I must have been seven years old when Mrs Campbell, my teacher, made a list of her smartest students and shared it with us. My heart sank when she didn't say my name.
The recollection is as sharp as a jagged lump of coal. My juvenile mind was at a crossroads. I scorned her for her cruelty with clarity and purpose, I forgave her because she was my teacher and I swore a deep child's promise to prove her wrong.
This experience is relevant to the work of Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University in California, US. She is famous (education famous, I mean; your class won't have heard of her) for her theories about mindsets and for her book Mindset: how you can fulfil your potential.
Dweck believes that there are two ways to view intelligence: as something you possess innately, a "fixed" mindset, where people have different levels of intelligence that are unalterable; or as something that accrues by hard work nd effort, a "growth" mindset, something that can be built and worked on.
In a series of experiments, Dweck found that children with a fixed mindset, who believed their intelligence was a settled matter, often gave up when they couldn't get questions right. Those children also associated failure much more intimately with their sense of identity, seeing the failure as a consequence of that identity. By contrast, those with a growth mindset, who believed that success was a reflection of effort, proved more resilient to setbacks and saw failure as something that could be overcome with renewed effort.
Scaling this theory up to the classroom, Dweck designed one of the most popular programmes in education ever devised - the Growth Mindset. It instructed teachers to praise children not for qualities such as intelligence ("You're so smart") but for effort put into the task ("Great homework. You must have worked very hard"). In this way, goes the theory, all children are trained in the mindset of success, where they believe that their efforts can affect outcomes rather than being at the mercy of what the fairies gave them at birth.
Can people become smarter? What the brain essentially does is to remember, store and create links. It is demonstrably true that these processes improve with exposure to experience and repetition, and we don't need MRI scans or the emergent sorcery of neuroscience to validate that. Also, while I don't wish to commit the errors of many who claim that they have nailed the definition of knowledge to a wooden pole, we can say that knowledge is best accrued in context; one fact links to another, and a landscape appears out of the jigsaw pieces.
Metaphorically, this mirrors the acquisition of understanding that a child undergoes, from the black hole of the infant's egoism to a gradual appreciation of an outside world, other people and, finally, the abstract interior lives of others.
With this in mind, it is worth considering that many of the children we teachers call "smart" are, by the time they reach us, already advanced in learning, nourished on language and facts in the bosom of their family. I know four-year-olds who enter education bristling with literary familiarity. They sail through the first year and master the content.
Their polar opposite from a silent home, barren of stimulus, begins years behind their peers and ends their first year little wiser than they began. This error accumulates, and by the time they are 12 they are in the lowest-ability classes and looking for larks.
I'm exaggerating. But not much. In one school, I met a young boy who liked nothing better than to punch his peers in the genitals and pull the girls' hair. When I asked him why, he said: "Momma says imma bad seed." I see his defiant, desperate face whenever I hear children say: "This is the thick class" or "I can't do mathssociologyinterpretative dance". By that point, they have already identified themselves with ruin and failure. Some of them even enjoy it, because at least it defines who they are - the bad child, the bad seed, the stupid one - and defining who you are is terribly important as you grow up.
This mindset game can play against the intelligent children, too. Terrified of being anything other than smart, they can rear up like a stallion at the prospect of failure, become petulant perfectionists or shun the company of others.
So you can see how fixed mindsets creep in to being. But good teachers have always tried to tackle these issues by telling all students - regardless of who they are or how clever they seem - to "work hard, keep trying and you can succeed". They didn't need Dweck to tell them how to do it. In that sense, Dweck's research falls into the category of most of the best of our research into education, in that it merely ends up confirming the eternal truths of the classroom: turn up, work hard, study, do well; work harder, do better; believe you can improve and you probably will, believe that you can't and see what happens.
In practice, you can breed an expectation that learning is possible - whether you accredit that notion to Dweck or to an eternal classroom truth - by having high expectations of every student. Not the cartoon faux expectations of orthodoxy, where leaving with the lowest grade is treated like the British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, but true challenge.
I'll let you into a secret: I tell every student that my target for them is an A*. That's what I ask them to reach for. The hell with the cavernous insincerity of aiming for the outer ring of the bullseye when there's a red spot in the middle for everyone. Then I treat every student I have as if they could reach that goal and when they get less than the best I want to know why, and I help them find ways to get closer to it. I know that not everyone will succeed but to ask anything less is to tell them I expect them to come up short, and that is something I can never do.
We dream the impossible dream. We might be the only people who tell them they can do great things. And sometimes your student believes that you believe in them. I don't need a longitudinal study to tell me that. I can see it in their eyes, and their lives as they climb hand over hand up the rope ladder of their ambitions, into the future and away from me.
Tom Bennett is a teacher in East London and TES' behaviour expert. His latest book, Teacher Proof, is out now, published by Routledge
- Carol Dweck's mindset theory suggests two ways of viewing intelligence: first, as something that is unalterable; second, as something that can be increased through hard work.
This means that teachers should praise effort rather than intellect, saying: "Great work, you must have put in a lot of effort" rather than: "You're so clever, well done".
Some would argue that this notion of "try hard and you will succeed" has been the mantra of good teachers long before Dweck came along.
Whether you do so because of Dweck or because you think it's the right thing to do, encouraging belief is central to student attainment. Insisting that all students try to jump the highest bar means that all push themselves equally to attain.
- Professors Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas on the science of learnable intelligence.
- A review of Carol Dweck's book Mindsets.
- Why praising intelligence could be detrimental.
- Carol Dweck tells TES why low-effort success must not be praised.