At Living Faith Lutheran Primary School in Brisbane, we have been engaged in developing the growth mindset of our P - 6 students over the last twelve months. Our aim was to improve student grit, resilience, engagement and achievement. Given the controversy around growth mindset, have we been wasting our time?
Growth mindset is a learning theory developed by Dr Carol Dweck. It revolves around the idea that you can improve ability and performance through effort and hard work. The opposite, a fixed mindset, refers to the belief that a person’s abilities and talents are static.
Dweck’s 2006 book ‘Mindset: The new psychology of success’, was a bestseller and schools around the world engaged in growth mindset lessons and programs in an attempt to strengthen the growth mindsets of their students and in turn, improve their learning and achievement. The book and subsequent TED talks claimed that years of research has shown that mindset is malleable and that if you develop a growth mindset, you can learn more effectively and efficiently.
Earlier in 2019, “Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at King’s College London, dismissed the theory as a gimmick in an interview with Tes, a weekly UK education publication. He stated that “to think there is some simple cheap little thing that is going to make everybody fine, it is crazy. Good interventions are the most expensive and intensive – if it were easy, teachers would have figured it out for themselves”. Plomin is not the first or the only critic of Dweck’s work around growth mindset. Some question the findings of Dweck’s research around growth mindset and how the positive results are difficult to replicate, whereas others state that mindsets cannot be taught.
Indeed, Dweck herself states that there can be a misunderstanding of the theory and that “it’s not easy for teachers to implement [the growth mindset] intuitively in the classroom. We’ve come to see how subtle and difficult it is to implement. We feel that the full impact of real growth mindset, those benefits will not be reaped until they are faithfully embedded in actual classrooms”.
Despite the controversy around growth mindset, most people agree that having a growth mindset is a good thing and leads to greater achievement. A recent report applying advanced analytics to PISA data (the Program for International Student Assessment) has identified the factors that play a critical role in student achievement. PISA data is of interest given that it goes beyond the numbers, by asking students, principals, teachers and parents a series of questions about their practice, attitudes, behaviour and resources. The conclusion was that after controlling for all other factors, student mindsets are twice as predictive of students’ PISA scores than even their home environment and demographics (which are usually the two greatest factors that affect student achievement in standardised testing results). Students with a growth mindset performed up to 17 percent better than those with a fixed mindset.
With educators debating whether a growth mindset can be taught, doubting the approach taken by schools and concerned that schools are investing valuable time in a pointless activity, we began to question our focus on growth mindset across our school.
A 2019 Turkish study conducted a randomized field experiment with almost 3000 fourth-graders (8-10 year olds) in over 100 classrooms. The intervention focussed more on classroom practice and pedagogy than curriculum and content. “Results of the study suggest that the students in treatment schools were more likely to opt for a difficult, high-reward task. The intervention also increased math and verbal test scores by about 0.30 and 0.13 standard deviations respectively in the short term. A follow up after 2.5 years revealed that treated students’ math performance remained about 0.20 standard deviation higher than control students”.
Bolstered by this independent study, we continued to embrace our growth mindset focus. We launched our Growth Mindset Week across the school in Week 1 of Term 1 this year. During this week, students learnt about growth and fixed mindsets and the benefits of a growth mindset during learning experiences and times of challenge. We encouraged our teachers to explore growth mindset using a series of curated clips and resources and to spend the week forging relationships and setting goals with students rather than focussing on curriculum.
We also launched our new approach to Maths learning. Mindset Maths is an approach created by Professor Jo Boaler (a colleague of Dweck’s) and Cathy Williams from Stanford University. The three key ideas around Mindset Maths are:
Anyone can learn Maths to high levels
Mistakes and struggle are good for brain growth and brain strengthening
Visual mathematics helps brain connections and is really important for students’ learning of mathematics
We invested over 18 months engaging in a professional learning program around Mindset Maths and growth mindset, including the completion of the 30 hr Mindset Maths online course offered by Stanford University through youcubed.org. We also spent 12 months designing the units of work, assessment tasks and success criteria that would form our Mindset Maths curriculum. Our focus was to encourage our students to see mistakes, struggle and grappling as a natural and essential part of the learning process. Most importantly, we selected and embedded the ‘growth mindset’ language we would use within our classrooms on a daily basis. In essence, we not only focussed on the mindset of our students, but of our teachers, coaches and leaders as well.
Being aware of the mixed messages that we could be sending within our school community, we also made the following changes in the year preceding the introduction of our growth mindset approach and Mindset Maths program. We:
moved away from rewards in classrooms, instead focussing on intrinsic motivation and relationship building between students and teachers
focussed on offering feedforward to every student for every assessment task they completed, enabling them to improve their work before final grading
removed all timed tests and tests in general from our reporting and assessment regime (with the exception of standardised testing at the beginning and end of each year to measure the success of programs)
removed any streaming or ability grouping across the school in all subject areas
put a greater emphasis on learning and improvement by focussing on goals and greatest improvements and effort in students’ report cards
established the consistent language we would use to describe learning and improvement within our school
In November 2018, all of our students from Year 1 to Year 6 completed a growth mindset survey. The survey required students to make comments on various growth or fixed mindset scenarios and asked them to state whether they agreed, disagreed or were neutral. It also gauged the students’ reactions to questions around grit, resilience and determination. This survey was repeated in October 2019, almost one year since we began our growth mindset approach and Mindset Maths program. We have found an increase in the students who demonstrated a growth mindset in the 2019 survey, with some year levels showing a 16% increase of students who were demonstrating a growth mindset. ‘The harder you work at something, the better you will be at it’ – indicated the highest growth mindset response with 90% of students agreeing.
In terms of academic achievement, we have seen the biggest improvement in reading across a 12 month period since we began standardised testing (according to PAT Reading), and we have seen more students achieve at the year level in Maths than before growth mindset was introduced (according to PAT Maths).
Overall, the growth mindset student survey and standardised test results suggest that both Mindset Maths and our growth mindset approach have made a significant improvement in developing our students’ growth mindsets and this in turn has had a positive impact on student achievement. The conversations within classrooms confirm that the language and approach of growth mindset has been firmly embedded into our school culture, as we hear phrases around power of ‘yet’, grit and resilience.
While we are excited by our results, it must be acknowledged that we have invested a lot of time and energy into our growth mindset approach. We ensured that the professional learning of our teachers was our focus, as was a pedagogy shift. We also ensured that our teachers had the time and resources to create the learning experiences that would support our growth mindset approach. Growth mindset is not something that can be taught in a few lessons across the year. It requires a lot of time, preparation and commitment. The evidence after a year suggests that it has all been worth it, and has not only benefited our students but our whole community.
Rebecca McConnell is the Director of Learning and Innovation at Living Faith Lutheran Primary School.