Reconciling growth mindset with cognitive science

Last year, my school introduced Growth Mindset as our school-wide Teaching and Learning focus. I was part of the teaching and learning team that implemented it but I had no idea we were going to work on Growth Mindset when I applied and got the TLR. I wasn’t sure. I had read criticisms about it and had dismissed it a long time before applying for the role.

I did my job and I read articles on Growth Mindset. I read the book I was given by the school to learn more about GM (not genetic modification!) strategies. I led my group and tried some of the strategies myself. Slowly, I realised that while I still didn’t think only talking about effort and providing praise all the time was going to make much difference to my students, there were a few things that made sense and could also be linked to cognitive science. Here are some examples.

GM Strategy: Focus on the process not the product

With this one, I don’t think the product is irrelevant. Of course it is. We want students to have a well written essay or arrive at the right solution to a question. However, having strong declarative and procedural knowledge are important to allow students to get there. In a Science example, the process of arriving at a solution to a Physics equation problem is just as important as the end result. Students need to both remember what the equation means but also how to use the equation and find the solution. In fact, exam boards recognise this and marks can be awarded for the steps shown as well as the final result.

GM Strategy: Success or failure could be attributed to reasons we can control

This statement can be quite empowering for a student who has been told repeatedly that they cannot do well. There is a danger of false hope but if there are measures the student can take to improve their chances of doing well, then that is promising. If a student has failed at doing well in a task/exam, it would be useful for them to look at the strategies that they used to achieve that result and examine how much effort they put in. What revision techniques did they use? How did they prepare themselves? Once again, I think the principles of cognitive science would be vital to the student as well as the teacher guiding them. In this case, teaching the student strategies that can lead them to success (such as retrieval practice and self-quizzing) could help them achieve well in the next task/exam. This could also be powerful if it came from peers as well. If a classmate has worked hard and followed the teacher’s strategies for success, then it could be encouraging for others to do better.

GM Strategy: Set high expectations and embrace struggle

This is a strategy I wholeheartedly agree with. Teaching all your students the same difficult content but with varying levels of support is a challenge for teachers. By setting high expectations, we are sending our students the message that they can do the work. All our classes can do well if they can access the content. And to enable them to access the content, we need to have perfectly sequenced lessons, clear routines, lots of retrieval practice, quality questioning, and a gradual removal of scaffolding to help our students gain the confidence to do the tasks independently. Embracing struggle can be achieved by having the right ratio (a TLAC technique, perfectly explained by Adam Boxer here) in our classrooms. If all our students are thinking and participating hard, then they are experiencing the right type of struggle, something we should actively encourage.

Those were some of the strategies I’ve looked into but there may be others. I should make it clear that I do not think all Growth Mindset strategies will have a significant and positive impact on our students but we can aim to use some strategies in conjunction with what we learn from cognitive science. It has been an interesting time discussing Growth Mindset at school and hearing all the different views people have on it. It has certainly challenged my own views on what is important and what we should dismiss. Ultimately, our goal is help our students achieve and as long as we use evidence as our guide, we will get there.

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