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Carol Dweck's mindsets

I have only just discovered this, thanks to a conversation with my friend Tony Swainston.

Black and Wiliam's "must read" work on formative assessment (otherwise known as assessment for learning) argues that to maximise pupil progress a teacher should always aim to move a pupil on from their present level rather than allowing them to coast. They recommend, among other things, that you should not tell a child that they are good, but suggest ways they can improve from their current level, whatever that level may be. This is why they argue against giving grades rather than giving advice on how to get even better. Now, Carol Dweck's notion of mindsets dovetails nicely with this work.

Professor Dweck is a psychologist from Stanford University. She writes on her web site:  

Mindsets are beliefs—beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities. Think about your intelligence, your talents, your personality. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that? Or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life? People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t... So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Tony put it to me this way: the single most important thing a school can do for its pupils is to nurture a growth mindset in students and teachers. Too many teachers label children, put them in boxes and assume that they cannot achieve things. This inevitably communicates itself to children who therefore lower their own aspirations and fail to believe in their ability to achieve.

Dweck gives this example of how one might affect a child's mindset:  

Nine-year-old Elizabeth was on her way to her first gymnastics meet. Lanky, flexible, and energetic, she was just right for gymnastics, and she loved it... In the first event, the floor exercises, Elizabeth went first. Although she did a nice job, the scoring changed after the first few girls and she lost. Elizabeth also did well in the other events, but not well enough to win. By the end of the evening, she had received no ribbons and was devastated. What would you do if you were Elizabeth’s parents? 

  1. Tell Elizabeth you thought she was the best. 
  2. Tell her she was robbed of a ribbon that was rightfully hers. 
  3. Reassure her that gymnastics is not that important.
  4. Tell her she has the ability and will surely win next time. 
  5. Tell her she didn’t deserve to win. 

There is a strong message in our society about how to boost children’s self-esteem, and a main part of that message is: Protect them from failure ! While this may help with the immediate problem of a child’s disappointment, it can be harmful in the long run. Why? 

Let’s look at the five possible reactions from a mindset point of view [and listen to the messages:] The first (you thought she was the best) is basically insincere. She was not the best – you know it, and she does too. This offers her no recipe for how to recover or how to improve. 

The second (she was robbed) places blame on others, when in fact the problem was mostly with her performance, not the judges. Do you want her to grow up blaming others for her deficiencies? 

The third (reassure her that gymnastics doesn’t really matter) teaches her to devalue something if she doesn’t do well in it right away. Is this really the message you want to send? 

The fourth (she has the ability) may be the most dangerous message of all. Does ability automatically take you where you want to go? If Elizabeth didn’t win this meet, why should she win the next one? 

The last option (tell her she didn’t deserve to win) seems hardhearted under the circumstances. And of course you wouldn’t say it quite that way. But that’s pretty much what her growth-minded father told her.

So, praise is not always the way to go. The key point is to always find a way to get the child to believe they can improve.

This all makes sense to me. It ties in well with the government's messages about high aspirations for all. We all believe in this in principle, but in practice we are all tempted to focus on the limitations of the child.

Now, I just temper this with some realism. Tony stressed how the human brain makes a near limitless number of connections and that we are all capable of much more with motivation and practice. However, I choose to believe that there is such a thing as natural ability and that some things are just beyond some children. There is natural language learning ability. There is natural mathematical and musical ability; some people are tone deaf.

But if teachers could get into the growth mindset and develop it within their pupils, greater motivation and achievement would ensue. Einstein said: "It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer."


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