Children spend over 16,000 hours between nursery and the end of high school cultivating the academic skills that are measured by standardized tests. However, recent research from the University of Chicago confirms that enabling children to become effective learners involves more than improving just their test scores; it requires nurturing the non-cognitive skills that standardized tests don’t measure, i.e. the behaviours, attitudes, beliefs and socio-emotional skills and set children and young people up for success in school and in life.
These are crucial for children’s learning and development at all ages and at all stages of their education and are shaped by the environments that children and young people are in every day – what they hear, see and feel from parents, teachers and society.
Non-cognitive beliefs fall into four key categories:
- I belong in this school.
- My ability and competence grow with my effort.
- I can succeed.
- This work has value for me.
Of these four beliefs the one that has triggered the longest debate is the second one; usually known as `mindsets’. Research on mindsets was pioneered over thirty years ago by Carol Dweck, a psychologist and professor now at Stanford University. Dweck’s bestselling book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006) has sold more than a million copies and schools can now license the software that Dweck has developed called Brainology, www.mindsetworks.com . Mindsets are big business and not just in education, some of the largest companies in the world, including Google now test for mindsets in their prospective employees.
Fixed and growth mindsets
According to Dweck there are two types of mindsets – fixed and growth. A fixed mindset is a view of the world that is inflexible and absolute. It is certainly not about growth, multiple perspectives, or the possibility of change. Children with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities, character and personality are set in stone. A fixed mindset can stand in the way of a child reaching his/her potential and can be an excuse to give up.
Children, with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that their abilities, character and personality traits can be developed. They believe in the importance of making an effort and that failure is an action not a fixed part of who they are. Children with a growth mindset recognise that they can continue to improve if they work hard, commit themselves to making an effort and rise to challenges.
In a nutshell, a fixed mindset limits an individual’s achievement and development while a growth mindset strengthens them both. When we define success as how much effort our children make rather than what results they achieve or whether they win the game or not, we nurture a growth mindset.
|Fixed ability mindset||Growth mindset|
|1. Learning ability is fixed by intelligence||1. Learning is driven by effort|
|2. Mistakes result from our limitations||2. Mistakes are part of learning|
|3. Progress depends on outside help||3. Progress comes with practice|
|4. Speed of learning is a sign of ability||4. Slow and careful gets there|
|5. Learning strategies are just technique||5. Persistence pays off|
|6. I have limited control over my results||6. I have control over results|
According to Dweck our mindset also affects the quality and longevity of our relationships. Children with a fixed mindset have a tendency take things personally, and have an all-or-nothing reaction to the tricky situations that may occur in their friendships. They are usually quick to blame the other child rather than the circumstance in which both children find themselves. This means that they are likely to feel distressed about any disagreements that may occur and are far less hopeful about the possibility of being able to resolving their differences together.
Children with a growth mindset on the other hand are more likely to be proactive about addressing difficulties in their friendships and go out of their way to solve them. This is because they don’t view the situation as hopeless or believe that their friendship is doomed as a result of the conflict. A child with a growth mindset, believes that change, repair and growth are all part of the equation in both learning and in friendships and that their mistakes and setbacks aren’t proof of their low ability or of their poor character.
As part of her research Dweck demonstrated how well-intentioned but misguided praise can go wrong and how over-praised children tend to suffer from what Dweck calls `image maintenance’. Rather than trying to achieve more, such children take fewer risks because they do not want to be seen to `fail’. In addition they tend to fall into the trap of putting their energies into pulling others down to make themselves continually look `the best’. Endless praise, Dweck argues, undermines children’s ability to recognise the importance of error or failure as a crucial part of the process of learning.
Dweck found that children with a fixed mindset who are praised for being `clever’ actually set out to underperform in subsequent tasks, by carefully choosing easier tasks to avoid the evidence that they are not in fact clever. In contrast, Dweck found that children who are praised for their effort- with realistic praise that is specific to the effort made, and not exaggerated – develop a `growth mindset’. They learn that it is their effort that led to their success and that if they continue to make an effort over time they’ll improve and achieve even more.
(More on how to use praise correctly in Part 2 blog coming soon!)
According to Dweck children with a growth mindset therefore tend to take on tougher challenges and as a consequence feel much better about themselves. In a nutshell, emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control and also means that they come to view themselves as being in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence, on the other hand, takes success out of the child’s control and provides no good recipe for responding to failure. http://mindsetonline.com/changeyourmindset/firststeps/
Dweck’s work helps to explain why some children do well in school and value their friendships and others don’t. The good news is that mindsets can be taught, and we can enable all children to adopt growth mindsets about the key aspects of their lives, i.e. their personality, achievement and friendships. How we praise children will influence to a large degree what type of mindset they develop, and whether they face the world feeling capable and optimistic (growth mindset) or uncertain and risk-averse (fixed mindset). We should praise our children so that they recognise when they do well and to increase their desire to want to do well. They also, at times will need sensitive and constructive negative feedback or they risk becoming fragile children who cannot bear to make mistakes. They need to know when they have `almost won’ or not won at all. We must learn to use praise intelligently.
The question of the malleability of intelligence is constantly debated by psychologists and neuroscientists and although scores on achievement tests can be affected by training of different kinds it is generally accepted that the purest kind of intelligence is not malleable at all however mindsets certainly are. Dweck and others have shown that with the right kind of intervention children and young people can develop a growth mindset and their wellbeing and academic outcomes will flourish as a result.
In Dweck’s words
The hallmark of successful individuals is that they love learning, they seek challenges, they value effort, and they persist in the face of obstacles.
Dr Ruth M MacConville
Dweck’s website teaches a step-by-step approach to developing a growth mindset
www.biglifejournal.com How to teach Growth Mindset to Kids (the 4-week guide)
www.bluebeepals.com Growth mindset in Early Learners
www.thersa.org How to help children fulfil their potential.
www.blog.teachmindset.com Coaching parents for mindset school change