A Look Into Growth Mindset, The Theory Taking Education By Storm


There’s a real sense of excitement surrounding the phrase ‘growth mindset’ at the moment, and for good reason. Here at Mangahigh, we base much of our practices on this revolutionary theory of growth mindset, and we’d like to tell you a bit more about it.


The work of Dr Carol Dweck is no stranger to many teachers (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success). Her theory of growth mindset has revolutionized our approach to learning and marking milestones towards mastery. In so many words, a growth mindset is the belief that one can experience success through effort and sustained persistence. By contrast, a fixed mindset is just that— the belief that intelligence is fixed, regardless of how hard you try at a subject. The idea that some people are born with a natural ability in a particular area, such as being good at math because one is born with a ‘math brain’, just isn’t true! The schooling environment a student inhabits plays a crucial role in either stifling or nurturing a growth mindset, which has been shown to have a direct correlation to higher academic performance.

Not wanting to simplify a body of work which spans decades of research, we’re going to have to delve a little deeper under the surface to see what this magic term growth mindset really means. And more importantly, look to the work of Jo Boaler, who placed the magnifying glass over the subject of Mathematics in particular.

For decades, especially in the UK, we have underestimated the fundamental role class groupings, based on ability, can play on the academic success of students in the top and bottom sets. We have also misunderstood quite how resilient the brain is and its ability to grow and change. It is both these notions of fixed ability thinking and brain plasticity that Jo Boaler focuses on when addressing the immense potential for developing growth mindsets within schools and subjects like math.


Let’s Get to the Basics


A ‘growth mindset’ is the state of mind in which a person believes that intelligence can be created through effort— can be learnt by exercising the brain. The implications for these people/students is profound; having been shown to work and learn more effectively than those without a growth mindset, and displaying resilience in response to failure. Even an increased desire to conquer the challenge, having failed. Whereas others may have a ‘fixed mindset’, believing intelligence to be a genetic gift or natural stroke of luck. Something which is an absolute and you’ve either got it or you don’t. For these students, failure marks an unchangeable lack of intelligence, not a lack of effort (the belief of those with a growth mindset). Of course, for these individuals— who believe that they are naturally preordained to fail past a certain level of academia beyond their understanding— failure is an unsurmountable hurdle. It’s not that they don’t want to be smarter, they just don’t believe that is a possibility, and this results in them often throwing in the towel when challenged. These students can tend to look for easier work to complete, knowing they will succeed, within their perceived range of ‘smartness’.


Ability Grouping can be Harmful


An undeniable implication accompanies the practice of grouping students on ability. That some are smart and some are not. And each group needs to be kept separate from one another. An almost implicit nod to the idea that ‘smart’ students will be held down by those less able or that those in bottom sets won’t be able to keep up. This message is hugely destructive and plays a central role in the development of fixed mindsets amongst students.

Telling students from an early age that they are good or bad at a subject, is a very harmful process and distorts how they view their academic potential. Boaler makes it clear that children from an early age are very receptive to the messages transferred by ability grouping; some people are smart and some are not. Dweck explains that fixed ability beliefs are not limited to low achieving students either, prevailing on the other end of the spectrum too. Children (especially girls) praised from an early age for their academic abilities also believe themselves to be blessed with natural intelligence. For them, any future failure is due to a lack of intellect— perhaps they were just smart for their age. This propping up of girls from an early age can lead to a fear of failure, and as a result, a fear of challenge. This gender difference in math only prevails amongst fixed mindset students.

The most successful schools, by contrast, promote a growth mindset within their schooling and grouping by communicating to students that learning is a product of effortful engagement with a subject over time.

The practice of grouping is clearly entrenched within western systems of education, with many Asian countries believing such a separation to be undesirable. Schools within the USA and UK have been shown to score significantly lower on international exams than their Asian counterparts. Both of which, in contrast, base their classing structure on ability. A practice which firmly reinforces the notion that intelligence is fixed and classified accordingly within different ability groups. This engrains the belief that some have natural talent while others do not, instead of creating a label free, fluid environment in which everyone is working towards achieving good grades, regardless of any natural advantage some may have over others. ­­­Boaler (2013) writes:

This chasm between research evidence and practice is most clearly reflected in the ability grouping practices used in schools that communicate to students that their ability is fixed, initiating the harmful fixed mindset beliefs that research has shown distract from students’ learning opportunities throughout life

When ability grouping is removed, and classes remain heterogeneous, achievement improves significantly. Opportunities for success are opened up by teaching high level content to those who would’ve otherwise been denied the material, as too hard for them. This encourages each student to strive for the highest level of achievement possible, and not the best results within the boundaries of limited teaching material, and for the success of some to spur on others.

Students with average and below average grades have been shown to achieve higher attainment when taught in mixed ability classes. And the achievement of high performing students is unchanged in mixed ability classes, compared to same ability classes.


The Times They Are A Changin’


Are these unlucky fixed mindset individuals doomed to a life of underachievement and self-doubt? Thankfully not. Dweck found that after an intervention takes place to reconfigure a student’s mindset from fixed to growth, they immediately begin to outreach their previous school performances, which they would have previously thought impossible. Scientists in recent times have come to understand more about the brain’s incredible ability to recover and grow in response to effort— a plasticity which Dweck has tapped into, to avert the detrimental implications traditional pedagogy can have on young learners.

 If It’s Broke, Fix It!


Creating a growth mindset within students starts with an awareness that ability is malleable subject to effort, and messages of fixed ability must to be avoided within schools. These can be expressed in ability grouping, practices, tasks and even conversations teachers have with students. Boaler uses mathematics as a paradigm of this issue, where often short questions are tackled by students. The answers of which are objectively right or wrong. If the process of tackling these problems is closed and solitary, for a child who continuously gives wrong answers, the concept of achieving better results through effort becomes increasingly far-removed. When the assessment process is brought into a more informal setting with interaction and feedback from the teacher, open to collaboration and active learning to take place, students see the opportunity for their own improvement and achievement.

When it comes to mistakes, research has also shown that these provide a fantastic window for learning, growth, and constructive feedback to take place. Mistakes must be highlighted as opportunities for improvement and not indicators of low ability. A change from a fixed mindset message to a growth mindset message. Mistakes need to be addressed, confronted and worked through, not regarded as a marker of intelligence— a failure. This devalues their importance as learning opportunities to help develop a student’s understanding by addressing their misunderstandings.  Boaler (2013) describes how these mistakes can be repositioned within math by:

“not…marking a mistake with a cross but with a gold star or a smiley face and the words, ‘It is great that you made this mistake; this is a really important opportunity for learning and I am glad you are thinking about this’”