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The growth mindset debate

What is growth mindset?

Instead of ‘I can’t do that’, say, ‘I can’t do that YET’.”

It is no surprise that Carol Dweck’s concept ‘Growth Mindset’ has become a popular concept in teaching over the last few years. It is the idea that your intelligence is not fixed, instead you can adopt a ‘growth mindset’ and that with effort and perseverance, achieve any goal. The core message is that not that you can’t solve that problem, it’s that you can’t solve it YET.

The Journal of experimental psychology (Jan 2016) states that Mindset of Self is established by age 5, where children can define themselves as boy or girl, good or bad. This is important in forming relationships as they search for common factors they share such as gender, however it also means that they are capable at that stage of establishing what they can and can’t do, and what they are or are not good at.

Dweck claims that the significance of the power of ‘yet’ is empowering because the sensations of effort and difficulty change from being features indicating failure or lack of intelligence, to features of an activity that will promote the growth of the brain – and eventually achievement; it can level demographics of wealth and culture in classrooms, allowing all to achieve.

In her TED TALK, Dr Dweck explains a study where children were taught that as they push to the edge of their comfort zone, their brains can form new stronger neurone connections. Her studies showed significantly improved grades in a wide range of age groups and settings.

Growth mindset under fire

However, the theory has recently come under fire in a series of excellent articles by learning psychologist David Didau, ‘The Learning Spy’, who has pointed out that despite practitioners applying the changes in classrooms, there has not been improved results in real terms.  Having tried the methods for some years, teachers and parents alike are finding many children trying their best again and again, but still not succeeding. Neither have empirical studies been able to reproduce Dweck’s findings. Dweck maintains that we can’t expect to reproduce her results without matching the very specific conditions, but therefore what chance could normal teachers in a classroom have?

It could be that Growth Mindset is innate and cannot be taught; or that primary school age is already too late. Dweck proposes that it’s possible some people experience ‘False Growth Mindset’ – which, by lack of true belief, renders the repeated efforts ineffective. Even Dweck’s critics concede that part of the problem is that the original theories have been distorted in their adaptations.

Does it have value?

So is there value in teaching the concept of Growth Mindset at all?

Certainly children of all ages can benefit from being taught the language of metacognition which allows them to be aware of their own thoughts and of how they make decisions about their own learning and effort.

One of the key results of the The Youth Index survey was that many of the children suffering from depression or mental health issues in secondary schools felt that they were not in control of their lives.

As educators with the privilege of catching these children young, it is undeniable that we must aim to cultivate learners’ belief that they have the power over their lives; this starts with providing opportunities to overcome daunting challenges if they try for long enough.

The anonymous researcher and writer Disidealist warns us that the notion of repeated effort equalling success may be inspiring to some, but could be interpreted as blame, so it must be framed correctly.

Dylan Wiliam suggests that Growth Mindset be harnessed to maximise the impact of feedback:  “Students must understand that they are not born with talent (or lack of it) and that their personalities do not determine whether or not they are “good at math” or “good at writing.” Rather, ability is incremental. The harder you work, the smarter you get. Once students begin to understand this “growth mindset” as Carol Dweck calls it, students are much more likely to embrace feedback from their teachers.”

It’s important not to lose the concept of Growth Mindset all together because some skills actually do become easier with practice. So perhaps the key is to empower children with the understanding of the concept, so they can choose to pick themselves up and ‘give it one more go’ when faced with a challenge. And it is up to us as educators or parents to reinforce the language of that self-empowerment and create the opportunities to try, try again.

Put it into action

Here are three ways to integrate growth mindset ideas into your classroom:

1. Do as Dweck originally proposed – teachers (and parents) can praise effort instead of praising intelligence: praising wisely, the process that they engage in, their strategies, perseverance and improvement. Using the language of ‘yet’ and ‘not yet’ to give them a path to the future and persistence.

2. Effort self-assessment: have your children traffic light their effort for the lesson, rather than how much they understood the knowledge.

3. If you are thinking of introducing the idea of Growth Mindset to your children, Mindset.org and several other well-respected children’s practitioners offer opening lesson plans:

Secondary lesson plans

Org lesson plans and resources

– YouTube growth mindset videos for children

Download a free Growth Mindset lesson from Katherine Muncaster and Shirley Clarke’s book

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