I’ve written before (lots!) about growth mindset and why I think it’s important. I think we need to be careful though. If it’s really going to make a difference, we need to think very deeply about what it really means as teachers and leaders to be supporting a growth mindset in our schools. Posters, assemblies and pictures are fine – but the way we will really make a difference to our students, in terms of developing their mindset, is the way we interact with them on a day to day basis – in particular, in the things we say to them.
To me, Tom’s description above nails it. The problem is though, the more you think about mindset, the more you start to question the way we talk to students and the way in which schools operate. A few examples follow (most of which I have used at some point in my career, but am now trying to eliminate!):
Academic potential is a strange idea – because how do we know what it is? If we believe the basic premise of mindset theory – that talent and ability is not fixed and can be developed – how can we say that someone has fulfilled their potential? This suggests a pre-programmed limit to what our students can achieve.
For years, learning objectives up and down the country have been shaped around ‘all…most..some’ This is potentially really dangerous I think, as it lowers our expectations of what students can achieve. Much better to have a single, challenging objective and use questioning, feedback and other means of support to encourage all students to aspire towards it.
There’s nothing wrong with top end challenge. My problem is that I rarely hear the phrase ‘low end challenge’. We should have high expectations for all students and look to stretch all of them – not just the students with the higher starting points. If we don’t, we risk perpetuating the cycle of underachievement of students with lower academic starting points.
“Memory is the residue of thought”
So, make the work hard and encourage students to embrace struggle and realise the importance of it. Take care with the ‘hardness’ though – if the work is too hard, students will encounter ‘cognitive overload’ and switch off. The great teachers will judge this just right and keep them in the struggle zone:
This feeds the fixed mindset student! They think achievement comes naturally and so if they have to work at it, they’ve failed. As a result, they won’t attempt the harder tasks, as they don’t want to risk failure – and want to look clever.
So, it’s much better to praise the hard work and effort, in order to support the growth mindset – it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong, because you’ve worked hard and put the effort in. As a result, you’re more likely to try the harder tasks and so eventually master them.
There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, we have kidded ourselves that we actually know the difference between a 5a, 5b or a 5c – and if we don’t, students certainly won’t. Secondly, setting a ‘target’ like this, again contradicts growth mindset and the idea that ability can be developed through hard work and practice. Assessment without levels has given us the opportunity to address this at KS3 – we now need to think about how we tackle the idea of target setting at KS4?
They won’t have – because learning takes place over weeks, months and years! So rather than asking this at the end of the lesson, ask what they have struggled with and use this to plan your next lesson – to support deliberate practice and embrace struggle.
Change your language…change their mindset.