Developing a learning capacity for life


We too often focus on ability at the expense of effort, says Dr Joanna Goodman. As the new curriculum nears, she warns that assessment must focus on progress and developing students’ ‘growth mindsets’.

In the UK, many schools articulate their commitment to developing every individual through mission statements that promise to “fulfil every individual’s potential”. But how do we know what is “individual potential” and how can we measure if it has been fulfilled?

Does “fulfilling potential” equate to an assumption that “potential” is a finite phenomenon which is fixed or predetermined? Do such statements unintentionally put a ceiling to learning and achievement?

I have a great deal of admiration for Professor Carol Dweck’s important research findings regarding motivation to learn and her idea of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets (1). A fixed mindset is defined as a strong belief in one’s ability (intelligence) as basis for success, rather than effort, where individuals tend to hide their mistakes and deficiencies, and react negatively to setbacks. A growth mindset is based on effort and is focused on learning and achievement.

My thinking is that there is no ceiling to learning (a growth mindset) because there is always that next step to aim for on any learning ladder. When working with students, I like to concentrate on building their learning capacity for life, rather than thinking about “fulfilling their potential” – a notion that can seem more like a fixed mindset, where the fulfilment of one’s potential is projected as something that can be “arrived at” in the sense of a final destination.

And to my mind, this is not how we should see things, because there is no final destination regarding learning and achievement, where attitude to learning (a growth mindset) is a key ingredient to success.

In developing the new framework for the national curriculum, it has been reported that ranking of 11-year-old pupils in ability bands may be one way of reporting and monitoring progress. This is not a novel idea; schools already have their pupils’ baseline data, which puts them into different ability bands thus giving schools valuable information regarding their pupils’ different starting points. 

There is nothing wrong with that, to the contrary, this provides a springboard for monitoring personal improvement or setbacks, and is a useful tool for informing intervention where needed. As with any assessment data, it is the purpose for which it is used that is crucial, not its existence.

However, where educational systems put greater emphases on effort rather than on ability, for example Singapore, China, Korea, Hong Kong, this works in synergy with the idea of a “growth mindset”, where individuals (learners and employees) believe that effort can bring the desired results, and this belief motivates them to succeed in problem-solving and building learning capacity for life.

But the British system has always been driven by the notion of “ability” rather than “effort” and this, based on Prof Dweck’s research, I would argue can lead to a “fixed” mindset, which is not in tune with effective personal development or conducive to developing learning sustainability.

As the debate about the new national curriculum continues, we have heard much about the content and little in terms of aims, purpose and assessment – an integral element of learning – that in the long run will determine its success in terms of improving standards and building students’ learning capacity for life.

Ultimately, success is determined by effective teaching, whatever the content, and therefore effective classroom practices focused on involving learners in their learning processes through, for example, sharing explicit learning intentions and success criteria, peer and self-assessment, are absolutely crucial for developing growth mindsets and self-regulated, autonomous learners with learning capability for life.

As the curriculum debate dominates educational circles, many comparisons have been made with educational systems abroad. Some of the successful educational systems are characterised by high degree of autonomy and independence regarding decision-making, for example in Finland, New Zealand, Hong Kong or Singapore; there are also differences in teacher training and selection as well as the value placed on educational achievement by different societies.

Therefore making direct comparisons can be difficult and can be flawed, unless numerous variables are explored. We should also remember that “curriculum” is not suspended in a vacuum as it is a part of a bigger picture, which could be best described as “learning and teaching” in any setting.

Therefore the success in raising standards of learning of any proposed new curriculum will be unpacked in practice. However, we should be concerned with the proposed programmes of learning and how they are informed and supported by effective assessment for moving learning forward.

Ultimately, the evidence of progress will be reflected in assessment outcomes and this is why there is now a great opportunity to develop an effective assessment system for feeding forward that would blend high-stakes testing with classroom (formative) assessment for improved progress.

Thus whether we talk anecdotally about “fulfilling one’s potential” or as I prefer, we refer to “building learning capacity for life”, we are all concerned with learning, and learning is exactly what we should be concerned with because it signifies growth, advancement, improvement and development in every sense. We should also be concerned with developing growth mindsets for future success.

  • Dr Joanna Goodman has a doctorate in education from King’s College London. She is an educationalist with curriculum expertise, assessment in particular, and leadership development. She is director of Cromwell Consulting.

1, Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Learning Potential. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd


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