The importance of a 'growth' mindset

The importance of a 'growth' mindset

Thursday, 29 May 2014  | Jacqui - Director of Teaching and Learning
I have a confession to make. Writing this editorial takes me way outside of my comfort zone. For as long as I can remember I have struggled with writing. My Year 10 English teacher told my parents at a parent-teacher meeting, “Jacqui can spell the words perfectly, but she can’t string them together”. Shortly after that meeting I gave up on my dream to be a sports journalist. I’m not kidding; I thought my future was in writing about cricket. Instead, I pursued university degrees in engineering and science, and I often tell people that “writing is not my thing”.

Last year I was challenged with this way of thinking when I read the book ‘Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential’ by Dr Carol Dweck. I highly recommend this book. Many of us believe our basic qualities and abilities are ‘carved in stone’. Dweck would say that if we think like this we have a ‘fixed mindset’ and are constantly trying to prove ourselves. “Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”

Others of us see ourselves on a continuum of learning, or a pilgrimage of development. Those with this thinking are said to have a ‘growth mindset’ and believe their qualities can change and grow with application and experience. It is important to note that this is not suggesting that everyone is the same and we can all be developed into an intellectual genius. However, it does suggest that we can all learn and grow through perseverance and effort.

I get to see the outworking of mindsets every day. As a teacher of mathematics, I often get to hear people’s opinions of their abilities in the subject (whether I ask for them or not). Students, parents, fellow teachers and friends often tell me that “maths is not my thing”. Maths teachers will tell you that they spend most of their time working to improve the confidence of students. All too often students will say “I don’t get this. This is too hard” within five minutes of introducing a new concept. My usual response is “Have a go. Learning takes time”.

After reading Dr Dweck’s book I shared my new learning of fixed and growth mindsets with my Year 8 Maths students. They could relate to the fear of failure that comes from attempting a task that is outside their comfort zone. They spoke of feeling too afraid to start an art piece for fear that it wouldn’t work out; of not letting others read their creative writing; or of their brains turning to jelly when they have to do a test or examination. Not one of them had considered talking to a teacher about doing more challenging work if they continually achieved high scores in tests without really trying.

We discussed those people around us who are able to achieve big things with little effort. I mentioned that many superstars who seem to have ‘overnight success’ took years to develop their gifts. One of the students then surprised me when he quoted, from memory, a statement by basketballer Michael Jordan. “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Our conclusion was that success is not immediate; it takes hours and hours of effort and practise. If we want to understand maths, we need to be prepared to do the revision, concentrate in class, and we need to stop telling ourselves that ‘it is not our thing’.

At MECS our understanding of success is not aligned with a worldly response. Parents, teachers and students actively work together in developing the gifts that God has given each of our students. We aim to foster a culture of effective learning where students are encouraged to be faithful followers of Christ. Our understanding of academic excellence is not about rankings or comparisons with others; instead we celebrate effort and faithfulness in learning.

In the maths lesson following my mindsets discussion with the Year 8s, one of the students who had missed the previous class, was getting frustrated with her work. She bemoaned that she couldn’t understand because she was not smart. Before I could respond, a chorus of “Fixed mindset! Fixed mindset!” echoed across the room. My budding psychologists explained to her that it wasn’t about being smart or dumb, or comparing yourselves to others, but it was about being open to learning new things even through struggle and failure.

It is one thing to encourage a growth mindset in our students. It is another thing to ensure we as parents and teachers are modeling and promoting this mindset as well. Do we praise our children for being smart, or for making an effort? How do we respond when a child asks for help with a subject we find difficult? How do our reporting systems promote growth in learning rather than judgment? How are we ensuring that we, as adults, continue to learn in our professions and other interests? You are more than welcome to join this conversation with me. Please email your thoughts and questions (or suggestions on how I can improve my writing).

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