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The Growth of Growth Mindset – A leap of faith?

When working with teachers I often mention Carol Dweck and her work on developing a growth mindset. Most teachers nod knowingly and say they have heard of it. When pressed, many fewer have actually read much of her work, such as her excellent book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’.

Nonetheless, teachers across the country subscribe to the importance of developing a growth mindset over the perils that are inherent in a adopting a fixed mindset. Much like apple pie and motherhood, growth mindset is viewed as a ‘good thing’. It follows, therefore, that we need to encourage ‘good things’ like a growth mindset in our students.

Personally, I have a growth mindset about my ability to become fitter. I firmly believe that through exercise I can improve/maintain my fitness levels. I have personal experience which convinces me that this is true. Moreover I know of the strategies, including regular engagement with sport and working out at the gym, that are successful for me.

Job done then – I believe that through appropriate effort I can become fitter, and I even know how to do it.

Unfortunately I have not played any sport in the past 5 years, and my gym memunfitbership has lapsed similarly. I do honestly have a growth mindset outlook to my fitness levels, but I am behaving in such a way that means I am becoming less fit. Put another way – believing it and doing it are two different things!

Translated into the classroom, students who have been immersed in a can-do, effort trumps ability, growth mindset type culture may well have developed a firm belief that through effort they can improve as a learner. Barry Hymer in his recent presentation to the ASCL Conference, ‘Is the Emperor Naked?’, identifies 15 things, such as promoting self-regulation, that a school can do to help to develop a growth mindset. All 15 strategies sit well with the Building Learning Powered classroom, as do those outlined in his Growth Mindset Pocketbook which alerts us to ‘the dangers of easy success, the rewards of failure, and the power of meta-learning’

As a consequence of such interventions/strategies students’ belief systems may well move from ‘I can’t do it’ (fixed) to ‘I can’t do it – yet!’ (growth), but do they actually practise what they believe? If, like me, they believe it but do nothing about it, they are engaging in wishful thinking that will ultimately lead nowhere. Believing in the power of effort and making the effort are different. Having a growth mindset, as mathematicians might say, is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Growth mindset, therefore, is not an end in itself, merely the foundations from which effective learners can develop and grow. There has been a tendency to oversimplify Dweck’s work in this way, and miss the crucial stage of acting upon the growth mindset.

Having convinced students of the necessity of adopting a growth mindset, the next step is to provide timely interventions that gradually nudge them to expand and develop their own personal learning skills, to practise them so that they become habituated and, eventually, become part of their learning character – ie to build learning power. As Carol Dweck says “Building Learning Power . . builds on my work and translates the idea of growth mindset into powerful and practical ways of organising 21st century schools. These schools will turn out not just high achievers, but great all-round learners and leaders”.

A deeper question that has been occupying me of late is the extent to which fixed and growth mindests operate like on/off switches – that either I have a fixed or growth outlook about a particular area of my life. I recognise that it is possible to be simultaneously fixed and growth in different areas one’s life – for example, one can have a fixed outlook on the ability to write poetry but equally have a growth outlook on the ability to learn a new language. But it is not our ability to hold these two apparently conflicting outlooks simultaneously that interests me.

Rather I’m considering whether there is anything lying in between fixed and growth. Are there degrees of fixedness and growthness ? What does mostly fixed but with some growth look like? How is it different from 50/50 ? Are there stepping stones from fixed to growth, or is it a chasm that requires a single leap of faith ?

If there are ‘staging posts’ in the journey from fixed to growth, we need to be able to describe the journey so that we can help students to make the small, gradual changes that will gently morph fixed into growth. Or maybe I am worrying unnecessarily and the simplistic on/off will suffice! What do you think?


For ways to nudge pupils’ learning skills, why not try our At A Glance Cards

[Mindset: The New Psychology of Success By Dweck, Carol S. Paperback, 2007, £15.99, Amazon] [Growth Mindset Pocketbook, Barry Hymer and Mike Gershon, 2014, £6.29, Amazon]
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