The Growth Mindset Revisited

If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.
Professor Carol Dweck

Last March I explored one of the current buzz phrases in education and parenting, the "Growth Mindset".

Now, thanks to requests from the Junior School community, and with research on the future of work indicating a growth mindset is more important than ever, I’ll share my experiences on how it can be applied to younger students.

The growth mindset approach to teaching and praising children is based on extensive research by Stanford University psychologist Professor Carol Dweck, which is set out in the bestselling book Mindset.

Professor Dweck’s initial work was on children entering junior high school in the US (about 11-12-year-olds). Her studies found that those given compliments such as "you're so clever" are much more likely to develop a fixed mindset, or a belief that their intelligence and abilities are innate and cannot be changed. This, her research found, led to them to being less likely to want to take risks in their learning and seek out help for fear of not looking “so clever” - and subsequently struggling more at high school.

As Professor Dweck summed up: ”Praising children's intelligence harms motivation and it harms performance."

On the other hand, students who were encouraged on the process they undertook to complete a task (“great effort!” is a simple one) were more likely to develop a growth mindset. This is the recognition that the brain is a muscle that can develop with persistence and problem solving.

When I started reading about growth mindset I became concerned that it may involve giving children false hope about their potential - something most parents want to avoid.

But as Professor Dweck explains, a growth mindset is not just about complimenting effort, which older children can see as a form of consolation prize or lead to them wasting time “studying” things they already know. Instead, she says: “It is about telling the truth about a student's current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.”

Follow-up studies to Professor Dweck’s original research (outlined on the independent EdSource website) have demonstrated how some elementary (primary) schools in the US which have adopted a growth mindset approach have achieved better academic results, higher motivation levels and more integration between students from different backgrounds.

These results come as the World Economic Forum’s White Paper, Eight Futures of Work: Scenarios and Their Implications concluded “lifelong learners will be the new black”. To ensure our children are not left behind by the rapid advances being brought about by robotics, artificial intelligence and big data analytics, the paper urges that students undergo “a mindset shift … a new mental model that embraces lifelong learning”. That is, a growth mindset.

So how does a parent encourage this?

Probably the most important exercise parents can do is examine their own mindset.

Here we need to remember that most people have neither a fixed nor growth mindset but lie somewhere in between. Also, some people may have a growth mindset in some subjects or activities - maths and art are two common ones - but not others.

So, when my elder son needed help with some long division homework in upper primary school I resisted the initial urge to say,” I’m no good at that, ask your father” and instead said “I can’t remember how to do that so let’s look online and nut it out”.

However, getting out of the habit of simply saying “well done - you’re so clever!” Or “that’s a beautiful drawing” (even if you think they are, or it is) can be difficult - especially when something is waved in front of you while in the middle of cooking dinner or doing some other household chore.

Even after about a year since first reading Mindset I still sometimes give those quick and easy compliments, particularly when I’m busy or genuinely taken aback by something I find impressive.

But then I catch myself and follow up with something more specific or suggest a ramped-up challenge.

It turns out a perk - amid all the challenges - of having boy-girl twins with differing strengths is that I have to praise specific aspects of their work or I’d be making unfavourable comparisons all the time.

This is especially so when my younger daughter, like many girls, can appear to be smarter because she is much neater with her work and seeks praise more than her twin brother. He, like many boys, including his older brother, tends to rush through written work to get it over and done with as quickly as possible.

As Professor Dweck found, boys often need more encouragement to simply sit still and complete a task so are often inculcated with a stronger growth mindset than girls.

I’ve also found over the past year that it’s far more engaging to compliment a particular aspect of the art, story or whatever. That more specific praise is far more likely to lead into a conversation with the child about their thought processes on the work.

The same principle applies when things don’t work out so well.

This means that when my elder son loses a tennis match for example, I’ll ask him what he learnt from the loss. At other times I have encouraged him to seek extra help with a subject or a project, encouraging him not to feel self-conscious by telling him I wish I had done this more myself when I was young instead of feeling embarrassed to ask.

A fantastic newly released book I found for children aged from about nine years up is You Are Awesome by Matthew Syed, an English Olympian turned journalist and broadcaster.

Easy to read and with fun graphics it lives up to its subtitle - Find Your Confidence and Dare to be Brilliant at (Almost) Anything.

As Professor Dweck herself says about it: “An awesome book about becoming awesome . . . This book shows you how.”