Experimenting with the growth mindset

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Rebecca Tushingham details her early forays into encouraging a growth mindset in her school’s students.

I feel that I can safely make the assumption that a class of engaged and motivated students is what every teacher hopes to meet; students that take pride in their work, actively seek challenge and don’t give up at the first inkling of failure. Sounds like a dream? Well actually it’s called a “growth mindset”, a term first coined by Professor Carol Dweck and becoming increasingly recognised in education.

Prof Dweck says: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

The growth mindset is gaining rapid popularity in education at the moment; it seems to confirm everything that we already knew but perhaps couldn’t articulate – effort beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

There is one problem though – there is a shortage of research about the power of the growth mindset in a school or classroom setting. This has left teachers like me eager to put the theory to the test with school students.

Initially I picked up on the motivational side of things – inspirational slogans appeared on my PowerPoints and a “never give up” strategy was employed across the board. This created a buzz but one that didn’t last – as I found out growth mindset in practice is a lot more complex than a neat one-liner.

The biggest lesson I have learnt is not to assume that students are either “fixed” or a “growth” mindset. They are likely to be a combination of the two depending on the demands placed upon them.

Research carried out with our year 10 revealed that the vast majority had a growth perception of intelligence, but this did not mean that they were demonstrating growth behaviours in lessons.

The good news is that we are in a position to water those green shoots by providing a growth mindset-rich environment. Here are a few of the techniques that I have explored to date (a more thorough account is available on my blog – see further information).

Praise

If you know just one thing about the growth mindset it is likely to be that you don’t praise achievement you praise effort. This led to a serious overuse of the “E” word and a corresponding suspicion among my students.

We have been conditioned as a society to associate effort with lack of ability, the phrase “at least you tried your best” might as well continue “but you didn’t win”. 

I desperately needed a more sophisticated dialogue and my colleague Tim came to my aid with his neat “re-phrase your praise” crib sheet to stop my “effort” overkill. If you are struggling with the “E” word then I recommend that you have something like this close at hand until you have weaned yourself onto a more varied verbal diet.

Feedback

Research by the brilliant Professor John Hattie has found that feedback is the most powerful single influence enhancing achievement. His work doesn’t advocate more feedback, but rather high-quality feedback that students engage with deeply. 

As a teacher I know that nothing is more frustrating than spending a large amount of time carefully crafting personalised feedback only to find that your class skim-read it before carrying on in the same vein – so how do we change things?

We need to shift our students’ perceptions of the value of feedback, not just from us, but from each other as well. If students value and act upon self, peer and teacher assessment then an increase in perseverance and resilience will follow because you will have established review and refining/redrafting as the route to mastery. 

DIRT

This stands for dedicated improvement and reflection time. Once you have your students primed and ready to receive their feedback you can start to introduce some DIRT time so that they can take direct action.

Feedback should not be onerous and does not have to be a drain on your time – as long as it prompts a shift in strategy it has done its job, which is why I created a suggestion sheet to rely upon in times of need. 

The here and now

Students can be highly situational and tend to focus their thinking on the immediate now, which can undo their very best growth mindset intentions.

I have recently started to address this by referring to the “future self”, as in “if you keep going now it will be frustrating but your future self will be far better off” – this is new and I am still finding my way with it.

‘Yet’

The power of those three letters is not to be underestimated. Perfect for adding to the end of any sentence that begins with: “I can’t...”

Role models

Live your life the growth mindset way – choose to struggle (but not give up) in front of students. Not many of us are hard-wired to think in growth terms, put us under pressure and we can very easily revert back to type, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t catch ourselves and get back on track.

I can’t think of a better way to prove to my students the effectiveness of the growth mindset than for them to see me struggle, waiver but carry on because what I am doing matters to me.

  • Rebecca Tushingham is an associate senior leader at Hanham Woods Academy in Bristol. Visit www.hanhamwoods.academy

Further information


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