Part I: A New Hope. What can Fixed Mindset teach us about behaviour?

While the world is excited by Dweck’s Growth Mindset, I am intrigued by what we can learn from Fixed Mindset – especially as a trigger of poor behaviour in the classroom.

Like all good films that try to milk it for all it’s worth, (and for Star Wars purists, I know calling this Part 1: A New Hope is maybe taking creative licence too far) this post is part of a trilogy, that may have a dodgy second instalment, but will try to pull it back for part III.

Today I read Shaun Allison’s excellent post http://classteaching.wordpress.com/2014/04/12/growing-our-mindset/ on a Whole School approach to implementing Growth Mindset – school wide practices in CPD, marking & feedback. Shaun has embedded two must-watch video’s – Dweck’s talk on Growth Mindset http://youtu.be/kXhbtCcmsyQ and Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk on Grit http://youtu.be/H14bBuluwB8 . In essence, both urge teachers & senior leaders to be mindful about the use of praise, encourage hard work and point students towards to ongoing nature of learning – the long haul, rather than quick fix.

For me Dweck’s words ring very, very true.

Yes, like anything which is founded on sound common sense, it is easy to dismiss with an attitude of a surly teenager (…am I dumb???), angry, because we, like, totally knew that already! But, even common sense needs dissecting and reflecting on every so often. Otherwise, it simply becomes the stuff of myth and legend.
Yes, the ideas are communicated in new-spangled terminology, which can also be off -putting to many (and maybe Dweck should fire the guy that came up with the brain image). But words are funny things. Sometimes we endow them with way too much power. A willingness and desire to learn is what it is, whether we call it Growth Mindset, Motivation, Can-do Attitude, positive thinking or whatever phrase captures the particular zeitgeist.

Dweck’s research tells us that students with a Fixed Mindset will try to ‘look smart at any cost’, ‘hide mistakes’ and firmly believe that effort and difficulty are an indicator of being stupid. The implications of this are significant. Where there is a fair proportion of students with challenging behaviour, low resilience, esteem and academic confidence, how many lessons are disturbed because of a need & desire to look smart? How many disrupted so students can hide difficulties? How many shouts of ‘This is sooo boring!!’ to avoid effort and difficulty? Many, oh so many. If the school isn’t implementing growth mindset across all policies and systems as described in Shaun Allison’s post, how can the individual classroom teacher use the research about growth mindset to support students in lessons and head off Fixed Mindset behaviour at the pass?

This is not a set of answers, more a set of posed questions to reflect on:

1) Recognise when the behaviour is being used as a strategy to leave the task, the classroom or learning altogether. Give the student *some options – as teachers our end goal is their engagement, this cannot be achieved through conflict, so cooperation is vital. This is not an acceptance of rudeness, which MUST be addressed, but separating this from the defence mechanisms will be a way forward.

2) Use tutor time or lesson time to make explicit the positive impact of difficulty on the brain. A short video, like this http://youtu.be/FevqUOLiCvs may benefit students. This has relevance whether interjected during a Romeo & Juliet lesson with some resistant ‘learners’ or used as a whole school assembly.

3) Encourage challenge much more. Can teacher talk help to curb the desire to ‘hide difficulty’ ? “I know this is hard but look at the progress you’ve made already? Keep going with it”. Ramp up the encouragement (not praise, encouragement).

4) Is it the immersive curriculum of primary which makes children feel they are ‘experiencing’ rather than learning chunks of information for end gain which means they cope with struggle and difficulty much better? Is it the level of control – the ability to MANAGE the skill acquisition that toddlers and babies have, that makes them devour tough tasks (language, walking, coordination etc) ? Could teachers plan their own schemes of work to immerse students in ‘experiences’ which ‘flow’ better than a finite series of goals? Is this why evidence suggests Flipped Classrooms work?

5) Should teachers be referring backwards, forwards & sideways (cross curricular) as standard practice? This will lend relevance – remind students regularly that what they learned last term relates to current work, what they have done in another subject is relatable. Would it help students to feel they got *here by getting *there first?

6) Should we, as teachers, provide more answers, and spend more time asking students to add the examples, discriminate, evaluate etc? When we ask students to contribute every few minutes, are we not simply reinforcing what they intrinsically know or don’t know? And if they don’t know, are they not more likely to switch off? Without being drawn into the content vs skills debate, a great motivator is ‘getting better’ at something. That is skill. Growth mindset uses early years acquisition of skills as a springboard. Much of what we have to do in school requires content teaching and memorisation – much tougher to ‘get better’ at. Can giving students the answers help deeper ‘understanding’ preventing feelings of helplessness and failure as a barrier to engagement?

The biggest hurdle I believe, is the belief that students should, as Dweck says, ‘look good at all costs’. The ‘too cool for school’ attitude alive and beating a good lesson plan into the ground. Create a classroom culture which explicitly acknowledges we don’t know all there is to know. Make those with low academic esteem build on it by providing absolutes, and refer them back to those absolutes. Wow student with tales that seem so extraordinary that ALL of their brains will hurt, as they try to comprehend the feasibility of your story. Encourage, encourage, encourage – not just praise. Finally, if modelling exemplars is vital for success and we know losing our fear of failure is also vital for success, maybe we should not just talk about failure, but should model failure; show how we have overcome, how we have failed.

The next post, Part II : will consider Gaming: Worlds where effort and difficulty reign supreme and even those with a firmly Fixed Mindset display grit, resolve and reflectiveness hour after hour after hour.