Success - it's all in the mindset

22nd February 2013 at 00:00
A new course at Outward Bound's Loch Eil centre is helping pupils to develop more positive attitudes. Douglas Blane reports

Jumping off a cliff, tied to a rope, isn't a natural act for any human being and Melissa Marshall wasn't sure she could do it, she says. "I thought it was too high and I'd fall. But I had a growth mindset, so I calmed down and went over the edge. That was the hardest part. Going down was fun and I felt great after."

Melissa, a third-year pupil at Beeslack Academy in Midlothian, is currently on the fourth day of a new course at Outward Bound's Loch Eil centre near Fort William, which is designed to foster a specific mindset in young people.

"I wrote my MSc dissertation on the mindsets model developed by Stanford University's Carol Dweck," says senior instructor Matt Lander. "Since then it has filtered through our whole organisation. Staff at all five of the trust's centres in the UK, including ours, have had mindset training."

The basic idea is simple and supported by research. Young people who believe talent and ability are innate will not stretch themselves, since failure demonstrates their inadequacies. This is the fixed mindset. Those who believe hard work and practice are a major component of ability take failure in their stride, as a stepping-stone to success. This is the growth mindset.

To some extent, altering "I can't" to "I'll give it a go" is what Outward Bound has always been about, Mr Lander says. "The traditional view was that what we did with young people was character-building. But psychology has increasingly challenged the idea of character. There's no automatic process of coming on a course and going away a better character. But there is a process of learning a new attitude and being able to apply that to new situations.

"What we've realised from the training delivered by the Centre for Confidence and Well-being (see panel) - as well as from my own studies - is that it's no longer about devising activities to stretch young people, then just hoping it has a good effect. Mindsets gives us a new rationale for what we do."

Transmission of that to students on the course takes place in workshops they attend before being sent out to test themselves against challenges set by the natural world and the Loch Eil instructors. These include rock-climbing, abseiling, a trapeze jump, tackling an obstacle course blindfolded, and getting everyone in a group over a 12-foot wall.

"Before sending them out, we talk to them about how amazing their brains are, what a privilege it is to have one in their heads, and how it can keep on learning throughout their lives," Mr Lander says. "We explain about fixed and growth mindsets and how they can put the idea into practice while they're here.

"The clearest message is that if they respond to a challenge with 'I can't', that's very indicative of a fixed mindset. Instead they should be going, 'It looks difficult and I might be scared but I'll try.' We explain how that approach amplifies itself. The more you use it, the easier it gets and the more you achieve."

"I'm not very good with heights," Graham McDonald (S5) says. "But I did the rock-climbing and the abseiling and I wasn't even all that nervous. Something our instructor told us stuck in my mind. 'You only have two choices,' he said. 'You either don't do it or you give it a go.' I like that. If you're too scared to try something, you'll never know if you'd have enjoyed it."

As the first Outward Bound course to teach mindset concepts, this one hasn't yet been formally evaluated, but already something promising is happening, Mr Lander says. "The pupils are starting to pick each other up on the language they use. So if one says 'I can't jump off here', another will elbow him in the ribs and go 'What you meant there was, 'I'll give it my best shot and see what happens.'

"That is very encouraging for the instructors here and hopefully that attitude will continue when they're back in school. We will have a follow-up day to celebrate their success and to see how they've been getting on."

Before Melissa came on the course she knew she was musical, she says, but there were lots of things she thought she couldn't do. "I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself. I had a fixed mindset. Now I think I can develop my abilities, make them better and do new things. The course has changed me."

The Outward Bound Trust, Loch Eli: bit.lyg2V4GG


"We've done a lot of work on mindsets with schools and youth workers," says Derek Goldman, educational consultant at the Centre for Confidence and Well-being in Glasgow. "But applying the ideas to outdoor learning - as they're doing at Loch Eil - is groundbreaking. The practical side of mindsets is about subtleties of interaction and how a teacher gives feedback that connects success with thinking and effort, rather than innate ability.

"We have spoken to people in the US who work with Carol Dweck (the Stanford professor responsible for mindsets theory, TESS, 16 January 2010) and they are interested in seeing how well this course works. We have offered to help Outward Bound to evaluate it."

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