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.
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
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.
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
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 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?
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.