Have you got growth mindset fatigue yet? It probably takes about 18-24 months to really set in. The main symptoms include an early euphoria and enthusiasm after reading Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, closely followed by assemblies telling students that they can improve and praising their effort, and finally culminating in a bit of frustration in their slow progress and your desire for more practical strategies.
If that sounds like you, you are in good company. A recent survey found that 98% of teachers believe that if their students have a growth mindset it will lead to improved student learning. However, only 20% of them believe that they are good at fostering a growth mindset, and 85% want more training and practical strategies to create a growth environment.
We have seen a real commitment from schools up and down the country to embrace this psychological theory, which has generated some really positive strategies. These include:
- Tweaking how teachers give feedback to students
- Encouraging self-reflection through good self-questioning
- Praising their processes instead of their natural abilities
Now teachers want more. The good news is that there is a growing body of research, which may offer an increasingly better insight into how to develop a growth mindset environment.
Teaching With Multiple Methods
Let’s try a quick experiment: can you separate these six animals into two groups of three? The animals are Dog, Budgie, Shark, Bear, Goldfish and Fox. There are many ways to do this. You could separate them into pets v non-pets (i.e. Dog, Budgie, Goldfish v Shark, Bear and Fox) or you could do fur v non-fur (Dog, Bear, Fox v Budgie, Shark and Goldfish) or four legs v not four legs (Dog, Bear and Fox v Goldfish, Shark and Budgie). As you can see, there can be multiple ways to get to the same answer.
Teaching someone multiple strategies to work out an answer is one of the many ways to develop a growth mindset. This was the findings from a research paper that looked at teaching strategies in a maths class. They found that if students are only taught one way to work out a problem and if they are unsuccessful at that strategy, then they may take that as evidence that they lack ability for the whole subject. Whereas if you teach using multiple strategies, then students are more likely to persist if the first strategy doesn’t work for them.
Subtle and Stealthy
What is a growth mindset in education and how can it be taught? Some of the leading researchers and practitioners on developing growth mindsets in the classroom believe that strategies should be ‘stealthy’. If students are aware that they are undergoing an ‘intervention’ then it will impact their behaviour and response. This is known as The Hawthorne Effect.
They state that ‘stealthy approaches don’t feel controlling and don’t stigmatize students as in need of help, which are factors that could do more harm than good’. Subtly implementing techniques that encourage the development of a growth mindset can be much more effective than overt displays of intervention. Cited examples of stealthy strategies include getting the students to generate the intervention themselves by, for example, ‘writing to younger students to tell them why the brain can grow’. Adopting a stealthy approach is one of the reasons why we have stopped using the term ‘Growth Mindset’ when working with young students.
Develop your own growth mindset
A research paper posed a question to teachers: one of your students gets a low mark in their exam (65%) – what do you think of this student’s ability and how would respond?
- Those with a fixed mindset took this as evidence that the student did not have a talent for maths and were more likely to respond with a ‘comfort focus’ (along the lines of ‘it’s ok, not everyone is good a maths, don’t feel bad about it, I’ll give you easier questions to answer to make you feel less stressed’).
- Teachers with a growth mindset believed it was too early to make a judgement on the child’s maths ability and were more likely to offer ‘strategy focus’ which included tips on how to get better and setting them challenging questions.
What impact did these alternative strategies have on students? Those who received the comfort approach reported being less motivated than those who had received the strategy approach. When asked how they thought they would do on their next exam, comfort-focused students estimated about the same level (65%) whereas the strategy-focused students estimated significantly higher (80%). This suggests that a teacher’s mindset and beliefs mediate their teaching philosophy and strategies, which in turn influences student motivation and self-expectation. This research can be applied to growth mindset in education. The teachers who possess a growth mindset have the ability to instill the same mindset in their students, simply through their teaching and the classroom environment they create.
This appears to contrast with a recent study which found that teaching teachers about Growth Mindset had little impact on student performance. As always, the devil is in the detail. In this study, teachers received a course only consisting of ‘two half days of instruction’. The DofE recommend that for CPD to be successful, a key factor is that it must be sustained over a period of time which ‘includes opportunities for experimentation, reflection, feedback and evaluation’. When it comes to professional development on any topic: it takes time. Lip service gets little results.
If students are hearing very different messages from school and at home, this can be very confusing and limiting. So, what does the research say makes the difference with regards to parents and their children developing a growth mindset? A paper published recently found that ‘there is no clear link’ between a parent’s mindset and their child’s. What did make a difference however was how parents reacted to setbacks.
Why might this be the case? The researchers state that ‘it may be that parents, like children, have mindsets that shape their own goals and behaviours, but that these beliefs are relevant to shaping children’s beliefs only if they lead to practices that children pick up on’.
This means that someone’s mindset is not always visible to others and it is hard to accurately guess someone’s beliefs. It is easier to see their actions.
They conclude by saying ‘it may not be sufficient to teach parents a growth mindset and expect that they will naturally transmit it to their children. Instead, an intervention targeting parents’ failure mindset could teach parents how failure can be beneficial, and how to react to their children’s setbacks so as to maintain their children’s motivation and learning’. In simpler terms, teaching parents to deal with their setbacks with a positive outlook will in turn teach their children to do the same. We do offer free mindset parent talks – click here to find out more.
Growth Mindset is arguably one of the most well-known psychological theories in education. It offers promising insight into how we can best nurture the abilities of our students (especially those who have historically struggled).
Initially, enthusiasm for it outpaced the research. We are now learning more and more about what might work best and how to integrate growth mindset in education. Teaching a growth mindset is not impossible, but it does take some trial and error. Take note of how your students respond to certain strategies, and if they don’t work, don’t worry – there are many more you can try. Hopefully these sort of research papers might be just the tonic to cure any growth mindset fatigue.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on Monday 9 January 2017. You can read it, alongside all of our other Guardian blogs here: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/bradley-busch.