In which I start a 6 month research and development project on the ‘Growth Mindset’

In December 2013, I successfully applied for a TLR post working on a 6-month research and development project on the growth mindset. My starting point was to go back and re-read Mindset, with a specific focus on chapter 7 (on parents, teachers and coaches). This post is largely consists of what the book has to say on fixed and growth mindsets in the context of education, and my initial thoughts on the implications of this for teaching practice and schools in general.

Mindset at the Whole-School Level

As Dylan Wiliam has said, ‘every teacher can improve.’ [1] I certainly can. However, as Dweck writes, ‘Fixed-mindset teachers often think of themselves as finished products. Their role is simply to impart their knowledge. But doesn’t that get boring year after year? Standing before yet another crowd of faces and imparting. Now, that’s hard.’ [2] Moreover, Wiliam’s quote is open to misinterpretation. A fixed mindset teacher would hear his quote as a judgemental and potentially quite threatening statement – something like “Your teaching requires improvement” – to which they will have a deeply defensive reaction. In contrast, a growth mindset teacher is ‘one who continues to learn along with the students.’ A growth mindset teacher would hear Wiliam’s quote as forward-looking and full of possibility: “You can improve.” In the context of promoting formative student feedback, Wiliam has advocated comment-only marking; however, in the context of improving teaching practice, as I have written elsewhere, the implications for school leaders are the same. [3]

Directions:

  • Formative lesson observations (no levels / grades)

Students, like teachers, can also arrive at a classroom with a fixed or a growth mindset. Fixed mindset students are ones who believe that success in education is the result of natural ability. As a result, these students have already decided that it is impossible for them to succeed – after all, you can’t work towards having natural ability; you’re either born with it, or you aren’t. Where they didn’t self-identify as “talented”, students said ‘these ideals disrupted their thinking, made them procrastinate, made them give up, and made them stressed-out. They were demoralized by the ideal they could never hope to be.’ [4] Meanwhile, those with a growth mindset describe the ideal students as ‘one whose primary goal is to expand their knowledge and their ways of thinking and investigating the world. They do not see grades as an end in themselves but as means to continue to grow.’ [5] School leaders could (and perhaps, therefore, should) use their school marking policy to promote a growth mindset amongst students, as suggested below.

Directions:

  • Mark work based on sustained effort and the process of learning, rather than / as well as on the outcome (i.e. no levels / grades, with the possible exception of marking for level of effort)
  • Use the school reward / sanctions system to promote sustained effort and engagement (rather than / as well as for good results in tests)
  • Use the school report system to recognise sustained effort and engagement (rather than / as well as to judge progress)
  • Stop identifying students as “Gifted and Talented”

As mentioned above, one of the ways that teachers can reinforce a student’s mindset is through feedback. If students are praised for their intelligence and talent, then students are more likely to avoid tasks that present any kind of challenge as it threatens their self-concept as someone who should find everything easy. Instead, if teachers want to develop a growth mindset in their students, then we need to teach students ‘to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning,’ and to praise them ‘for the growth-oriented process – what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies.’ [6] The other side of this coin is that we also need to use criticism to promote a growth mindset, using feedback to help students understand how to improve, rather than fixed-mindset feedback ‘that labels or simply excuses the child.’ [7] Again, a growth mindset could be promoted through a whole-school marking policy.

Directions:

  • Comment-only marking (or, at least, not sharing levels / grades with students)

Mindset at the Departmental Level

If praising students’ intelligence can lead to a fixed mindset, then so can lowering the level of challenge. While it might lead to short-term boost to their self-esteem, in the long term it ‘just leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise.’ [8] Developing a growth mindset in the process of planning a curriculum, at the departmental level, is about trying to find a way ‘to set high standards and have students reach them.’ Dweck suggests ‘presenting topics in a growth framework and giving students process feedback,’ [9] although doesn’t offer a vision of what that might look like in practice. There are also implications for how we react when students do complete work both quickly and perfectly:

‘When we say to children, “Wow, you did that so quickly!” or “Look, you didn’t make any mistakes!” what message are we sending? We are telling them that what we prize are speed and perfection. Speed and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning: “If you think I’m smart when I’m fast and perfect, I’d better not take on anything challenging.” So what should we say when children complete a task – say, math problems – quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, “Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!”’ [10]

Directions:

  • Plan lessons / schemes of work around a sequence of learning activities at increasingly high level of challenge
  • Stop differentiating downwards (except to account for special education needs)
  • Teach the process of learning as well as the outcome (SOLO Taxonomy?)

Afterthoughts

Part of the specific remit of my research and development project is to identify a specific teaching and learning strategy that I can trial over a 6 week period in order to measure its outcomes. The problem that I face by following Dweck’s findings through to (what I consider, at least, to be) their logical conclusions is that a number of them would require changes to school policy (rewards / sanctions, reports, ‘Gifted and Talented’), and/or operate on a much longer time frame than the 6 weeks that I will have available to me (marking, planning schemes of work). So far, I’ve only identified one specific teaching and learning strategy that could be implemented at a classroom level, and that could plausibly be trialled within a 6 week period – namely, the use of SOLO Taxonomy to plan a 6-week sequence of lessons in order to focus on the process of learning as well as the outcome. However, I should reiterate that this is based only on a reading of Dweck’s book. My next post will detail my continuing research into identifying discrete and measurable ‘growth mindset’ teaching and learning strategies.

Notes

[1] D. Wiliam, ‘Every Teacher Can Improve’, www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqRcpA5rYTE  (video uploaded 14 December 2012; site accessed 23 January 2014)

[2] C. Dweck (2012) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential [Kindle edition] (London, Constable & Robinson)

[3] C. Phillips (2013) ‘In which I consider the implications of applying the principles of AfL to lesson observations’, https://forwardsnotbackwards.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/in-which-i-consider-the-implications-of-applying-the-principles-of-afl-to-lesson-observations/

[4] Dweck, Mindset

[5] Dweck, Mindset

[6] Dweck, Mindset

[7] Dweck, Mindset

[8] Dweck, Mindset

[9] Dweck, Mindset

[10] Dweck, Mindset

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About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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2 Responses to In which I start a 6 month research and development project on the ‘Growth Mindset’

  1. Pingback: In which I start to consider specific teaching strategies to develop a growth mindset | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

  2. Pingback: In which I ask whether SOLO Taxonomy can be used to develop a growth mindset | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

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