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The Growth Mindset in Education

“I can’t do it”. Sometimes, this pessimistic four-word mantra can be difficult to brush aside. It’s all too easy to believe that the 5k run you foolishly agreed to, the 50,000 word writing challenge you signed up for on a whimsy, or even an average Thursday morning lesson with the class from hell are insurmountable obstacles, designed to waste your time and embarrass your ego. In many cases, this might be true. You can’t possibly run that far, or for that long.

Yet. I can’t do it yet.

That word is the key binding principle behind Carol Dweck’s pioneering work into mindset and attitudes. Her work has inspired and helped to shape modern education and pastoral care.

To say that the “growth mindset” has become something of a buzzword in the education sector would ignore how ubiquitous it has become. Growth mindset isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a powerful pedagogical theory that, when effectively put into practise, has a profound effect on student outcomes. If you haven’t yet added the growth mindset to your pedagogical toolbelt, or if you want to find out more about its practical application in the classroom, then read on.

What exactly is the growth mindset?
Dweck’s studies into attribution theory – the factors that people attribute to personal success – led her to conclude that there are two mindsets that people fall under: the fixed mindset, and the growth mindset.

If you have a fixed mindset, you attribute your successes to innate, fixed abilities, and any failures to a lack of ability. Students with a fixed mindset might give up on a task after their first failed attempt, either because they honestly believe that they are incapable of succeeding, or for fear of appearing to be unintelligent or untalented.

People from all walks of life and levels of ability can have a fixed mindset; in fact, high-ability learners could run a higher risk of adopting one, as they may have had less opportunity to experience failure throughout their education.

Learners of all ages – both adults and children – who have adopted a fixed mindset are less resilient to change and experience minor failures as abject defeat; they will never succeed to their maximum potential.

I can’t do it yet

The growth mindset camp view things a little differently. If you have a growth mindset, you believe that hard work, determination, practise, and experimentation are key to success and self-improvement. Failure isn’t viewed as a barrier to success; instead, people who adopt a growth mindset tackle challenges with enthusiasm, accepting and learning from their failures.

Learners who have adopted a growth mindset will focus on the process of their learning, not just the end results. They believe that they can – and will – learn how to do anything they put their mind to if they work through their challenges and develop the right strategies for success. Rather than focusing on the difficulty of achieving an end goal (running five kilometres), they will set milestones towards enabling them to achieve their end goal (go for a run every day before the race without quitting).

The False Growth Mindset
However, it’s not as simple as having a deep-set belief in your ability to do anything. Some educators have misinterpreted Dweck’s theory, which can end up doing more harm than good.

Rewarding students whenever they put in a concerted effort to succeed – no matter how small – could be dangerous. If students have adopted the wrong strategy to succeed, and you then praise their use of this strategy, you have shifted the focus away from self-improvement, and their efforts may never come to fruition. A better strategy is to reward students’ achievements while highlighting what they could do to improve on their next attempt. A practical example of applying this to a school setting is What Went Well and Even Better If marking; you praise the positive aspects of what the child has achieved through their hard work, and offer suggestions to help them improve their learning strategies. Live marking and verbal feedback are also excellent systems to encourage the introspective self-reflection that is characteristic of a healthy growth mindset.

The Pitfalls of the Fixed Mindset
Bear in mind that the fixed mindset shouldn’t be used as a justification for why some students struggle; you can’t just label them as having a “fixed mindset” and decide that they have to apply themselves to the task harder. Rather than looking for the reasons why a student isn’t learning, try to find ways to help them learn.

Remember that the growth mindset isn’t an absolute. Everybody has aspects of the fixed and growth mindset (including you), and it’s something that we all have to work on over time. There are no easy fixes, and it’s not as easy as believing that you have a growth mindset; you have to put it into practice. The trick is to be aware of this, and to watch out for elements of your own fixed mindset creeping into everyday life. Try to have a growth mindset about encouraging the growth mindset, and remember that people – especially children – can always surprise you!

Can we teach a growth mindset?
Young children are only starting to make sense of the world around them; this is the ideal time to encourage them to adopt a growth mindset and apply it to their education.

However, it’s never too late to adopt a growth mindset.

Modern education is result-oriented, as these results are used to calculate and quantify student achievement both on an individual and nationwide level. However, the best results can often come from not being result-oriented, but rather by focusing on improving the processes that contribute towards those results.

You can apply this concept in a practical environment by exonerating the importance of making better everyday choices, maintaining determination, and improving in incremental steps. When encouraging students in this way, try not to emphasize the importance of a single event or a static aspect of their personality or aptitude.

Remember that mistakes and failures aren’t harmful; they’re simply a part of the learning process. School offers a safe zone for students to practise failure and learn adaptability and resilience.

Supporting the Growth Mindset
Student planners are the ideal place to include inspirational quotes and content that explains the growth mindset, as your students will always have it to hand. We’ve created new page ideas for our online library that are designed to foster the growth mindset in secondary school children; you can check them out here.