“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” Dale Carnegie
I have been working in a school that places growth mindset ethos at the centre of much of its work for over a year now, and my experience has surprised me. I had previously done a years supply work at a huge variety of schools, and loved it. Yet, I noticed an immediate difference at my current school- the students were not,generally speaking, afraid to fail. They stayed with problems that little bit longer. The classrooms feel significantly less divided into students who feel they can, and those who feel they cannot. I don’t have any quantifiable evidence but, the tangible feeling of difference means that it seems sensible to comtinue giving the students this message. Even if we have some questions about it, and I for one do.
At the school I trained at one of the most respected members of staff once said to me, “the 10,000 hour stuff is a load of rubbish- we only make a small difference really.” She had a sense that students achieved basically what they would achieve anyway, she repeated this often. I couldn’t understand getting up in the morning to make no difference and I never looked at her with the same awe from this point on (which was arguably a mistake, she was a very good practitioner and I could’ve learnt a lot.)
It’s not that I think that ‘growth mindset’ is flawless scientific fact, it’s just that it is a logical imperative. It is the Pascal’s wager of education. We don’t know how much potential we have , so shooting very high and working to achieve the best is just good logic. Believing that hard work will result in progress is logical, it also implies trust in the experts who teach you- which likely will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bjork et al. state this simply as “To be maximally effective also requires an appreciation of the incredible capacity humans have to learn and avoiding the mindset that one’s learning abilities are fixed” (2013.) It’s not the case that knowing about growth mindset is a magic cure for all ills, but that believing in possibility is significantly more likely to produce that possibility. We know that the human mind can grow if we force it to, if we ask it to repeat a certain process its ability to perform that will develop. The plasticity of the human brain has been shown in several studies, perhaps most famously in Eleanor Maguire’s study on the effect of ‘the knowledge’ on synapsids growth in the hippocampus of London cabbies.
It also nudges learners to see their errors as guides to excellence, not as signs to give up “Becoming maximally effective as a learner requires interpreting errors and mistakes as an essential component of effective learning rather than as a reflection of one’s inadequacies as a learner” Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell (2013.) I have a long held belief about my ability in mathematics and so I’ve trained myself to look for distractions as soon as maths enters the conversation. “If we allow for pi in this equation….” Swiftly becomes ‘I do like pie, even fray bentos – is it even a real pie…. I think I prefer puddings to pie.’ Rejoining the conversation I discover everyone else has a more profound understanding and I feel hungry. Needless to say I have barely maintained any mathematics knowledge beyond a ks3 level. I remember the number for pi by imagining a £3.14159 pie and wonder how I will make up the small change. Which is of course no use whatsoever.
My inadequacy leads me to avoid, and I am well rehearsed in this area. That is why a whole school ethos is so important, it provides students with a common language to explain their struggles. Sometimes they may use it jokingly, but in removing shame it allows them to grow.
Perhaps I will deal with my problems with growth mindset another time, but I know with certainty I would not want to return to an environment where the common belief is that for some students progress is a land akin to ‘sugar candy mountain’ of Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ So despite my reservations, I feel an amazing gratitude for the persistence this simple idea gives to the students.