`Teachers have been held back by testing'

18th July 2014 at 01:00
Educational guru Carol Dweck talks to TESS about the impact of her growth-mindset theory and the years of research that went into its `overnight' success

Carol Dweck is what you would call education-famous. She may not be gracing the cover of Hello! magazine or being chased by paparazzi, but you'd be hard-pushed to find someone in the sector who hasn't heard of her.

This is because of her book Mindset. First published in 2006, it has found its way into the consciousness of teachers and policymakers alike, reaching the point where it sits alongside Bloom's Taxonomy, John Hattie's Visible Learning and Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats in terms of recognition.

For the very few who have not heard of Dweck (where have you been?), the main idea of her book is that people can have a fixed or a growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset will view their intelligence and talents as innate and unalterable, and will therefore be reluctant to take on challenges and persevere through adversity.

Someone with a growth mindset, on the other hand, will understand that intelligence and ability is fluid and can be grown and developed. They will consider taking on challenges to be part of the natural process of learning, even if they are likely to make mistakes or struggle. Dweck tells us how we can help students to develop a growth mindset.

It is easy to see why this theory has gained such prominence, but is Dweck happy with how her work has been interpreted? And what is she working on now? TESS found out.

TESS: When did you start working on growth mindsets?

Dweck: It grew out of the work I had been doing for many years, but it was really in the past two decades or so that the mindset idea emerged and that we began doing lots of research on its impact. We were asking why some children take on challenges and persevere in the face of failures, while others shy away from challenges and give up easily, even though they have no less ability.

T: What kinds of challenges did you encounter?

D: Originally we thought it would be a challenge to get funding, but then the president of a foundation approached us and offered us a grant to do this work in schools. We were just looking at mindsets academically, but he came to us and gave us the money to develop it in the real world.

The main challenges after that were logistical. We wanted to see whether we could intervene - whether we could change children's mindsets. That's a big project. We had challenges with organising it, with getting into schools and working with them for the long term.

T: Did your results surprise you?

D: I had been studying the way that children reacted to failures for many years, and my hypothesis was that whether a child had a fixed or a growth mindset determined this reaction.

I wasn't surprised when this hypothesis began to prove itself but I was surprised by the extent of it. In one study we found that those with fixed mindsets were more likely to cheat, to lie about their results or to look at the work of students who were doing worse than them to make themselves feel better.

T: Did you realise you had something that would soon be the talk of staffrooms across the world?

D: Yes and no. I had been working on this for decades before it began to catch on. I did realise we had hit on something big but, like every overnight success, a lot of work went on before it caught on. It's always difficult with any research to get the idea out there.

T: Have your findings have been used as you intended?

D: In a lot of cases, growth-mindset principles are being used very creatively and effectively. One primary school near Seattle in the US has gone from the bottom of its district to near the top within a year and a half, after its teachers committed themselves to applying growth-mindset principles to every area of school life. Teachers will tell pupils that school is about growing your brain and if a child talks in class about mistakes they've made, teachers say: "Thank you for helping us to grow our learning."

T: What about the less successful cases? What are the common mistakes made with growth mindsets?

D: The main mistake I have seen teachers make is thinking that just telling children to try harder promotes a growth mindset, but that by itself isn't enough. Just telling a kid over and over again to do something is what I call nagging.

Another mistake is teaching about the brain and how it grows with learning, but not teaching kids specifically how to grow their brain.

T: What are the key things for teachers to remember in applying growth-mindset principles?

D: To embody growth mindsets themselves. As a teacher you might have a fixed-mindset moment, whether it's about a student's abilities or your own, so it's important to keep a watch on that.

T: How have you felt while watching how quickly the growth-mindset idea has spread? Does it ever make you nervous?

D: Mostly I have been fascinated to watch how it is being taken up. When I see it being misinterpreted, it just makes me realise that more research needs to be done into which practices do and don't encourage growth mindsets.

I have been looking at this, creating a maths game with growth-mindset incentives. Most learning games award points for rushing through as quickly as possible and getting the most correct answers, but they do not reward kids who are struggling. But in this growth-mindset-inspired game, the players get points for trying new challenges and different strategies, and for persisting with difficult problems.

T: Does this mean growth mindsets is still an expanding area of research for you? Or is the bulk of your work now in a new area and this has become a sideline?

D: I keep thinking that I will move on, and then the areas that my research can be applied to just seem to keep growing.

I have been working on one study into bullying and aggression. We have found that teaching growth mindsets means that people think of others not as "good" or "bad" but as acting in a certain way in the moment. Understanding that people have the ability to change, and that you have the ability to change, makes you more likely to work towards compromise even when the change isn't happening yet.

I am also looking at how mindsets can create and reduce gender gaps, particularly for women in Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects. If you are part of a vulnerable group learning in a fixed-mindset environment, you are more likely to think, "Maybe they're right, maybe we're not good at it" if you are struggling, rather than saying, "Maybe we didn't do so well historically because of stereotypes, but if this is a learned set of skills then I can learn to do better."

T: What is your general view of the state of education currently? Are we in a positive place?

D: I think teachers have been held back by the current focus on drilling and testing. Perhaps that's why they've been so enthusiastic about growth mindsets, because that allows them to go back to being a teacher again. I get a lot of feedback from teachers and most of what I hear is very supportive. I even get letters from students saying how much it has changed their results.

T: And what about education research - is enough being done in this area that is rigorous?

D: No, not enough researchers are doing long-term rigorous research, but my colleagues and I are working hard to train the next generation who will do just that.

T: You are now world-famous for your research. How does that feel?

D: If this is my contribution that I'm remembered for, well, I'd be very happy with that.

Brain storm: mindset resources

If you've been inspired to bring a growth mindset into your own classroom, here are five related resources from TES Connect to get you started:

Cover the basics of Carol Dweck's theory in this 15-minute assembly. bit.lyMindsetAssembly

Ready for the big test? This resource helps pupils to reflect on exam preparation. bit.lyExamReflection

Don't panic! Help students to develop resilience with this resource on well-being. bit.lyWellbeingPerspective

This in-depth study looks at bringing deep thought to religious studies lessons. bit.lyDeepMindset

Explore the difference between fixed and growth mindsets with this colourful PowerPoint. bit.lyFixedvGrowth

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