Growth mindset: it’s not just for Christmas

Growth-Not-Just-For-ChristmasWEBImage: @jasonramasami

Every Saturday, I take my three-year old son shopping. I must admit I am forever the teacher. My partner draws him a list of things to find and together we look for them. Today, we were after garlic, even if the biro sketch had more than a whiff of onion about it.

It was on our way past the Christmas tree, from the garlic to the carrots, that we saw him, dressed in the signature green and yellow of Morrisons. A stooped stockiness had replaced the gangliness of adolescence but, even so, the crooked smile, open and shy at the same time, instantly sent me back four years. Here was Tim [name changed] again. A delightful boy – who could barely write.

I tend to bump into a former student most weekends, more often than not in a retail outlet. Sometimes I find these meetings awkward. Now that the classroom relationship is over we are left with little but empty what-are-you-up-to-nows? With Tim it felt different. We were genuinely pleased to see each other this morning.

We got talking. He has been working at Morrisons for a month. He is enjoying it. And then he said something I hadn’t expected…

Tim: I’ve got my English now.

Me (badly masking my scepticism): Oh, that’s good. What do you mean?

Tim: I’ve got a C. I did the exam six times but I eventually got there. I kept missing out by one mark.

What you have to understand about Tim is that he was a very weak student. He was a bottom-five-percenter, an E/F border-liner if you must. He tried hard in every lesson, but always seemed to fail. Yet he would smile wistfully, shrug his shoulders, say ‘oh well’ and start again. There seems little justice in the world when such an affable, gentle child meets academic failure at every juncture.

That he has finally achieved his C is a classic tale of character over circumstance. It is, to me, the feel-good growth mindset story to end all. I am very wary of the Michael Jordan – I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying. – school of sayings. Underneath such aphorisms lie a suggestion that, with effort alone, you can become a worldwide success. Unfortunately, with the best will in the world, superstar basketball players are the exception not the norm. Tim’s story reveals a more earthy truth: that effort does not lead to outright success, but to more success than we might have once believed possible.

Yet, for me, there lies a more profound implication. Tim was not ready at sixteen to sit his GCSE. I do not think it was a case of low expectations; rather, that he genuinely could not do it. Sadly, others like him give up and decide that formal education – reading, writing and maths – is not for them. Tim’s determination, borne, I think, out of a placidness of personality and simplicity of worldview, led him there in the end. For others, failure and stigma lead to rejection and anger. It is complex and entirely understandable. But as schools we must do more to deliver our message carefully. Yes, good exam results are crucial – they are inextricably linked to higher earnings, better health and longer life expectancy – but how we help students to cope with failure and move on in life is also important. They might not be ready now, but they could be a little later on.

In schools like mine growth mindset has become the ethos. Not only are we celebrating the idea through assemblies and displays, but gradually structures are changing too – a move to formative-only feedback at KS3 (as part of our assessment-without-levels system) and ungraded lesson observations are just two examples. Yet a question remains. Is it really possible to foster and nurture grit and determination – or whatever you want to call them – at school? Or are personality traits such as Tim’s much more complex, harder-to-shape aspects of self and identity, impervious in reality to the intervention of school?

Furthermore, to link success and its opposite to exam results alone seems a distortion of Carol Dweck’s message. The growth mindset is to take into all areas of life, be it school, relationships or the workplace. Failure and rejection are to be learnt from, not define us. If we only consider promoting mindset as a crude mechanism to enhance exam results, we miss the richness of the message.

Who knows? Perhaps Tim will work in supermarkets all his life. I imagine he will move on when he is ready. Two things, however, are for sure. The refusal to give up, at school and beyond, must be modelled through the way we talk and work with children. And secondly: life does not have to be decided at sixteen.

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39 thoughts on “Growth mindset: it’s not just for Christmas

  1. Reading your blog and following the enormous amount of work that the motivated teachers of twitter do outside of their normal hours of work gives me hope. Hope for a son about to turn 10 who is struggling in school. I filled his early world with books and conversation. Filled his mind with ideas which he enjoyed picking apart and discussing. His vocabulary is now beyond his years, but he struggles. He has always been given a label by his class teacher, often incorrect and misplaced. But what ever thought process they used, to myself as his parent it was always something he would grow out of. They expected he would mature into himself and then suddenly be where he should be in his learning, full filling his potential. What was meant was that soon he would be in some else’s class. He would have moved on. It had nothing to do with full filling his potential. I read between the lines, but picked up the wrong message. When I was told not to worry about ‘getting it down on paper’ I thought that it was a criticism that I was pushing too hard. Now I know, I should have taken this literally and questioned the teaching.
    The talk on twitter, searching for best teaching practice, is inspiring. I wish my son could be at any one of the schools represented by the contributers I follow. Unfortunately he is not and I am left to struggle.
    Now we do have an accurate assessment I don’t feel things are any better, it is just easier for school to expect a poor outcome. To feel he is too difficult to help. So the gap opens further and my son is desperately left trying to survive school. Get to the end of the journey intact.
    As a professional, removing levels and unnecessary exams seems eminently sensible. As a parent without a measure to gauge where my son is at and to use as a means to entering into a conversation with school, parents feel lost. This is why parents place such emphasis on SATS. Every class will have children who when given the opportunity can dazzle in conversation, but produce written work poor by comparison. It is not necessarily age that allows them to mature, but perhaps time that allowing them to make up for the missed opportunity of early education. Should primary education allow more mastery in the core subjects which could contrast with a freedom to develop other areas as per pupils interests? A solid foundation developed in tandem with a less structured curriculum. Would this give the chance for children to shine?
    I caught a little of the debate that teaching is simple, but perhaps it’s the educational overview that is complex? The dynamic of learning, grit , metacognition and yes, enjoyment that require the deepest thinking from multiple perspectives.

    • I totally agree that you need a gauge to enter into a dialouge – without this children get utterly lost in the system. I would also agree with strengthening primary, but in a less structured way. Its funny too that teaching is actually simple for some who really should be in the classroom, but there are too many that are not and for them teaching is difficult – students won’t do well with them.

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  6. A great piece which pulled at my heart strings.
    My younger sister has autism and a beautifully quirky and innocent outlook on life. She has been given a very different mind set to the one we stereotypically see to be ‘normal’ in society. She is currently battling through Y11 and facing work that really means nothing to her, religion for example, and she now just sees school as something she has to do. A levels aren’t something she could handle yet, but they loom ever closer. Luckily her college has developed a new course in place of A levels for those to which the subjects would not give any growth. The course is called Personal and Social Development. Here the students will have the chance to learn life skills such as:
    Personal safety in the home and community
    Making the most of leisure time
    Healthy living
    Travel
    Shopping for daily life
    Hygiene
    Managing own money
    Cooking
    and Fitness.
    This is such a good opportunity for her. Life after education is a bit of an unknown space for her and the family but this course should enable her to have a firmer independence when she does break out into the real world.
    I myself find it strange that this isn’t a fundamental course taken by all students going through the education system. There seems to be too much of a difference between education and ‘the real world’ in my eyes. And this continues right up through university level (where I stand now). The information given doesn’t seem to correlate with a way to use it once on your own. It is the classic case for a student to come out with perfect grades but then have no idea where to project this, how to use these qualifications to progress and find a place in the world.
    This course my sister has had the luck of finding should be a universal option for both children and adults alike. Learning is not something that should stop after education and I think many people could benefit from being given some life skills to make society a little more bearable and accepting of every kind of beautiful mind created.

  7. I too am a teacher – at an adult learning centre where most of my students have faced multiple challenges in their lives. The first week I have my class, I teach them about mindset, emotional intelligence, thinking skills, and literacy (the real meaning!). It seems they become much more able to learn how to learn and how to teach their own children what learning is all about. A beautiful post and I am encouraged to find a like-minded teacher in this bloggingsphere.

  8. “Me (badly masking my scepticism): Oh, that’s good. What do you mean?” Just a thought, but isn’t this a big part of the teaching problem. Low expectation = low pupil achievement. Ofsted link this clearly to low grade results. Totally agree with Dweck and mindset philosophy, have been a fan for years, but more for the teachers!

  9. This is wonderful. I agree completely. Some of our children/students are just not ready for the milestones that society says they must reach by a certain age. This often makes them feel like failures. I love so many things about this article I could go on and on but suffice to say, thank you.

  10. I too stubbled in school. I dropped out at 16 and got my GED just before I turned 18. I then went to the army where it was a challenge learning all the training. When I got out I tried automotive school and quit when I fell so behind I was over whelmed. Then I tried Art school and the same thing happened. I am now trying to write and find my voice on a blog with out the pressures of school and deadlines. Reading your article gives me hope that I too may get to where I want to be some day. Thanks.

  11. Nice article
    You are right that exam results alone can not be all the things that determine success in real world and life. He might have other wonderful personal character like will power or something like sense of humor that might make him very successful in life more than students who always get an A. As an example see Ford who doesn’t have much formal education has built a car manufacturing company with the help of engineers and some specialists in car production. He has personal characters some of which are
    vision and strong will that made him successful.
    Thomas Edison dropped out of school and his teacher didn’t believe in his abilities perceiving Edison as a slow learner.
    But Edison has spent days in work after quiting school trying to earn money to make a laboratory and then he tried 10 thousand times to get really great inventions.

    As you are saying exam results are not alone to make a fair judgement though they are important, but there are also the attitude of a student and how he interacts in his community sometimes that determines success.

  12. You are right that exam results and school ing does not determine success alone.characters and personality that can be improved and developed plays an important role. The world is full of people not continuimg their formal education at school and are yet very popular in their communities and successful in their business because of their will power and great vision in life. They have strong personalit and a way to build their business and social relationships.

  13. It’s so wonderful to see children who can fail and not give up….is it the child that did it alone or is it a very mature, caring and supportive parent or family member who believed he could, that made him that way i wonder. I m more inclined to think it s probably the latter… As teachers, we need to help all parents we interact with see possibilities in their kids, so they believe in them and help them grow….

  14. I really, really like this. Growth mindset has helped me a lot. Honestly, just reading about it has helped me so much after growing up with teachers and parents who seemed to think intelligence was fixed. It makes me want to be a teacher myself someday. Oh, don’t let me get started! This is a lovely post. I’ll be reading some of your others now as well.

  15. Your blog made me think of the Chinese mom who pushed her kids very hard at school, and other things, and wrote a book about it. What if one of her children was genuinely slow? It sounds like it would be a terrible nightmare for both parent and child.

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  17. Cheers to Tim’s tenacity!

    I’ve always been ambivalent about the education system’s grading system, especially since it seems to largely overlook other crucial life aspects. Thanks for this insightful post.

  18. Reblogged this on R is for Rogue and commented:
    With this blog post, I realized the reason why we should always encourage students to simple try again when they fail at something. This further cements the idea of praising them for their hard work and effort will result to a better perspective on failure as a lesson to learn from and not as a crutch they should carry for the rest of their lives.

  19. Our current development on mindset is making sure that as school staff we work with the mindset we expect from our students. A ‘growth mindset’ as an embedded part of performance management.

  20. You make some very valid points about growth mindset. I also think that educators also need to take into account the fixed mindsets embedded within the social class structures. If you think students from the working class who may have their own desire for learning, but whose family may not value education, the challenges to move away from their upbringing is scary and difficult. Check out my own experiences as, what Alfred Lubrano refers to, a straddler: one who has one working class roots, but has a foot in the middle class as a result of my education at http://www.theprofessionallydepressedprofessional.wordpress.com. The post is called, “Straddler on the Roof: Keeping Bule-Collar Values in a White-Collar World.”

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