Growth Mindset Misconceptions and Missteps

Bill Gates with picI have been working on developing a growth mindset culture in my school since October 2013, when I heard John Tomsett speak at TLT13. Over that time I have learned a lot about what works, what doesn’t work, and the stumbling blocks and misconceptions that still persist around growth mindset. I have also learned a lot more about the growth mindset, and refined my thinking about Dweck’s work. In this post I hope to summarise some of that learning.

Misconception 1: I’ve got a growth mindset, so everything’s okay

This is a common misconception. Dweck herself refers to it in this video:

One thing that’s been happening a lot that I see is that people prematurely conclude that they have a growth mindset. I call it “false growth mindset.” [They say] “oh! Growth mindset equals good? I have it! I’m good! I must have it!” And they haven’t done the work.

The fact is, shifting mindsets is about accepting that success is not going to come easy. If we want to be good at something, we’re going to have to work at it. Not just now, but for a long time.

It's all about hard work

It’s all about hard work

Misconception 2: I’ve got a growth mindset: where’s my Nobel Prize?

Another common misconception is that a growth mindset will turn you into an Outlier – an exceptional success. This is partly the result of the “famous failures” assembly and, yes, the growth mindset posters which highlight those people who have reached the top of their fields and also demonstrate a growth mindset. The fact is, there are examples of fixed mindset successes – incredible talents who achieve great things on the strength of natural ability and circumstance alone. There are also millions of people who have a growth mindset and are moderately successful. Having a growth mindset does not make you exceptional. As Malcolm Gladwell shows, Outliers are created by a combination of circumstance, system and approach.

However – and I firmly believe this to be true – a growth mindset is the best way to ensure you develop the talents that you have and continue to improve. I will never run faster than Usain Bolt – I don’t have the physique. But if I train hard and work at it, I will run faster than I can run now. I am unlikely to paint a masterpiece. But if I go to classes, practice and work at it, my painting will improve. If I don’t believe that I can improve – if I believe that my running or painting ability is fixed – then I won’t work at it and I definitely won’t get any better.

Misconception 3: Growth mindset is just good teaching; I’ve been doing it for years

I’m sure, in many cases, this is true. In other cases, however, it’s an opt-out from a critical self-examination of practice and an opportunity to improve. I’ve definitely been guilty of fixed-mindset practices in the past: I’ve congratulated students for getting the top mark in the class in their end of year exams, for example. This kind of well-intentioned approach to celebrate achievement encourages students to compare themselves with one another, rather than evaluating their own performance relative to their own progress. To then bemoan the fact that students are only focused on the marks and not on the painstakingly constructed formative feedback is the ultimate irony. Removing grades and marks from work this year and handing it back only with formative feedback has been transformative. We can all get better. But we need to be self-critical, and actually engage with the research. Read Mindset. Listen to Dweck speak. Read her interviews. Read the research. Don’t assume you know what growth mindset is all about until you have.

Misconception 4: they tried hard, so that’s okay

Dweck’s famous study on praise and mindsets has rightly attracted a lot of attention. However, mindset is primarily about achievement. It’s not about making kids feel good about mediocrity or failure. “Never mind, you tried your best,” is not what Dweck advocates. In fact, in her interview with Schools Week she warns against this approach:

The thing that keeps me up at night is that some educators are turning mindset into the new self-esteem, which is to make kids feel good about any effort they put in, whether they learn or not. But for me the growth mindset is a tool for learning and improvement. It’s not just a vehicle for making children feel good.

Failure should feel bad. It should be painful. We should all be motivated to work harder because we want to be successful. We should learn the lessons of failure so we can avoid those mistakes in the future. Effort and hard work are only worth it if they are directed and purposeful, otherwise you ingrain bad technique and habits. Practice piano scales for an hour with poor hand positioning, and you’ll do more harm than good – so it’s no good praising that hour’s practice unless it’s been purposeful and productive. Am I better now than I was before that work? What have I learned? What have I improved?

It’s worth remembering, however, that the growth mindset done right is beneficial to self-esteem. In her interview for Inside Quest, Dweck explains:

Self Esteem is not something you give to people by telling them about their high intelligence. It is something we equip them to get for themselves, by teaching them to value learning over the appearance of smartness, to relish challenge and effort, and to use errors as routes to mastery.

And that is why mindsets matter so much.

Mis-step 1: You can’t change someone’s mindset; they have to change it themselves.

I know there are no silver bullets in education (though Tom Sherrington’s Silver Arrows are great!) but Dweck’s Mindset was so convincing, so obvious, so natural for me that I couldn’t see how anyone could fail to be persuaded. In the hullabaloo of our Growth Mindset launch I had the zeal of an evangelist, and many were convinced. Many, but not all. There have been lovely moments where I have seen the ethos work:

And yet…and yet…I still picture a Year 10 student faced with an amateurish looking magazine article in GCSE Media. The conversation went something like this:

Needless to say, I didn’t leave it there and the fonts and image were improved. But still, why wasn’t my student convinced? She’d been to my assembly. Surely she should be applying herself to self-improvement with every fibre of her being. Didn’t she realise she was at a Growth Mindset School™? I can create the conditions which make the development of a growth mindset natural, easy, and self-evidently sensible – but teenagers being teenagers, the self-evidently sensible path is not always the path most trodden. I could compel her to improve her work. But I couldn’t compel her to change her mind. She needs to do that for herself.

Mis-step 2: Small scale, low-key interventions work best

One mis-step I think we made in launching our growth mindset ethos, due in part to the enthusiasm we felt as staff for the project, is that I think we made too much fuss. It was teacher led and this ran the risk of creating a condition which we came to recognise as “growth mindset fatigue” – the tendency of teenagers to groan whenever the term was mentioned.

Looking into the research in more detail, it is clear that the best interventions are small-scale, and followed up by shifts in the culture of the school to develop the growth mindset. A superb summary is presented in the excellent blog Growth Mindset: What Interventions Might Work and What Probably Won’t? from @Nick_J_Rose:

A successful psychological intervention involves a quick, well-targeted ‘nudge’; not repeatedly hitting students over the head with a sledgehammer!

What we definitely got right is ensuring that each aspect of the school’s culture and approach is compatible with developing a growth mindset. This approach to adjusting the normative influences within the school is definitely productive. But, in the early days, asking students to reflect weekly on their learning approaches definitely felt more like sledgehammer than nudge, and led to the aforementioned “growth mindset fatigue”. None of this is catastrophic, and easing off the use of the terminology whilst maintaining the shifts in culture, language, feedback and praise kept the project moving forward. And, after all, in a growth mindset we learn from criticism and persist in the face of setbacks!

Mis-step 3: Student Leadership – the missing piece?

In my wider reading and research around growth mindset, I came across the wonderful Growth Mindset Journey blog from Rebecca Tushingham. The whole blog is full of great ideas, including the on-topic Little Nudges, but she has also posted about Growth Mindset Leaders, student ambassadors for the growth mindset developed from within the school. We sent our Head of Science over to meet with Rebecca to discuss her approaches and we definitely feel like this is a strategy we missed. Using student leaders allows ownership of mindset theory within the student body and offsets the risks of top-down, teacher-led “nagging” approaches. As Dweck said in an interview with Schools Week:

Some teachers who genuinely have a growth mindset aren’t understanding how to apply it properly. They are just telling kids to try hard: which I call nagging, not growth mindset. Or they are just saying ‘hey kids, have a growth mindset’.

We definitely ran the risk of falling into this trap. However, by continuing to read around the subject, listening carefully to feedback, and refining our approach we are able to improve and develop what we are doing. It’s almost as if we have to have a growth mindset about developing a growth mindset…

Conclusions: Sticking with it

I remain just as evangelical about the power of the growth mindset to improve achievement, motivation and self-esteem as I was in Southampton in October 2013. Listening to Jo Boaler in the recent Radio 4 Mindchangers programme on growth mindset demonstrates why mindsets matter for achievement:

Anyone can do Maths at high levels if they are given the right teaching and the right messages. Many kids think that you can either do maths or you can’t…[but] we can all develop the brain connections we need. The brain is very flexible, very adaptable…if you need to learn some maths your brain can adapt and learn it.

I feel just the same about growth mindset interventions at school. We have achieved a lot already, but we are flexible and adaptable, and we are learning.

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A Letter to my NQT self

Dear Chris,

It’s 1997, and you’re about to start your teaching career. In May, as you were completing your PGCE, Tony Blair led the Labour Party out of 18 years of opposition to win the General Election on a ticket of “education, education, education”; that night and the day after, anything felt possible. It’s the summer holidays now; you’ll be reading a newly published book for children called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to see if it will make a good class reader. It will for a year – but then everyone will have read it. The day before you start at school, Princess Diana will die in a car crash in Paris and her death will dominate the country in your first nervous weeks in the classroom.

I am writing to you now from sixteen years  later. A lot has changed; but much is still the same. Children are still children. They still need help to handle the challenges thrown at them, be they academic, social, personal, or political. Your help. As you go through your career, try to remember:

Do what you know is right


There will be a lot of fads and fashions in teaching. You will be in the vanguard of the National Literacy Strategy in a pilot school. You will have training on philosophy for children. There will be timetabled lessons for Building Learning Power. You will be encouraged to do Brain Gym to wake up your learners’ minds. You will be given a folder containing nine Thinking Maps to use, forsaking all others. Some of this stuff is good. Some of it is hogwash. Instinctively, you will know which is which. Trust your instinct.

Make your own patchwork 


You will work with brilliant – and I mean really brilliant – teachers. You will see them teach and envy the ease with which they command respect, obtain silence, and achieve astonishing results. You will try to copy them in your own classroom. Don’t. You can’t teach like them, you can only teach like you. But borrow this from that colleague, that from another. That was a really good way of dealing with a confrontation, so use that. That was a great way of explaining that idea – borrow it. Magpie ideas and techniques from everyone, everywhere, and stitch them all together into a style which works for you.

Keep moving

Don’t stand still. You need to keep developing, keep pace, keep learning. Each class is different, so you’ll have to re-plan every time you teach, even if it’s the same unit as last year. This is worth the effort! You’ll feel really happy in each school you work in, but the same will be true of the next one too, if you choose wisely. You’ll know when the time is right to move on, and the experience of working in different contexts with different structures will make you a better teacher.

Get involved

Schools are communities. What makes them is not the lessons, but what goes on beyond and between. Get involved. Play staff football, badminton, squash. Join the bands. Help out with – even direct – the school productions. Go on the trips to Alton Towers. Walk in the hills. Supervise the queues. Eat in the dining hall. Start a creative writing magazine. These are the things that will make it worth while.

Surround yourself with radiators


John Tomsett talks about ‘sunshine’: “people who like children and have the deep-rooted commitment to doing all they can to provide them with the best education possible. You know, radiators rather than drains.” These people will enrich your career, your teaching, and your life. You will meet some drains too, of course, but don’t get sucked in. And avoid torturing metaphors, if you can.

Keep up

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Technology will change faster than you can, but try to keep up. Don’t jump on every bandwagon, though: trollies of laptops are not a good investment. Twitter is good though. It won’t make any sense to you yet, but it will. It will. Where technology can make a difference in your classroom, embrace it with open arms. Where it’s more complicated and the technology seems to be the end in itself, rather than the means, don’t bother. 

Every child matters


That phrase will become meaningless through repetition after 2003, but try to take it to heart every day. Every class is mixed ability. You’ll be thrilled by those at the top end whose work soars and whose enthusiasm is incendiary. You’ll work hard to meet the needs of those at the bottom end so that they can access your lessons and achieve. But remember that every child in that room needs and deserves your attention equally. Every child is exceptional. Plan for it.

Keep your priorities straight

Teaching is the best job in the world. You will continue to love it throughout your career. But it is only part of your world, so make time for the rest and don’t let school take over.

Collaborate, don’t compete


External influences will try to force you to compete. Come exam results time you will be asked to check your residuals against your colleagues, your department against others, and your school’s results against your neighbours. You will compete for applications from primaries and into the sixth form, and for staff. Please don’t forget that this is counter-productive. This isn’t a race judged by who crosses the line first, but by how well everybody gets there. Share freely, willingly and widely. Give your time to others. Ask for advice, and give it when asked. Work together with colleagues within and beyond your school. 

It’s worth it


Teaching is hard. Really hard. You’ll have plenty of times – you’ll lose count – where you will survey a paper-strewn classroom after a disaster of a lesson with your plan in tatters and your tolerance at zero. In these moments, more than ever, you will value your colleagues who will pick you up and dust you down – go and find them. Tell them all about it. They’ve been there too. Children have short memories, and every lesson is a chance to start again. Keep at it. It’s worth it.

There’s so much more I could say. I’m jealous of the journey you have ahead of you, the experiences you are going to have. But I am also excited at what the future holds for me in the next sixteen years and beyond.

Good luck!