenge which leads to future learning.
Fixed mind set: Failure= an intelligence deficit which can’t be changed so only leads to looking stupid! Avoid it!
This is why growth mind set initiatives in schools need to be much more than a simple motivational driver. Any initiatives need to challenge everyone’s beliefs about intelligence and then lead to real change in thinking and behaviour. This means that the shared ‘meaning systems’ of the school community support change in the individual meaning systems of all. If this doesn’t happen, children’s feelings about being ‘stupid,’ ‘slow’ ‘bright’ or ‘clever’ are only reinforced and behaviour will not change.
There’s much more to say on this, not least about how teachers communicate with pupils in confirming or breaking down fixed mindsets. Teachers can have a dramatic affect on how pupils view intelligence just by changing how they talk about learning and deliberately making pupils conscious of when they are literally building their own intelligence. However, this needs to go hand in hand with a school ethos that mirrors a mastery-approach to learning for all – including teachers and leaders, a place where failure is recognised positively and utilised by learners rather than desperately feared, and certainly a place where we get away from the same old cavalry charge for data that has driven shoddy practice for years. Data never leads to learning, but it might do the other way around.