For educators, parents and learners Carol Dweck’s research on the benefits of a Growth Mindset is naturally appealing. Those who have a growth mindset achieve better results than those who don’t, are more resilient and accept challenge willingly. In response schools have embraced the notion and classroom walls are adorned with posters identifying the characteristics of growth versus fixed mindsets. Teachers make efforts to shift their students towards a growth mindset and parents consider how they may assist in the process. After two years of incorporating a growth mindset philosophy we are finding that the reality of shifting a student’s disposition away from a fixed mindset and then maintaining a growth mindset is significantly more complex than at first imagined. Numerous forces and influences play a role and progress is unlikely to match a linear curve.
Where schools have made steps in the right direction, is in raising awareness of the two mindsets. In this regard the placement of posters and discussion around the role that our mindset has in our learning are steps in the right direction. Demonising the fixed mindset is perhaps an unnecessary step and our students may be better served by understanding that we all have times when we fall into a fixed mindset. Education of how we may recognise such times and apply strategies of mindfulness and metacognition would avoid shifting already vulnerable learners on to the circle of shame. Awareness is however far form the end of the journey towards reaping the benefits of a Growth Mindset.
Much of Carol Dweck’s research relates to the giving of praise and the manner in which we give and receive feedback. The fixed mindset is associated with beliefs that our ability is a fixed quantity and that effort is a sign of weakness. If I must try hard at something I am clearly not talented in that area. This mindset is reinforced by much of the praise adults give to children. The message we give is that they are intelligent, smart, artistic, sporty and this is interpreted as recognition of static, innate talents they possess. Children with a fixed mindset learn to crave this sort of praise and it becomes attached to their imagining of their self worth and secure feelings of attachment to those important to their emotional security. Sudden shifts to praise of effort can result in students questioning their self image and feeling that they have lost the confidence of those they relied on for signals of affirmation.
For some students a shift from praise of talent to praise of effort can be devastating. They do not understand that the change in language does not mean that they are viewed as having slipped in ability. They fail to recognise that their success has always been a result of effort as in many cases the reality is that they have achieved adequate success based on underlying ability alone; they have not had to try hard to succeed. Faced with new challenges and more complex tasks they now face learning situations where they must take risks and apply greater effort towards success. Failure along this journey becomes inevitable and with a mindset fixed by past success that came easily they lack the metacognitive process to push through these times. This realization is for many likely to occur at the time they enter adolescence where feelings of self worth, body image, socialisation pressures and physical and cognitive shifts place young people most at risk. Empowering young learners with a deep understanding of how fixed and growth mindsets interact and enabling a metalanguage for them to use as they describe their interpretation of their shifting mindset may help but will not be sufficient.
The cognitive disconnect that accompanies a sudden shift in language from praise of ability to praise of effort may be minimised by initially providing both. A student may be given feedback something like this; ‘You did very well on this writing task, you used your talent for writing well and you clearly worked very hard to include effective language and took some interesting risks with your word choices.’ Praise presented in a mixed form with traditional recognition of ability but with a gradually increasing emphasis on the actions which led to success and the effort applied to a task may ease the transition and avoid a decline in self esteem. Ultimately the goal is to move away from having to praise ability but doing so immediately after reading Carol’s books is not recommended.
Much of the difficulty experienced as we make efforts to change to and then maintain a growth mindset results from the mixed messages we send students. Ideally students will consistently receive feedback that points towards the things they have done well and things that they could do more of. Praise linked to actions rather than attributes allows the learner to focus on doing more of what leads to success and actions unlike personal attributes can be changed. The more consistently that feedback provides these cues the more effective it is likely to be and our students are more likely to inhabit a growth mindset as a result. Praise for ability is however, somewhat like candy, a little bit has a big impact and the work to shift students towards a growth mindset is easily undone. Kind words from adults give children with a fixed mindset the hit they have been looking for and causes them to question the growth focused feedback they have been given.
These mixed messages are reinforced further by the manner in which we formally assess and report on student achievement. Tests which present students with a single measure of their achievement do much damage to a growth mindset. A test score or report grade is too easily interpreted by a student as a measure of their fixed ability. No indication of the actions that led to the mark or grade is provided and no pointer towards future success is offered. More useful is a rubric that provides students with clear advice on what they did well and what they may do more of. As useful as Rubrics may be their ultimate success as a tool for learning requires careful design and considered choice of the language used. Rubrics are also of no value within a culture that translates indicators on a rubric into a single score by totaling marks across indicators. Use of Carol Dweck’s highly valued term ‘Not Yet’ is beneficial if students understand that this illustrates a belief that with continued effort they will be able to achieve the desired result.
While many influencers and forces play a role in forming an individuals mindset three agents are perhaps most significant for schools to consider. Central to any discussion of mindset is the individual themselves. Empowered by an understanding of fixed versus growth mindsets the individual may begin to consciously reflect on how they interpret and attribute their success. Recognising the mindset they bring to a task, understanding how they react to challenges and how this varies across learning scenarios gives agency to individuals and protects them against external influences that may shift them towards a fixed mindset. Teachers have vital roles to play in the development of growth mindsets but must do more than advocacy. Providing our students with the reflective and metacognitive skills required to modify their mindset is an effective use of our time. Analysing the nature of our feedback and praise across all interactions with students combined with sensitivity for those presently locked in a fixed mindset is essential. This analysis should include all processes and systems that exist around praising student success. Parents and carers have significant roles to play and collaborations with schools are likely to maximise the benefits of any mindsets programme. Consistent messaging around the controllable factors which lead to success is essential.
Research and classroom experience show real value in efforts to shift students towards a growth mindset. The simplicity of the idea however hides a greater complexity experienced as teachers and parents design and implement programmes deliberately targeting a change in mindset. As with all aspects of education there is no easy fix here and results will unsurprisingly take effort and understanding. Consistent, considered approaches that recognise the many factors and involve all agents which shape our mindset are likely to bring the best results.
By Nigel Coutts