For those of us who recall the superb 1980s comedy, ‘Yes Minister’, the episode in which Sir Humphrey’s instruction to bury nonsense behind a positive title might come to mind.
By the way, if ‘Yes Minister’ means little to you, get on to YouTube. It is as fresh now as it was thirty years ago. Just don’t get mixed up with the tame re-make of recent times, where the budget appeared to be so low that every shot took place in the same room.
There is something big in education at the moment which would fit Sir Humphrey’s description to a tee, and that is the current push on a ‘Growth Mindset’. It is not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with this approach, indeed it seems to have a lot going for it, and used properly is an excellent tool to promote learning. The problem is that the term is being used in many of our schools to cover what is not the greatest practice.
False Growth Mindset
There is something about the term itself – who would NOT want to be identified as having a ‘growth mindset’? After all, the opposite – a shrinking mind set? – is something about which nobody would proudly boast.
A false growth mindset is, it could be argued, harmful to student’s learning, whatever their age.
There are two main characteristics to this state of mind. Firstly, it takes the form of a negative reaction to failure. We don’t like getting it wrong, do we? After all, we spent most of our education getting it right, and faced disappointment – our own, our parents’ and our teachers’ – when success eluded us.
And now, as teachers, if we get it wrong we face criticism and censure. Or, perhaps even worse, the patronising question from a school leader such as ‘How could you do it better?’, as if that question is not in the minds of every good teacher the whole time.
But, as cliched as it may sound, our students need to get things wrong. If they don’t, then they are not being stretched and challenged. They are being fed knowledge rather than learning how to learn. One is a short-term solution for closed assessments, the other is lesson for life. The reaction of teachers, parents and the pupils themselves simply needs to be one of finding a way of doing it right next time, when they have not reached a satisfactory conclusion this time.
Secondly, a false growth mindset is one where the teacher (or parents) offers false praise reinforcing failure. ‘You’re almost there.’ ‘Well done, a really good effort.’ You know the sort of thing. How, though, is that kind of comment going to help students to improve? Yes, they may have tried hard, but they were trying at the wrong thing. We are simply reinforcing that incorrect way of working.
The best operators of a growth mindset approach will point out errors, but offer constructive advice as to the best way for the pupil to make progress.
Much of the founding research on growth mindset was conducted by Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Stanford University. They identified a state that all teachers will have experienced in some of their less successful classes. That is the fixed mindset that says that the student has failed once, so might as well not try anymore, because that will result in further failure.
This often manifests itself in surliness, rudeness, negativity and attention seeking behaviour. A careless attitude to work can also be present, or a reluctance to try new ideas.
If we are honest, some teachers also have a fixed mindset. They have a method that works for them, and many of their pupils, but will not open themselves to ideas that might work for more of their students.
So, what does a real growth mindset look like?
Firstly, it is not a quick fix. For students to develop a growth mindset, they need to be exposed to it for as long as possible.
A growth mindset in a school needs to exist in every part. Students need to know what learning looks like. They need to recognise that success is relative. Not every boy or girl is going to get into the school football team. That doesn’t mean that they are bad, or cannot enjoy playing.
Students need to understand what is restricting their learning. In other words, they need to learn metacognitively – knowing what they need to do to make progress. They need to recognise that getting things wrong is a part of the normal process in the journey to getting them right. They need to understand that there are steps to go through to reach the end goal. Great teachers, whether or not they describe it as promoting a growth mindset, already facilitate this.
Of course, we live in a society where, overtly, much operates against this approach. The ‘X Factor’ story on instant success; the sense of entitlement that pervades so many young lives; a Government that sees everything as success or failure.
But, if schools are to deliver the opportunity of success for all, a growth mindset approach – properly employed – is worthy of consideration.
Many of the best teachers are already there.