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CPD, Leadership, Redesigning Classrooms, Redesigning Schools

Growth Mindset: The Latest Silver Bullet?

I don’t want to be a “party pooper” and I am also rather concerned that I could be turning into a grumpy old man.  I’m just about the right age.  This post may even just be revealing my Fixed Mindset but I’m concerned we may be getting a bit too carried away with Growth Mindset.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading the book back in October 2012 on a short break in Madrid and I think it has much to commend it.

Shared on Twitter. Source Unknown – can you help me with the source?

Over my career I’ve always loved new ideas and thinking.  I am much happier adding to the froth created on twitter than bursting a blogsphere bubble.  The BUT (and that is a big BUT) has been  the recent fun than Tom Bennett had with VAK Wars and getting us all to rub our brain button, as part of our Brain Gym exercises in a recent NTENRED Conference in York.

Is Growth Mindset the new Brain Gym? 

Are we in danger of being lampooned in the near future by Tom Bennett for our latest Silver Bullet?

Cards on the table, I’ve actually involved the College in a national research project on the impact of Growth Mindset because I think it may have a lot to offer.  However, I want to be a bit more certain before getting too carried away.

This post has an element of shooting itself in the foot.  I’m going to suggest we still need much more evidence about the potential impact of Growth Mindset and its application.  The basis of my argument will be a set of personal and idiosyncratic ramblings.

Blessed & Lucky

2014-06-09 16.55.55

This is one of the views I have from my desk. It’s to remind me how Blessed I am. Though I still seemed to get stressed some days!

I’ve always considered myself lucky in life.  Being the wrong side of fifty with both my parents still alive, growing up in a loving family and now blessed with a wonderful wife and three great children, life has dealt me a good hand.  I haven’t worked harder than many other people who have coped with personal or family illness, a tragic or life changing incident or just sheer bad luck.

I’m approaching my thirtieth year in schools and have not yet taken a day off work due to sickness.  It’s a fairly impressive record but could all end with a trip, slip or unexpected event today or tomorrow or next week.  Whilst part of this attendance record may be due to effort and mindset life’s outcomes are part chance.

Life’s Outcomes Are Part Chance

Not everything that happens is within our control although clearly we can influence things.  If I want to win the lottery then I need to buy a lottery ticket.  However, buying a lottery ticket will not guarantee me winning the lottery.  Whilst not quite a lottery the reliability of some things that happen to us in life, no matter how hard we try, how great our effort or deliberate our practice, have an element of chance or luck to them.

Photo Credit: Lumaxart via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lumaxart via Compfight cc

If you got a Good in your last Ofsted Inspection then there is some good and bad news.  I can with a fair degree of certainty confirm that the school is somewhere between Outstanding and Requires Improvement but probably not much more.  The reliability of the judgement is dependent on: the inspection team, what they see on the days (they miss far more than they ever see and what they see is random), your ability to fight your corner or present your case and even the timing of the inspection – after your worst or best set of results.  These all influence the outcome and are more random than some would like to admit.  Similar thinking applies to students’ test and examination results which are not always a perfect reflection of their effort or mindset.  More so when one high stakes, roll of the dice examination on a single day is the basis of the judgement made.

Talent is Overrated

Talent is overrated so the book tells us and it certainly is when it is underused.  Measuring potential is a pretty imprecise Science, if it is a Science at all but we do seem to have some natural strengths or aptitudes.

I didn’t do Art after Year 9, let’s call it a guided choice with most of the guiding coming from my Art teacher.  Dropping a piece of string on the table and telling me to draw it didn’t seem to work for me but other students excelled.  It wasn’t until I met Paul & Fred, two brilliant Art teachers at De La Salle, St. Helens, that I began to understand that I could actually be taught to draw though I may still never become a Da Vinci, Monet or Picasso.

Do talent and effort work alongside each other and in what ratio or balance if we want to be successful?

There are some interesting examples in the book about how we should respond to failure, for example, in a competition.  I can go with the thinking for quite some way but if we had a competition for the best English writer of all time, would it be Shakespeare or Dickens or someone else?  Having decided which one is the best English writer of all time, would you feedback to the others that they didn’t deserve it because they hadn’t tried hard enough or could there be another possible explanation?  Competitions naturally have winners and losers and the judges making these determinations have personal biases.

Growth Mindset as a Part of the Whole

Shared on Twitter.  Source Unknown - can you help me with the source?

Shared on Twitter. Source Unknown – can you help me with the source?


This isn’t really a dig at Growth Mindset it’s more a plea for us to keep being a bit more sceptical and discerning in what we believe and then inflict on our students and schools.  The pressures on schools and teachers, particularly those working in challenging circumstances, can lead to us too quickly reaching for the latest snake oil or silver bullet only to find that the impact was nothing like what we had hoped.

Do we need to start connecting the dots and see Growth Mindset within a wider context?

Telling or teaching students and staff about Growth Mindset and then giving them a fixed target or predicting a single grade/level for the end of a key stage, at GCSE or A-level seems to miss the point.

We currently set two targets for students – a minimum target grade and an extended target grade, based on three and four levels progress respectively.  Targets are moved up if a student makes greater progress than this simple statistical model predicts.  The outcome of our system – minimum and extended, potentially increasing, target grades – has much to commend it.  We want to challenge our students to make more progress (a good thing).

The thinking didn’t take into account how the extended and potentially increasing target grade linked to a Growth Mindset.  We simply didn’t think about the connection.  Maestro Benjamin Zander tells a story about how all students in a class get their end of year report on the first day of the academic year.  Every student gets an “A” and the challenge for the teacher is to work out, with the student, what s/he must do to achieve it.  Now there’s a Growth Mindset.

When it comes to predicting a student’s end of key stage level or course grade, unfortunately, we show a more Fixed Mindset, attempting to predict a single grade.  Dylan Wiliam, who is a great thinker and seems to connect the dots with ease, would propose that when predicting grades or levels (or whatever comes next) you predict a range for each student.  Statistically this makes more sense but crucially it is congruent with the Growth Mindset thinking which says,

“If you work hard you can get this higher grade but if you don’t than this lower grade is more probable.

You decide!”

Shared on Twitter.  Source Unknown - can you help me with the source?

Shared on Twitter. Source Unknown – can you help me with the source?

You can then start linking this to the curriculum being taught.  Are you mostly teaching the big important ideas or the peripheral bits to students?  How much does your curriculum or teaching challenge the least able?

What about the quality of feedback given to students and the expectation they improve their work to a higher standard?  Do you keep challenging students to attain excellence or quickly move on?

Are we focussing students on the right thing or are their efforts inefficiently focussed on thing that have low impact?

In the end you can’t control chance or luck, you just ride the waves, the best you can, when they hit.  However, we do control our response to the situations we find ourselves in … maybe Growth Mindset will be the Magic Silver Bullet after all … or possibly the Golden Ticket … or the Missing Piece in the Jigsaw that will help us make a greater coherence out of the complexity of our lives.

What would an Ethos of Effort and Ethic of Excellence sat in a World of differing talents, an element of choice with a bit of chance and luck thrown in look like?

#Justsaying …

If you want to keep up to date with what schools are doing around Growth Mindset, you may want to give @EG_Schools (Excellence Growth) a follow.




17 thoughts on “Growth Mindset: The Latest Silver Bullet?

  1. Excellent post – thank you very much. I think the problem with all such ideas is not that they contain no truth but that we jump on them as though they are a panacea. The reason for doing that is the pressure of accountability. I personally ended up on the right–hand list on your first image – but not because I do those things consciously, but quite the opposite. Like happiness, as soon as you go consciously hunting it, it tends to disappear… Therefore we need to develop these ideas implicitly rather than making a great song-and-dance about them.

    Posted by ijstock | June 12, 2014, 8:13 am
  2. Thanks for this post Stephen. I agree with you that it’s a really healthy response to approach any new concept/idea/initiative with some degree of caution, until clear benefits can be recognised. For me, the difference between this (ie. the development of a culture around the principles of a growth mindset) and other approaches or ‘waves of initiative’ we have seen in the past, is that this concept seems to bed down deep within the whole ‘business’ of learning. Without any conclusive evidence from our own individual settings as yet, this mindset – that celebrates effort and motivation just as much as achievement – seems to have so much merit for students at every level. As a teacher who has been based in the SEN Department for the past few years, it’s really exciting to build this energy with the pupils I work with directly – as a way of offering them a glimpse of what solid progress in learning looks like. With this mindset, they seem to be able to grasp more comprehensively that no genius or peer-equivalent reaches great heights without huge effort and constant re-evaluation.

    Posted by Josie M | June 12, 2014, 9:15 pm
  3. I bought the book Mindset, yet soon gave up reading the book half-way through. I then attended the Mindset conference by Osiris (July 2013) which is ‘doing the rounds’ all over the country(!) to hear Dweck speak (she signed my book) and overall, was thoroughly disappointed. I’m not quite sure ‘what with’ at present, and I’m also unconvinced if it will be the ‘silver bullet’. Maybe I just have a fixed mindset?!

    I’ll also consider reading the book again… but feel the case-studies will just turn me off once more. I’d like to see if the same application would work with inner-London students… Hard (UK) evidence is required!

    Posted by @TeacherToolkit | June 12, 2014, 11:56 pm
    • Thanks for leaving the comment, Ross.
      Let’s hope the evidence is forthcoming and then we can either move on or see how Growth Mindset can help schools and their students.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | June 13, 2014, 12:20 am
      • Great article. It is important to analyse new initiatives before wading in! We have been using growth mindset in my school for the last 7 years and have found it to have an amazing impact on children. In terms of attitude, classroom culture and progress As part of this work we have completed small scale research to analyse its effectiveness and it has a very positive impact. EEF have been looking at this with Portsmouth university and I think the research will be published in September.

        Posted by Katherine Muncaster | June 14, 2014, 9:30 am
      • Great to hear. I do hope the research is hugely positive with strategies for application in schools. Thanks for adding the comment and on engaging in the research on behalf of the education community.

        Posted by ExecutiveHT | June 14, 2014, 9:45 am
  4. I am not sure if anyone, ever, looks at something like Growth Mindset or the latest quite excitable fad of ‘research’ posts in schools (let’s be honest these will provide some potentially great evidence when it is done but most will be redundant the moment it is finished) as a one size fits all recipe for success. I believe that it is overly simplistic and a little patronising to suggest that anyone would take the book and expect it to solve all the issues – I don’t think this is what you saying by the way Stephen. However this seems to be the default position of too many of the sceptics – some would call them the Pedagogy Police – that the moment someone mentions something that has worked for them, in their classroom, with their young people, on a sunny day, in July, in Naboo then the coffin creaks open and someone shouts ‘where’s your evidence?’. I would prefer to back the common sense and intellect of the people that will make the decisions about how to use whatever research comes out. There are elements of the book that are complete and utter common sense and can be used almost instantly with a positive impact but there are others that simply won’t work within my specific environment, context or ethos. When I reflect on what we have focussed on over the last few years at Passmores much of it would be supported by the work in the book but I would say that instead of lumping a label of Growth Mindset (and all the fanfares that go with it) all we have simply tried to achieve is to help our young people succeed beyond their own perceived limits. This would include what they are able to achieve academically as well as what they are able to contribute to our school and wider community. So all in all does this mean I am an advocate of using the work of Carol Dweck – well yes definitely as I have seen numerous positive impacts on individual young people, including my own child, as well as lightbulbs being turned on in some of the most difficult to reach members of staff but I am also not foolish enough to think I can just buy the Growth Mindset ‘box set’ and meet all the challenges that we face on a daily basis and if I am honest I don’t think any Headteacher/leader, I have ever met, would.

    Posted by vicgoddard | June 24, 2014, 9:05 pm
    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Vic. Your comment is worth a blog post in its own right. Mindset has much to commend it. I think our challenge will be to find the practical ways to implement it – loved the idea from DW around predicted grades. I’ve been asked about possibly running a workshop at the Growing Excellence in T&L Conference in London, late November. Sounds like Passmores would have a loads to offer – will you be there speaking? Interested?

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | June 24, 2014, 10:23 pm
  5. I would be very wary of ever linking the idea of ‘Growth Mindset’ (GM) with predicted grades. From what I understand of Dweck’s research it would be ‘crossing two streams’ a la Ghostbusters. As was said above once you set expected grades you set some sort of bar for success, which I have no problem with, save for the fact that it has more to do with a culture of high expectations rather than a GM culture.

    The problem is that we inherently look for silver bullets that are neatly packaged and destined to work, with suitable effort. GM is not a mechanism, it is more a ethos. I am still wary of the idea that somehow we can teach something as complex as GM through lessons – I cringe at the thought of it becoming a strand of PSHE. For me it is a much more about a pervasive approach to learning and teaching, irrespective of subject or age. GM is about attitude, not grades. I would hazard a guess that grades and attainment may well be decent proxies for GM – but they are not the objective. Where I first started applying some of the ideas of GM was in coaching sports as an after school activity and I then took the opportunity to watch some colleagues teaching and tried to look at their teaching with a GM lens. I remember one art teacher whose work stood out for me as being striking in instilling a GM approach in lessons. Talking to students only made it clearer that the way she gave feedback really did inspire students not only to stretch themselves but also to want to get better.

    If GM goes the way of Brain Gym I suspect it will in part be because we have not seen it for what it really is – another arrow in our quiver.

    Posted by thom.gething | July 10, 2014, 10:44 pm


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