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Growth Mindset?

December 11, 2014

(“Growth Mindset is not new. It’s what good teachers have been doing for years”- Ming the Merciless, Swansea restaurant, November 2014.)

As always I’m writing this blog to clarify my thinking on something (in this instance it is Growth Mindset). My whole school assembly last week mentioned the term Growth Mindset for the first time (even though I hope the message was similar to previous assemblies).

I have been suitably inspired by blogs on GM by @johntomsett here, @shaun_allison here, @dan_brinton here, @ewenfields here, @pekabelo here, @fullonlearning here, @HuntingEnglish here and @chrishildrew here. If you want to know more about Growth Mindset then please read them (all of them)!
All good schools will have a growth mindset ethos and I really liked how the above mentioned colleagues are implementing the ideas of Carol Dweck. More importantly was how the message of growth mindset was becoming part of the school ethos, and arguably helping to raise aspirations or as John Tomsett puts it : “so that a Growth Mindset attitude runs through it likes the words in a stick of seaside rock.”
I have discussed growth mindset in detail with my Headteacher. We both like the concept but we are aware that there are issues that need careful consideration. These issues were articulated in this blog by @DisIdealist.
In the blog he highlights the very real dangers that exist in the implementation of growth mindset in a non nuanced way. He comments on what a growth mindset culture in school could look like for his daughters. I can certainly empathise with this view. I have 3 children and they are very different and as a consequence their experience of school is very, very different.

As far as I can see there are two ways of looking at GM.
The first is the one that @Didealist warns against. And that is that a person’s ability is simply a reflection of the effort they have put in. Even though I don’t believe this to be true this may well have been close to the message that I have tried to deliver many times in assemblies. Last week I showed this clip of Tiger Woods hitting the amazing chip shot on the 16th at the US Masters in 2005:

While the clip played I explained that he knew where he needed the ball to land and how hard to hit it, to get it to release at the right speed to roll down the slope towards the hole. He knows the exact shot to play because he has played the exact same shot thousands of times. There is a pathway of neurones in Tiger Wood’s brain that has been “burned in” by thousands of hours of deliberate practice. When he does his practice swings he is finding the exact pathway which leads through his brain and down towards his muscles so he can execute the shot. Sportspeople would say they are getting a feel for the shot but in reality they are trying to find the right neural pathway. He then executes to perfection and, of course, goes on to win the Masters.
So the message in that part of the assembly is that the idea of being born with talent could well be a bit of a myth (the original assembly was based on the book Bounce by Matthew Syed). It is merely the end product of an incredible commitment to deliberate practice.


Of course the other side of this coin is that if Tiger Woods won 14 majors purely because of his work ethic then all of the other golfers simply need to work harder, or at least harder than Tiger Woods. An extension of this thinking is that pupils in top sets in schools are there because they have worked harder than their peers in the lower sets. This may well be true for some of our learners – but crucially not all of them.  It is true that for many pupils across the curriculum, they may making better than “expected” progress because of their hard work and many may be making less than expected progress because of a lack of a good work ethic. But it is not a universal truth. We probably all know a pupil in a top set that simply coasts along getting Bs in every assessment and a pupil in a lower set working incredibly hard but struggling to attain an E grade. We instinctively know that to reduce all achievement, and also lack of, to the amount of effort put in just isn’t right. This attitude may be fairly prevalent however. A proportion of Americans (I hope a very small proportion) seemed to object to Obamacare being introduced because any citizen that did not have health insurance was simply lazy. Or people go to food banks because they can’t or won’t cook. Or benefits are given out to the lazy of society. Why can’t they get on their bikes?- is the message from some (apologies- a little bit of politics there). Anyway- as I said: We instinctively know that to reduce all achievement or lack of to the amount of effort put in just isn’t right.
There is an alternative view of growth mindset. This is what I have (hopefully) articulated not just in my last assembly but also in every interaction with every pupil I ever have had. And it is not something new. Teachers have been doing it for years. It is the age old truth that no matter where you are now, to make further progress hard work is an absolute key driver. The message at the end of my first ever assembly in my new school was can we all be as good as Messi, as clever as Stephen Hawking or play the guitar like Hendrix? Maybe not. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we can all improve. We can all get better at what ever it is we want to do. Some people seem to have supreme talent but don’t forget how hard they have had to work at it. And hard work is the key for us to improve and develop. Our “talents” are not fixed and neither is our intelligence.

My latest assembly finished with this slide:

fleaThis is the second time they had seen this slide (idea gratefully borrowed from this resource by @ChrisHildrew)

Pupils were told that having a fixed mindset means we just accept we have limits. Having a growth mindset means that whatever we, or other people, think our limits are, we can pass through them. Hard work is key. So is how we view challenges and obstacles. So is how we respond to feedback and criticism. Whatever our different starting points we can make progress. We can get better. We can run faster, lift more weights, get better at Maths. Our increments may be different but we can all improve.

The reason I like the GM idea so much is that it encourages high, or perhaps higher expectations. Plateauing out is not really acceptable. I love this picture borrowed from @ChrisMoyse:


Does this mean we expect nothing less than A* standard work from every pupil? Of course not. However, for every piece of work handed in from all pupils we can legitimately expect effort to have gone into it. We can expect pupils to have used the feedback we have given them to improve it. We can expect pupils to be proud of their work. Ideally our idea of what “excellent” looks like for each of our pupils will move forward as time goes on. Pupils can flourish at different times (see this blog from @atharby).

I believe that pushing GM whole school is good for the way staff view the future attainment of pupils. Aspirational targets are more likely to be set if we are thinking GM. “Joe Bloggs rarely does homework and usually shows minimal effort in class. But I’m giving him a C for his target grade because with hard work in lessons and regular homework completion he is capable of it.” If that message is communicated to the pupil and to the parents then it can be pretty powerful. Far better than “I’m giving him a D as a target because he is certain to get that at best because he doesn’t put the effort in.” A GM ethos can lead to a shift in how we view a lot of our learners. Don’t set target grades on how hard they worked in KS3. Set them on what they could get if they put all of their efforts into improving. We’ll provide our half of the bargain by planning and delivering quality lessons. Now you fulfill your half.

As a profession we have always believed that pupils will improve. We know they make huge progress from Years 7 to 11. We accept they learn more and know more. The idea that intelligence is not fixed can still prevail though (with pupils as well as teachers perhaps). This entrenched view needs to be challenged by everyone.
Another benefit of having a GM philosophy in school is that it will also apply to staff and how they view their own performance (so well articulated here by @LeadingLearner). By this I don’t mean that staff need to work harder. Rather that we all need to strive to improve.

10 featuresThis is hard when the busy day to day nature of teaching means keeping your head above water replaces thoughts of tweaks, changes and improvements. It’s heartening to read in this blog by @ewenfields that staff are embracing GM and as a consequence are more willing to try new ideas and take risks. In our school we have twilight INSET sessions on each of our 10 features of effective lessons (more here) and the Head is leading twilight sessions on developing leadership. Attendance at these sessions I think is very growth mindset.

@Didealist suggests that good schools do all of this anyway without having to call it growth mindset. He’s right. They do. My opinion is that if the message is high profile and becomes part of the school ethos then it can be a key driver in student and teacher improvement. The schools mentioned above are more than a few assemblies and a handful of posters around the school. The way I read it is that they know their pupils and they know that every single one of them can improve.

I think that I already work in a GM school. Whether we take the next step and have a whole school drive remains to be seen. As always there are a number of priorities and whole school training days are much sought after.

The bottom line is that not all of our learners will leave with A*s across the board. However, our aim is that they all leave with their “personal best”. And of course the aim is that their PB is beyond what anyone could perceive as their “limits”.

PBAny comments/feedback is welcome as always.


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  1. Reblogged this on KitAndrew.

  2. Excellent interpretation of GM here Damian. I’ve seen the value of consciously evoking it with both able students who are ‘frit’ to the point of immobilisation at the thought of committing thoughts to paper or words to spoken responses ‘in case it’s wrong’. The direct encouragement to view progress as a series of attempts to overcome difficulties has certainly helped. But it’s also useful with those students who deflate at the thought of investing time and energy in their studies because of a stultifying ‘fatalism’ that their future grades are already cast and ‘what will be, will be’. GM is essential in persuading (and showing evidence) that effort can determine a different (and more satisfying) outcome than they think fate has cast them. Beyond that it’s of value in whole-school settings where a run of ‘so-so’ exam results for years can persuade departments/schools to think that ‘that’s all these kids can manage’. And if schools chant GM to their students, but don’t believe it for themselves as an institution – then they are struck by that same fatalistic attitude.
    But….. It’s when others propose it as a ‘no excuses’ throwback and suggest that nothing less than all conjure up ‘above average’ progress that aspirational chants turn into unrealistic (and, shortly after) blame for not trying hard enough, working long enough, or not caring sufficiently. I’ve recently read some depressing accounts from parents and teachers (and a few students) in some KIPP schools in the US where GM is stretched to its unedifying extreme and chastises students publicly and disparagingly for not putting in enough effort or showing the correct ‘attitude’. That’s when accountability for ‘nothing less than excellence of all’ flows down like a mantra and is converted into something very unpleasant along the way. I think your school is using it as it needs to be – for the gains – and wary of the potential unpleasantness. Very useful links to many other really valuable blogs on this important movement.

    (PS – wonder why Tiger Woods hasn’t won anything of note for the past 5 years, despite the effort and practice? There are more things in this world than we can credit…..)

  3. Thanks Andy 🙂

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