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Does Mindset Matter in Learning

Stop for a minute and think back to when you were in school... Even if it doesn't bring back happy memories stay with me! You're 14, it's Sunday night and you're thinking about the week ahead.

Were there any classes that you dreaded? Maybe there was a subject you weren't that interested in, perhaps you didn't get on with the teacher or maybe you thought you just weren't smart enough to be able to cope with the subject content?

If you thought you weren't smart enough, think back to how that affected your motivation to learn the subject? Did you feel demotivated? Every time you walked into that particular classroom, what was your mindset?

"A mindset is a set of attitudes or way of thinking that determines how we behave."

Fast-forward years later... It is now your child sitting at home on a Sunday night preparing for a busy week in school. How are they feeling about classes? Do they dread any subjects and, more importantly, why? What will their mindset be in school this week?

We all bring a mindset to learning scenarios - a fundamental belief about how we learn, our capacity, intelligence and our limits. This mindset is crucial because it leads to various learning behaviours that in turn create a range of learning outcomes.

All too often in schools I hear students (and parents) say things like "I'm just not good at Maths, French, Music, Art etc, I've never been any good and that is just the way I am." Some go so far as to say: "I was born that way and there is nothing I can do to change it."

This fixed way of thinking about ability is highly damaging to learning and ultimately to success. It also happens to be a self-perpetuating myth. We might not be good at a particular subject YET but that doesn't mean we cannot improve to become ‘good’ at it. You don't have to take my word for it, fortunately, there is now a growing body of international research from social psychology and neuroscience that refutes the idea of fixed abilities.

Allow me to introduce you to Carol Dweck, a Stanford Professor of Social Psychology. According to Professor Dweck, most people hold one of two mindsets about their ability, or a mixture of both.  A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence and ability are static, genetic traits that we simply can’t change in any significant way. Success is therefore the proclamation of that inherent intelligence and avoiding challenge or failure at all costs becomes a way of maintaining the sense of ‘being clever’.

Students that hold this view might say things like: "I don't have to work that hard, I'm already smart," "If I fail I must be no good at it, so then what's the point." A “growth mindset” however, embraces challenge and sees failure not as evidence of being deficient of intelligence or lacking in ability, but as a springboard for learning, growth and for stretching our current abilities.

Out of these two mindsets, which, due to environmental conditions, we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behaviour and in particular our relationship with success, failure and challenge. Dweck has worked with thousands of students over a forty-year period and her research consistently shows the impact of these deeply held ability views on learning.

Dweck's work has been instrumental in stimulating educators and parents to reflect on certain practices - such as labelling students as having fixed abilities in particular subjects. Her work on how to effectively use praise has prompted, often very well meaning teachers, to think about how their language can perpetuate fixed views about ability.

Most importantly, her research has put 'effort' and not 'ability' at the heart of discussions around learning and success. 

This is what Professor Dweck’s research shows:

In her studies, students who had a fixed view of their ability/intelligence displayed self-defeating behaviours in the face of learning challenges. They believed that intelligence is innate and that it determined their performance on a task, much more than effort or persistence. Dweck found that these students lost confidence more quickly, avoided challenge, gave up relatively easily and blamed their lack of success on their lack of innate intelligence.

The more resilient, persistent students had a 'growth mindset'. They believed that ability could be improved through effort, hard work and trying new strategies. They saw challenge and obstacles as part of the process of learning and persevered with the task for much longer. Failure for them was an opportunity to learn, grow and develop.

Ultimately, Dweck found that it was indeed possible to change students' views about their ability and  their capacity to learn. Where this was evidenced students'  experienced an increase in success and achievement.

For more on Professor Dweck's work, check out 'Mindset' - The New Psychology of Success.

Finally, a word of caution … some people often misunderstand growth mindset.  It is not simply about believing you can do anything. Yes, the belief that you can grow your intelligence, and understanding that your brain has the capacity to do so is crucial, but growth mindset approaches also involve...

identifying areas for improvement, adopting specific, carefully selected strategies to meet individual needs and deliberately practicing in an effortful way.

We will be addressing all of these elements in the coming weeks so stay tuned.