Carole Dweck’s growth mindset theory is powerful, compelling and liberating. I came across it in my first couple of weeks of teacher training during the Teach First summer institute and I have been convinced by it ever since.
To summarise, Dweck's research sorts students into two categories: those with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset. Students with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and skills are limited by their natural ability. They aim to look smart and they fear failure because they think it will make them look dumb. They don’t want to take risks and they quickly become anxious or bored if they think that they are not naturally good at a specific subject. On the other hand, students with a growth mindset believe that their skills and intelligence can grow and develop. They embrace challenges because they understand that challenges help them learn. They are not particularly concerned about looking smart or accomplished; they are more interested in learning and improving their skills. They react calmly to setbacks and reflect on what they can do to improve next time.
Since her initial research, Dweck has conducted multiple studies into the impact of these different mindsets and shown time and again that students with a growth mindset (and students who are specifically taught about the concept of a growth mindset), are more resilient and more likely to be successful than students with a fixed mindset.
The theory is powerful, compelling and liberating because it tells us that our intelligence and capabilities are not pre-determined. Our actions, our choices, our effort is what makes the difference to our attainment and skills. We are not stuck as either “smart” or “dumb”; we are what we make of ourselves.
At this point, some people become sceptical. This is a good thing. A healthy dose of scepticism is often very useful. Most teachers will be able to pinpoint a student who seems to have a natural aptitude for their subject and another student who faces significant struggles in even the most basic tasks. This would suggest that the fixed mindset camp have some valid points. Isn’t it the case that some people are just naturally good at things?
Well I don’t think growth mindset theorists argue that everyone is born with identical traits or that everyone can achieve identical outcomes. The theory is more about how malleable the brain is, and about not putting ceilings on attainment.
And just because someone isn’t a high starter, it doesn’t mean that they won’t make accelerated progress later on in their development. After all, Einstein wasn’t able to speak until he was 4. Do we think of him as a “slow learner” and therefore someone who was “dumb”? No, his name is a byword for intrinsic genius, which is ironic considering that the man himself understood that success comes about through hard work, taking risks and making mistakes.
As an educator, I feel that Dweck’s growth mindset theories are at their most powerful when also coupled with Vygotsky’s theory of the Zone of Proximal Development. I’m not a psychologist, and I recognise that Vygotsky’s work is quite old now (1970s), but his ideas ring true with all my experiences as a practicing maths teacher and I hope that I’m not wildly outdated in setting store by his theory.
Vygotsky explained the “Zone of Proximal Development” as being “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”. In other words, students can learn new things with the help of others but they need to be related to skills and attributes that they already have.
As a maths teacher, this theory is fundamental in informing my planning. If you try to teach something that is beyond the students’ zone of proximal development, they are not able to process the new concepts and they often either panic or blindly follow a set of steps with no real understanding of what they are doing. This really hit home when I taught a relatively high ability year 11 class who were following a modular maths course. They could do complicated things like solve quadratic equations by completing the square, but they hadn’t done any shape or space work for two years. Consequently, their visualisation skills were very weak and at the start of y11 we had to go back to counting squares to find the area of a rectangle before they stood any chance of conquering more complex formulae. We had to practice estimating the size of angles for a whole lesson before we could even begin to start calculating them. (Many students couldn’t use a protractor and would measure an acute angle as being 1500 without any understanding that they had made a mistake). Time constraints meant we then had to rush, and a lesson on circle theorems made some of them nearly hysterical.
The modular course cemented a fixed mindset viewpoint in most of those students. I started year 11 with work that should not have been taxing for them, but because they didn’t have good visualisation skills, the work was beyond their zone of proximal development and they ended up feeling inadequate. I built a good relationship with the class and by the end of the year they achieved very good grades, but the process was exhausting. They relied heavily on me and had very little self belief. The thank you cards I received at the end of the year were very telling. “Thanks for making maths bearable! “ one of the said. “We couldn’t have done it without you!” exclaimed another.
In contrast, my exam class from this November told me how much they enjoyed the challenges of maths, how they wanted to take extra algebra courses before doing A level maths. One girl simply wrote: “Thanks miss. You made us believe we could do anything”.
So here is the challenge of promoting growth mindset for teachers. If we tell students that hard work, effort and reflection will lead to progress, we need to make sure our curriculums are designed to support this. If we throw students in at the deep end without proper preparation, they are likely to fail and not learn much from it. Conversely, if we protect them from failure and never give them a true challenge, they cannot stretch to their full potential and they won’t know how to deal with challenges when they inevitably come along.
In truth, as with so many aspects of teaching, building a growth mindset in students is going to be a balancing act for all of us.