Headway for 'growth mindsets'

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Constantly being told how clever you are, not how hard you are trying, can have an adverse effect

TES scotland put a simple question to teachers at the Scottish Learning Festival in September: "Which of the seminars you attended will have most impact on your classroom practice?"

The survey wasn't scientific and no statistical analysis was done. But none was needed. The clear winner, mentioned by almost everyone, was "Developing Growth Mindsets" by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck.

Four months later, the mindsets message is about to be spread more widely in Scottish schools, through a pilot project and a new computer program. So what exactly is that message?

"I first came across it when I read Dweck's book Mindsets," says Robert Jones, principal teacher of mathematics at North Berwick High. "Her simple thesis is that we all have one of two basic mindsets. With the fixed mindset, you believe talents and abilities are set in stone - either you have them or you don't. That's the path of stagnation. With a growth mindset, you know talents can be developed and great abilities built over time. That's the path of opportunity and success."

Modern research shows the growth mindset to be much closer to the truth, says Professor Dweck: "There can be ability differences between people, but you don't know who can blossom and show that ability. So everyone needs to be treated as if they will. As a teacher, you just don't know who's going to go furthest.

"Many of those who do weren't considered all that talented early on. This is true even in subjects such as art. A group was once asked to draw self- portraits. Well, some of them were just stick figures, so you'd have said they had no talent. But five days later, after taking a course, they drew their self-portraits again and they were all fantastic. Suddenly, every one of them had talent."

So what does this mean for classroom practice? Part of the answer is in the subtitle of Professor Dweck's seminar: how praise can harm and how to use it well. Teachers can easily create and reinforce a fixed mindset in their pupils, she says, by praising them for achievements that come easily - or, even worse, for simply being smart.

"When students are in a fixed mindset, they worry about how clever they are," Professor Dweck says. "They don't want to take on challenges and make mistakes. They want to stay in their comfort zone."

Robert Jones grew up with the fixed mindset, he says. "I caught it from my mum, who constantly told me how clever I was, not how hard I was trying. She still does, bless her. Fixed-mindset people tend to shun hard work because it exposes them to the risk of failing, without the get-out clause `I didn't try very hard'."

The fixed mindset is common among teachers, he believes, where its ill- effects are bound to spread. "If you have a fixed mindset about yourself, you'll also have one about your students. It's understandable, particularly in subjects like maths and art, in which some kids seem to get it right away while others go nowhere.

"But it's not helpful to a teacher. The fixed-versus-growth mindset validates your hope that good teaching will make a difference to kids who struggle. It's a concept that's in my mind now all the time. I'm always looking for opportunities to boost the growth mindset in the youngsters."

This requires a conscious change in what pupils are praised for in class, he says: "If someone does well in an exercise, it's natural to say, `Well done, you got full marks.' But if they found it easy and put little effort into it, you're doing exactly what Carol Dweck talks about - giving them the message that you're good only if you don't have to work."

For Carol Craig, author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Professor Dweck's research sheds light on her own findings on the difference between self-esteem, which can be fragile and fleeting, and a robust self- confidence. "The focus on self-esteem leads people to lower their expectations of kids, in order to preserve it,' she said. "During the period when self-esteem has held sway in American schools, academic results there have plummeted."

This vital difference is one that Jim Cassidy became aware of when he was headteacher at Gracemount High, Edinburgh. "A recent (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report presented Scottish schools with a challenge. In terms of achievement differences on international tests, it said `socio-economic status is the most important difference between individuals'.

"Now that's worrying. It means good schools don't necessarily make a difference to the attainment of pupils from poor backgrounds. For a school in an area of significant deprivation, that was a real concern to us."

The clear implication was that attitudes and culture had to be tackled, as well as learning and teaching. Gracemount contacted Dr Craig, who leads the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being in Glasgow and put the school in touch with Professor Dweck's research. This led to a whole-school programme aimed at changing the school culture, improving relationships and examining what teachers said to pupils.

"We looked at how you engage with youngsters, give them a sense of purpose and a strong voice in the school community," said Mr Cassidy.

"The centre's research provided clear descriptions of the culture needed to nurture young people educationally - and it's not the old Scots idea of the dominie at the front telling them what to do.

"It's about formative comments rather than summative marking, and the nature of those comments is very important - with a clear emphasis on effort and application rather than achievement. This comes directly from Carol Dweck. Her research shows that if youngsters go through life with no one constructively criticising them, they don't react well to practical criticism. So they don't improve."

As a School of Ambition, Gracemount High put a wide range of measures in place which improved confidence and raised achievement and attainment, says Mr Cassidy. "As an indication, when I was appointed headteacher at Gracemount in 2005, the results for 5-plus Credit awards at Standard grade stood at 12 per cent. Four years later, the figure was 32 per cent.

"Now there was a lot going on there, and if there was a silver bullet in education, we'd all be top of the table. But the change in the culture of the school had a direct impact on promoting growth mindsets in our pupils, which clearly contributed to the improvement."

As a social scientist, Dr Craig recognises the importance, as well as the difficulty, of getting psychology research into the classroom. "The language that academics use can be a barrier," she says. "Even Dweck's work wasn't easily picked up by non-psychologists until she wrote Mindsets.

"Dweck is highly critical of the self-esteem movement in the States. But what people are telling me in the UK also - and indeed around Europe - is that something shifted about 10 years ago. There are a growing number of kids, teachers tell me, who say they can't do things before they've even tried. Boys, for instance, won't kick a ball for fear of hitting a duff shot.

"That's the downside of the self-esteem movement. It's all about natural strength, ability and talent - and don't waste your time if you're no good right away. It's people thinking that how they feel about themselves is more important than learning. But modern brain research shows that talent and ability are not fixed. Everything's to play for. All of us can get much better at just about anything - if we work at it."

What began to alter Robert Jones's fixed mindset, he says, was becoming a teacher. "I came in thinking I could change education and discovered I wasn't even a very good teacher. I was left with a stark choice - quit or start working hard to master my craft.

"I don't have to work as hard now as I did in those first few years," he says. "But my competence as a teacher has little to do with innate ability, and a lot to do with hard work, perseverance and a willingness to learn from my mistakes."

- Video and transcript of Carol Dweck's seminar at the Scottish Learning Festival available at:


- Mindsets by Carol Dweck, pound;5.99 (Amazon)

- Creating Confidence by Carol Craig, pound;10 (www.centreforconfidence.co.ukbooks.php)


Unlike personal computers, brains don't come in a box with detailed instructions on how to operate them. So it's hard to know what they do or why. A new program called Brainology, devised by Carol Dweck (pictured) and Lisa Blackwell, aims to be the missing owner's manual.

Accompanied by a couple of cool youngsters, an upper-primary or early- secondary user will learn the latest research on brains and how to use them. The appealing interface serves up bite-sized, interactive chunks to Chris and Dahlia through a mad scientist in his Brain Lab: "People are surprised by what our brain research has shown - when you learn, you build up your brain, making it smarter and stronger."

Brainology users embark on a quest with four levels of instructions, activities and quizzes, which painlessly provide the tools they need to get the best from their brains, as well as subtly conveying the growth mindset that brains get better the more they're used. E-journals allow users to diagnose difficulties and plot progress, while teacher and parent guides and study tips provide follow-up and fleshing out of online activities.

A pilot project organised and run for Professor Dweck by the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being aims to trial Brainology in 40 Scottish schools. Jim Cassidy has already signed up his new school, Beeslack High in Midlothian. "We are going to run it with half our first-years and use the other half as a control group," he says.

"The Centre for Confidence has questionnaires that look at resilience, attitude and motivation, which our pupils will complete before and after using the program to see what difference it makes.

"This is one piece in the jigsaw that makes up the whole culture of a school - as Carol Craig discusses in her book Creating Confidence.

"Brainology is based on an approach I believe in and have had good experiences with, and I think it will make a difference. Just how much of a difference we'll find out in a few weeks' time."


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