Intelligence has always been the subject of much debate and research. When Francis Galton coined the term ‘nature versus nurture’ in the late 19th century, he believed that intelligence was the result of genetics. Over forty years later Alfred Binet developed the first widely used intelligence test and stated that intelligence was not a fixed quantity, but that it could be augmented. Growth mindset is a relatively recent term that encapsulates this idea. Originally conceived out of research into how students cope with failure, its central idea is that intelligence can be nurtured through learning and effort.
What is growth mindset?
Students with a growth mindset see their intelligence as something that can constantly grow. This belief is backed by neuroscientific research into brain plasticity, which shows that neurons in our brain can change and develop over time. Dweck believes that the perception students have of their brains ability to develop, can impact on how successful they are in the classroom. Everyone has the capability to learn, if they work hard, and students who have this belief will do better at school than those with fixed mindsets. Conversely, students who believe that their intelligence is fixed are more likely to fear failure and avoid challenges.
By believing that intelligence is fixed, children can feel helpless when they encounter failure. A study into error-processing in young children showed that those with a growth mindset had better accuracy after making mistakes than children with fixed mindsets. This suggests that a growth mindset contributes to people’s ability to bounce back after a setback, which is an important attribute to have when it comes to academic achievement. One study directly examined the connection between mindset and academic outcome. The research found that the students who believed they could develop their intelligence, earned higher grades and were more likely to eventually move to more advanced maths courses.
However, intelligence is not solely based on a person’s mindset and it is widely accepted that intelligence has a genetic basis. We are not all born with the same capabilities. Researchers have found that mothers with good prenatal nutrition tend to have children who grow up to have a higher IQ than their counterparts. It is evident that not everyone has the capability to reach the same intelligence levels, regardless of how much effort they put in or how much they believe they can.
Critiques of growth mindset
There is debate that growth mindset overpromises in what it can achieve. The theory has garnered significant mainstream attention with suggestions that it can have a profound effect on academic achievement. However in two meta-analyses conducted, it was found that mindset had a very weak relationship with academic achievement. There have been a number of other unsuccessful attempts to replicate Dweck’s findings. In one such study it was concluded that having a certain mindset about the nature of intelligence had no effect on grades or general cognitive ability. The data from this research showed that whilst praising hard work increased effort, it did not increase performance. Dweck has countered that the correct experimental environment was not created, whilst also suggesting that there is room for improvement. As it is a relatively recent concept, there is still a lot of research and development being done on it.
One issue that has come out of the quick adoption of it is that of false growth mindset. This stems from the incorrect application of the theory and Dweck herself has raised concerns about this misuse of growth mindset. Praising effort is a tool in encouraging a growth mindset in children, however it is not beneficial to praise all efforts regardless of outcome. For example, in the case that a child has put in effort but failed a test. In this case it is unhelpful to equate the child’s effort with success, as it is unlikely their effort level is the reason for their failure. Dweck cautions that these children need to be helped to change their process, as opposed to advised to work harder.
Adopting growth mindset in the classroom
As teachers it is useful to not just view a child’s failure as a lack of effort. It can be frustrating for students if they’re working hard but not achieving the results. As such, I would be mindful of both the effort a child is making and the strategy they’re using. Dweck says that effective teachers show students how their learning strategies resulted in success. In doing this children learn that it’s not solely about effort and that if they’re not succeeding they may need to seek out additional resources or ask for help.
Teachers play a key role in the type of mindset a child develops, so it is important to be aware of the language used with them. Telling a child that they are good or bad at something is not productive. Asking them instead what they might do differently next time, or praising the strategy they used, is much more beneficial in helping them to grow and develop.
Dweck talks about the power of the word ‘yet’. By using ‘yet’ when a student has not succeeded, it improves their confidence and encourages them to try again. It helps them to see that failure is not the end of a learning process, but a component of it. Creating a classroom environment where a growth mindset is encouraged helps students to see the bigger picture, beyond assessments, and to realise that their education is a journey.
There is a lot of common sense ideals in the growth mindset theory. As teachers it is beneficial to adopt a growth mindset ourselves by constantly looking for ways to improve our practices and the structures that we teach in. It is still a very new theory, as such it’s useful to consider it as an idea to engage with as opposed to a scientific fact. It is not a fix-all solution to be adopted into a classroom in isolation. However, there are many positives in it that I believe are useful tools to incorporate with other educational ideas and methods.
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