The notion of mindsets in education was introduced by Carol Dweck in 2006. Summarising decades of research, she identified two mindsets exhibited by learners, and analysed how those mindsets affected learners’ ability to develop. A growth mindset is characterised by a belief that certain traits are dynamic in nature and can be developed: students with a growth mindset are typically focused on learning goals, place more value on effort and deal more positively to setbacks and difficulties in their learning. A fixed mindset is strongly characterised by a belief in ‘natural’ ability levels – the notion that one is either smart in a subject or not – and is often accompanied by an avoidance of challenge and a preference for tasks that can be easily achieved. Since the publication of Dweck’s book, a growing body of research has shown that such mindsets have a profound effect on both students’ and teachers’ approaches to learning.
In ‘Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education’, author Jo Boaler highlights the detrimental effect that ability grouping – a frequent consequence of a ‘fixed mindset’ approach to education, and one that is often seen in UK and US schools – can have on student achievement throughout their academic careers and into their professional lives. However, the central theme of Boaler’s paper is not this rather gloomy prognosis, but rather the extensive evidence that shows that changing learners’ mindsets can have a positive and significant effect on their achievements at almost any time in their lives, from early schooling through to university and beyond.
Exposure to ‘growth mindset’ ideals can have a hugely beneficial impact on students. How then can we introduce these ideals into our teaching, and promote a change in students? In ‘Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement’, Carol Dweck suggests that minor and light-touch changes can bring surprisingly significant benefits, citing, by way of illustration, a 2002 study at Stanford that showed how appropriate peer tutoring training to students affected the grades of both peer tutors and peer tutees. This highlights the pivotal role that feedback, and the messages that are constantly given to students, play in changing students’ mindsets and attitudes, and they suggest that, as teachers, we might wish to consider the following.
- Positive messages about the value and benefit of difficulty levels or mistakes can overcome the tendency on students’ parts to see these as indicators of their (perceived) limitations.
- Providing praise and feedback on process (eg strategies, effort, progress or even persistence) rather than on outcomes (which emphasise the final result), or on the student her/himself (which can reinforce ideas of intelligence or ability levels), can help to promote a long lasting confidence among students.
Dweck’s paper contains many suggestions as to how these practices can be brought into the classroom, and further considers how changing mindsets can help address inequalities in (mathematics) education by helping to dispel the myths that relate to natural ability levels and predispositions.
Boaler, J. (2013), Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education, FORUM, vol. 55, no. 1, pp. 143-152
Dweck, C. (2006), Mindsets: the new psychology of success, New York: Ballantine Books
Dweck, C. (2008), Mindsets and Math/Science achievement, New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York, Institute for Advanced Study, Commission on Mathematics and Science Education. Alternative source at NationalNumeracy.org.uk