I can't remember who it was who told me that growth mindset was like catnip for teachers. It amused me at the time, partly because it made me think of cats, and partly because it’s true. We love the idea that effort brings rewards, especially in our classrooms, in part because we see so much potential wasted for the want of a bit of elbow grease.
There are lots of reasons why children don’t appear to try very hard at school. It might be that they do indeed have a fixed mindset, and believe that everything should be easy or they won’t bother. It might be that they don’t believe that they are clever enough, so they won’t choose the gold-level task. It might be that they have tried hard, but that they still haven’t made much progress, despite their efforts.
Trying your hardest and still finding yourself in a sea of misunderstanding is incredibly disheartening. You give it your all, and you still fail. Your work never goes up on the wall as an example of “What A Good One Looks Like”, your painting looks like blobs instead of the still life your neighbour has managed to produce and, despite following every single one of the instructions, you didn’t manage to win the running race; you still came last. Self-esteem takes a battering.
As teachers, when we buy into growth mindset, we need to beware the idea that effort equals attainment. There can be a hundred and one different reasons why a child might stop, or appear to stop trying. They might be frustrated; they might have forgotten what it was you asked them to do. And if we’re not careful – if they think that trying equals success, and they try and they do not succeed – we will hasten the moment when they give up.
'Walking through treacle in lead boots'
If you teach children with SEND, then you will know that effort most certainly does not always equate to success and that, for some children, performing at school is a bit like walking through treacle in lead boots. What we need is a bit of nuance – and attention to our classroom culture.
Children, and not just those with SEND, need to know that your classroom is a safe place to fail. I don’t mean this in the sense of the trope that failing is where we learn, but in the sense that some of us will fail more than others, some of us will need to try harder than others, and still fail – and that that is OK.
Children who know that you appreciate their struggles will try hard for you. Children who trust that you won’t make them feel silly, or get cross when they fail, when they put their hand up to answer a question and something random pops out, will be prepared to keep on having a go if you make sure they know that you still value their contribution.
Growth mindset has a part to play, but getting the classroom culture right has to be one of the most powerful tricks in the book.
Nancy Gedge is a consultant teacher for the charity the Driver Youth trust working with school and teachers on SEND. She is the TES SEND specialist, and author of Inclusion for Primary Teachers