Growth Mindset – It can’t just be an assembly at the start of the year

If you put fleas in a jar they will jump out. If you put the lid on  they will jump and hit the lid. Eventually they will stop hitting the lid. They adjust the height at which they jump to prevent themselves from hitting the hard surface. What’s interesting is that if you then then take the lid off the jar, the fleas still won’t jump out. They have conditioned themselves to jump to a certain height and so they won’t ever jump higher than that. They have developed a fixed mindset.

A lot of humans are like that, we allow roadblocks in our lives to stop us jumping so high and even worse, people tell us that we can’t achieve something, thus we believe we can’t and don’t. We put lids on how far we go. We adopt a fixed mindset. We should set up our schools so that our students believe completely the opposite, that they can do anything, having a growth mindset must underpin everything we do. It can’t just be something that is talked about in an assembly at the start of the year.

Gladwell says that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field. Deliberate practice means practising in a way that pushes your skill set as much as possible. The best example is driving, you don’t just improve driving by driving, you need to practise the bits you need to improve upon. I’m still the same at driving as I was five years ago, despite five years of driving.

This is of vital importance to education because anyone can learn anything, you just have to learn the next step and then the next step, not the step you’ve already embedded, but the next step, that’s rapid progress. The good news, as Kaufman explains, is that you can get pretty good at anything with 20 hours of this type of deliberate practise.

For students to embrace the growth mindset in this manner, they need to see all teachers model it. I did so by standing in the first September assembly throwing a few juggling balls that I couldn’t catch. In the Christmas assembly I could juggle. I explained to students the steps that I went through to get to that stage: 2 balls, getting the shape right, throwing them to the right height and then moving onto three balls. Of course I needed a guide to help me identify these and intervene when I needed assistance. This is what teachers do.

The student acceptance of the growth mindset is fragile. I encountered one of my students drawing a self portrait based on what she had been learning in art. I thought she really embraced the belief that she can do anything. However she hadn’t drawn the eyes and so I said ‘what about the eyes?’ She said, despite saying that she can learn anything, ‘No…I can’t do eyes’.  This shows how one thing can shatter the belief. We shouldn’t be surprised, research shows us that 40% of us have a fixed mindset and 20% of use believe that we have mixed mind-sets: I can learn to drive better but ‘I can’t do Maths’. What I had to help this student work out was that she couldn’t draw eyes YET. It’s important to train students to add this word YET onto every time they say they can’t do something. It takes 66 days to form a new habit and so we need to persevere with this. The reason she thought she couldn’t draw eyes was because she couldn’t see the stages of learning she needs to go through to do them. This is why always focusing on what students need to learn next is so important.

Students also need examples from the real world to help them accept that they can learn anything, they need role models who started at 0 and then got there. It is even better if the starting point was below 0, if they had to overcome something before even starting, this is why the Paralympics was so inspirational and why Channel 4’s Paralympic advert was so good.

There are many great examples which can be discussed in class, form times and in assemblies. Robson Conceicao sold vegetables on the streets as an impoverished child. He had to feign an arm injury so that he could get bandages to tape his hands for boxing training. He is now the first ever Brazilian to win Olympic boxing gold. Dattu Baban Bhokanal grew up in a drought-prone village, he received no schooling as he had to help his father dig wells to earn money. His father died of cancer and he lived in a dilapidated house in India. The lack of attachment to water in his life meant that he was scared of it. He finished fourth in the men’s single sculls event, despite not seeing his first water body until 2012. Laura Trott was born four weeks early with a collapsed lung and spent the first six weeks of her life in intensive care. She is now the most successful female British Olympian with four gold medals. I am building up a collection of these and many other great examples on a bespoke website:

When we embrace the growth mindset we must focus on praising effort and not intelligence. I start with the new year 7s by telling them that the word ‘intelligence’ is banned. Praising someone for their intelligence leads to a brittle self-confidence that shatters in the face of ‘failure’: If my smartness explains my successes, then my lack of smartness must explain my failures. Thus I can protect myself from this by choosing tasks that doom me to easy success and by avoiding tough challenges. Telling someone that they are intelligent actually hinders progress.

As the ‘Growth Mindset Pocketbook’ explains, true learning actually involves failure, it is a process of trial and error. What students need to do is convert this failure into powerful learning experiences. We should tell our students that there mistakes are brilliant and model how we make mistakes to get better at something. Once students accept this they realise that challenges are ideal learning opportunities, they accept that they are a chance to extend knowledge and skills beyond current levels; the deliberate practice where it is OK to get it wrong at first

In order to help students stick at these challenges we must refer to ‘learning’ and not ‘work’. Using ‘work’ implies hours of doing something unpleasant with little learning to show for it. However learning is connecting effort with achievement via the mediating concept of challenge. Our feedback must helps students keep going with these challenges and this must be in a way that provides intrinsic motivation not extrinsic motivation. We learn more when we do it for the love of it and not because of the gain we will get at the end. There is research that shows that, above the amount you actually need to live on, paying more does not increase productivity. This is why Google’s best ideas came out of google time, time allotted for working on your own creative ideas.

The pocketbook also tells us how it is also important to use praise in the right way. Saying that ‘you’re a genius’, ‘you made me happy’ and even ‘brilliant’ (on its own) is very dangerous. It could close down future learning as it makes students think that learning is pleasing someone else and it could inspiring a fear of future failure: ‘What if I cant do this again?’. It is much better to praise the effort behind what has been done. The best feedback asks a question which takes students’ learning even further. Real time intervention feedback is even better.

Growth mindset: It can’t just be an assembly at the start of the year, it needs to underpin everything you do.

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