I was brought up by my family to believe that you got your just rewards for working hard. It is a belief that has stayed with me and nourished me throughout my life. Well, with some important qualifications. You see, we weren’t very good at mathematics in my family. In fact, nor were we naturally any good at the sciences. That was fine though – as we were naturally good at English, History and Art – that sort of thing.

I think you can start to see the problem.  Of course, I worked harder at those subjects I could ‘do‘, whilst sidelining the stuff I ‘naturally‘ wasn’t any good at. My school qualifications became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In truth, though we valued hard work, we didn’t have much of a growth mindset in my household – at least when it came to mathematics etc. In the interim of well over a decade I have learnt much about the plastic capacity of the brain to learn. The ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’ dichotomy, propounded by Carol Dweck, proved something of a milestone for me. I sometimes wish I had my chance again to study those subjects I had neglected with this knowledge in mind.

The term ‘growth mindset’ is now veritable short-hand for a vast number of teachers and students. It has given a language to some of the issues that plagued me and our wider education system. The very concept can help challenge low expectations and fills us all with hope that with effort we can achieve what we may not have thought possible.

The simple but potent notion has caught on and no doubt is the subject of many an assembly and motivational talk. A thousand posters are now bedaubed with celebrations and protestations regarding possessing a ‘growth mindset’. The commercialisation of the concept continues apace.

Despite some of the mawkishness that can describe the growth mindset concept, I agree whole-heartedly with the value it places on effort and the importance of how we think about our capacity to learn.

So what is my problem?

Unlike many gimmicks and fads that whistle through our classrooms and corridors, there is a rich seam of good research to prove the efficacy of a growth mindset. The very notion is apolitical and broaches all ideological divides. Importantly, it is cheap. It is possibly the ultimate low cost & high impact ‘intervention’.

Its strength is the tremendous simplicity of the message. Everyone can understand the basic premise of effort and application; however, its simplicity is also its weakness. You can interpret the growth mindset quite broadly and you can synthesise it into what you already do so easily that you can actually change little to nothing of your existing daily practice. This is a fundamental problem.

Yes – confidence and motivation is crucial, but confidence without competence is simply hot air. Even if we eschew the praising of intelligence, we can just as easily fall prey to empty bombast about hard work and fetishizing failure. We are also in danger of repeating the essential importance of effort for our students, but without providing students with the strategies to apply their efforts with the required degree of skill.

Will this current ‘growth mindset’ craze prove all style and little substance?

A significant problem is the superficial implementation of the concept in schools. There is a real need to dig beneath the easy and slick branding to understand the complex factors that attend the growth mindset. At Huntington School we hold ourselves up as being a ‘growth mindset school’. Of course, you may ask: ‘what does that actually mean?’ In truth, we are still finding out.

There are lots of support factors that attend being a school imbued with the values of the ‘growth mindset’. In the coming months I am intent on exploring exactly how these areas sync up with a growth mindset ethos. These support factors include:

  • The composition and communication of student groupings;
  • Approaches to written and oral feedback;
  • KS3 Assessment;
  • Student target setting;
  • Consistent approaches to the language of praise;
  • The implementation of behaviour management systems;
  • Approaches to metacognition and the development of independent learning;
  • The teaching and learning of self-control and drivers of motivation (often popularised as GRIT or ‘character education’);
  • Skilled subject specific knowledge that knows what the students know and don’t know;
  • A focus of the  impact of parents and the home environment, linking learning in school to learning at home.  

In short, being a growth mindset school means much more than having an assembly or two. It permeates every school system and structure. When I hear people say ‘we have done growth mindset’ I know that they really haven’t – as they appear to misunderstand the concept at a fundamental level. In reality, you have never ‘done‘ growth mindset.

A growth mindset concept can be reduced down to a cluster of motivational assemblies spewing out YouTube videos, or it could prove a nexus for something potentially transformational in the culture of a school. I suspect the latter will prove really difficult and therefore a rare occurrence, but we should approach the problem with…well, a growth mindset!