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What is wrong with Growth Mindset?


You may glance through this article and see the words growth mindset and quietly groan "Not again!" If so, please bear with me. We are very excited about growth mindset at Kent College at the moment, and with good reason. In my time as a teacher (scarily approaching 20 years now), I have encountered a wide range of educational theories, some outstanding, some patently nonsense. growth mindset is definitely in the first group. Firstly, it is wonderfully liberating and aspirational in terms of what we can expect from our students. Secondly, it fits with what many of us already believe: challenge and hard work lead to improvement.

At Kent College, every year I have seen hard working girls palpably get smarter, by enjoying the challenge of their learning. Conversely, when I worked in an elite grammar school, I saw students who were frozen by a fear of failure make limited progress. So growth mindset makes sense.

However, now for a few words of caution. It is a mistake to believe that simply teaching our girls about the right mindset will have a significant impact. Young people quickly become adept at outwardly appearing to have a growth mindset, while inwardly remaining fixed, especially as the "mistake unfriendly", high-stake public exams approach. Furthermore, both young and old can quickly become tired by what they see as jargon. Growth mindset fatigue quickly sets in, hence my opening sentence. As teachers, we sometimes forget that not everyone gets as excited by educational theory as we do.

My second worry relates to how we actually encourage girls to take intellectual risks and become intrinsically motivated to learn. As much as teachers might be abnormally interested in educational theory, we also sometimes forget that not everyone is naturally enthused by our particular subject discipline. I personally love grammar, word origins and Latin poetry, but I have been told to my amazement that these things do not appeal to everyone.

In truth, I believe very few of us are born passionate about learning a specific thing. Our focus comes through a combination of increasing mastery in a subject and, more often than not, an inspirational, friendly teacher. This is something we talk a lot about as a staff body – that we as teachers must be approachable and, most importantly, seem human. My love of Latin flourished not because I innately love verb endings, but because my teacher in Year 9 treated me as more than just "boy with a surname". As a result, I wanted to listen to the feedback he gave, and looked for his approval and praise. And this is where Growth Mindset can be misunderstood.

At our recent Birthday Lecture, Dr Barry Hymer, did possibly seem to argue against praise, if you are to develop the right mindset – praise is extrinsic motivation, whereas we want the girls to be intrinsically motivated. This does make logical sense, but is controversial, especially among teachers who like to give out stickers and housepoints. How can a teacher build that essential bond with the student, if they cannot affirm the girl’s progress and nurture enough self-esteem that they are willing to seek out challenge for themselves?

But as I said, this is a bit of a misunderstanding. Our approach to growth mindset does allow for praise – it just has to be the right sort. Praising ability is dangerous; you risk labelling a girl and setting up a mindset that will not risk failure. However, if you praise the process, the way a girl has approached a problem, then you encourage them to realise that every nut can be cracked if you just find the right tool.

If you would like any further information about growth mindset, please contact Mr Mossman on  

Posted: 20/12/2017 at 13:24
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