Shifting Mindsets

Senior-man-on-wheelchair-rear-viewIt was June of 2004. Wally was a patient in Ward Five of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. He was in a wheelchair having only just got out of bed following an operation. It was his third operation in the hospital. The first had taken place eighteen months earlier to remove the toes of his right foot. The next removed his right foot just above the ankle. This last operation amputated his right leg just above the knee.

Wally was a larger than life figure undiminished by his deteriorating state or by the hospital. He had been told by his GP on successive occasions to change his lifestyle, stop smoking, stop drinking, eat healthier food, get some exercise.  When his extended family visited him – wife, daughter, girlfriend – they wheeled him down three floors and outside so they could all have a fag.

I spent a week in the bed next to Wally in Ward Five. I liked Wally. What was noticeable about Wally was that he had invested so heavily in his lifestyle and it was so bound up with his persona that no amount of telling, information on charts, health checks or bullying was about to change it. What I was seeing close up was that behavioural change primarily arises as a consequence of successfully challenging and shifting deep seated personal beliefs. He’d lose his leg for a fag.

Mind your Mindset

In January I worked with a schools cluster on developing Growth Mindset. The schools and their staff were great and we spent a day together working in different ways around the proposition that they could successfully shift their students’ Mindset.  I was not so sure.

I’d encountered Carole Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset for the first time in 2004 at the Centre for Positive Psychology in Glasgow with Carol Craig. Then again at Blackburn Rovers Football Club where they wanted to use it in their Academy.  It seemed so black and white. I was sceptical.

Since then and over the last ten years there has been an overwhelmingly positive uptake for it amongst the schools I encounter north and south of the border.  It’s been fuelled by the usual combination of conference events, TED talks and largely uncritical academic acceptance. It’s worrying.

I wonder if we have wandered into a Wally moment? We assume that information bolstered by well-meaning entreaties will shift behaviours. I’m not sure it will. For a well-argued piece with which I agree read here

I worry not because it’s wrong or flawed but because the assumptions are unchallenged and have led to an industry of entreaty.  Schools are investing in posters with worthy messages – ‘Don’t find Yourself, Create Yourself’, ‘Don’t tell me you’re talented, tell me you’re working hard’ and ‘Dare to Begin’  – being three seen side by side recently.  We have assemblies on directed practice and 10,000 hours; praise regimes with a focus on discretionary effort; targets which are adjusted up or down and finally, delivering staff development around expectations. I know: I’m doing some of it!

Myths of Self-Efficacy in Schools

What I’m not yet seeing is how Growth Mindset ties in and aligns to the everyday moments in schools and more particularly in classrooms. If we don’t change school structures – for example how we select and group students – or classroom practices such as how we design learning challenges and give support and feedback, then the institutional practices are at odds with the behaviours we desire of students. Here is the problem. We can’t expect them to change unless we are prepared to do so ourselves.

 Is it fair to suggest to all children that their success in learning is largely, or even entirely, shaped by their Mindset? If only they would focus on increments of progress, avoid comparisons with peers, become learners of their own learning and see setbacks as an essential part of the learning process then they can grow their intelligence. Meanwhile the examinations, the curriculum, the school day and some of the teaching itself goes on unchanged.  The everyday experience of the student includes examinations as one-off tests, data where comparisons with peers are regularly made, learning for the exam and choices which are shaped by others through, for example, Progress Eight and no early entry!

Dweck’s work could become hijacked as a universal panacea for overcoming low expectations in pupils. I’m sure she wouldn’t want it that way and I’m equally sure she’d argue for a more nuanced and researched approach in schools. Her model does seem to position itself as an ‘on or off’ switch for the right sort of mental approach to school and study. I think such an interpretation doesn’t allow for the peaks and troughs of adolescent development and learning. It doesn’t acknowledge the significance of the home environment. It implies if you have a fixed approach in one area of your life then it’s likely to be fixed for all areas of your life. It fails to recognise that inhibition and a focus on what’s known and well-rehearsed could be a positive choice for an anxious child.

Don’t call it Growth Mindset

Here’s’ what I’d like to think schools could do to avoid the Wally trap and create incremental classrooms.

  • Don’t call it Growth Mindset! Don’t use the label. It’s the core business of all educators to match high expectations of themselves and their students with appropriate classroom interventions. We don’t need a label.
  • Create structural alignment. Ensure that there are no blatant inconsistencies where the institution advocates a Growth Mindset and yet behaves otherwise. For example: by selecting on entry, setting for core subjects, insisting on an entry threshold for the sixth form, reporting in raw scores or grades or promoting a feedback policy which requires the teacher to mark everything.
  • Create curriculum alignment. To what extent does a child exercise choice in what he or she studies in school? How authentic are the choices on offer? If we wish to foster a ‘mastery orientation’ what part does a pre-populated options sheet play?
  • Create pedagogical alignment. Beyond classrooms, learning occurs formally and informally, explicitly and implicitly. Within classrooms learning is all too often formal and explicit with the teacher making all the decisions about the nature of learning tasks, their order of completion and measurements of success. If the purpose of a Growth Mindset strategy is to create self-actualising, mastery-oriented learners then it is a minimum that each learner is actively involved in recognising and shaping the processes of their own learning.
  • Frame tasks as challenges. In classrooms, turn tasks into challenges, instructions into questions, difficulty into opportunity. Informed task design will do your heavy lifting and it’s the mark of an expert teacher to craft tasks which challenge and extend.
  • You get more of what you reinforce. Draw attention to and celebrate behaviours over which students have a degree of control and you wish to promote. Discretionary effort – ‘I noticed you stuck at it and didn’t give up ‘ and cognitive flexibility – ‘It was good that you tried different methods’. Choose your language carefully. Encourage students to do the same. For young children get them practice their noticing skills around great learning behaviours.
  • Teach and revisit challenge skills. The concept of desirable difficulty sees struggle providing opportune moments to draw attention to and practice cognitive flexibility. By freezing a moment when a student claims to be stuck the teacher can draw out, and thus promote, coping strategies. Once recorded they can be revisited and learned. Small things – recursive processes – revisited regularly make a difference.
  • Teach and embed evaluative skills. Teachers can trample over purposeful reflection by premature comments or marking. Where possible ask students to self-evaluate against agreed criteria on completion of a piece of work and before any teacher comment. Validate through peer scrutiny. Model and normalise the process so that drafting and re-drafting is understood and valued. Over-marking will drive out self-actualisation.
  • Revisit and cherish what’s important. If a task is worth asking a student to do, then the outcome has to be worth keeping. It also has to be worth revisiting. Scratty worksheets left lying around at the end of a lesson tell their own story. An exercise book, a portfolio, an electronic folder – should be a repository of what’s valued.
  • Utilise prior knowledge and prediction. Two great and underused questions at the beginning of learning experiences are: what do we already know about the topic? What would be good to know? Both with high effect sizes these interventions should play a part in shaping the learning which follows.
  • Landmark improvements. Three great Growth Mindset questions are: ‘Where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going? Noticing small improvements along the way and recording these in some form – for example, some class teachers build up a class profile day by day with wallpaper – helps reinforce a sense of worth.
  • Talk less, Query more. Develop the abilities of students to ask really good questions of each other. Insist they practice on each other and summarise, clarify, reflect back, paraphrase, speculate. High-quality purposeful dialogue is something to champion.
  • Frequent informal testing. Spaced rehearsal – in other words revisiting essential understanding – with frequent, albeit short informal student-led tests improves recall and gives the teacher a chance to consolidate learning.

Where’s Wally?

I left hospital and never saw Wally again. Wally was his real name. He was a genuinely larger than life figure who perhaps, had so much invested in his persona that he was not susceptible to change. Rational explanations of the inevitable and awful consequences of his life choices did not penetrate. Maybe if his extended family had been willing then they could have done it together. Somehow I doubt it. The lesson for me was that it’s difficult to shift behaviours unless one shifts beliefs, and it’s difficult to shift beliefs unless there is congruence with what you experience in your everyday life. If we want our students to have an incremental approach to challenge then we have to invest in an incremental approach ourselves.


Dweck, (1999) Self Theories: Their role in Motivation, Personality and Development

Duckworth & Seligman, (2005)  ‘Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents’, Psychological Science, vol 16, no. 12.

Roberts, (2009) Grit The skills for success and how they are grown, Young Foundation

U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology, (2103) Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century

Yeager, Walton, and Cohen (2013) Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions, Stanford

Formative with Forthright in Formby

Friday was spent being Forthright with Formby. John Turner and I worked on our first day with the Secondary and Primary schools in the in the Forthright Learning Community as they further their journey to develop independent learners and independent learning across the community.

The schools are embarking together on an ambitious, self-funded project over the next two years to develop independent learning approaches across the schools starting from the infants. The schools within the community are already successful in their own right and have a tradition of academic success. The aspiration is to be even more successful in helping students be autonomous problem solvers who take increasing responsibility for their own progress.

Over two years it is hoped that staff in the schools can work together on agreed interventions which will help transform the learners’ experience. Amongst the possibilities which were offered for consideration

School level

  • Episodes such as problem solving programmes, learning to learn approaches
  • Events such Enquiry Week, Independence Day
  • Vertical tutoring challenges on big questions
  • Changing rewards and incentives towards independent learning behaviours

Classroom level

  • Reinforcement of essential attributes and skills
  • Development of common tools – such as an independent enquiry wheel with versions for all Key Stages
  • Shift from performing to learning orientation
  • Improved group work
  • Extended enquiry built into how we teach
  • More pupil choice
  • Lazy Teacher week!
  • Use of Critique method of authentic presentation and feedback

Learner level

  • Learner passports across the Forthright Community
  • Independent learner profiling
  • Fewer lessons led by the teacher, more challenges initiated by the pupil
  • A Students Commission on how we should learn
  • Improved use of the environment with better spaces for problem solving
  • Prop boxes for topics

John and I were very deliberately avoiding giving a ‘strategic lead’ in favour of consensus and collective ownership and so time was spent identifying what is meant by independent learning and how we would recognise the independent learner. We asked the group of nineteen to sub-divide into three and ‘characterise the learner’ before we then went on to isolate and rank the key attributes. This allowed us to agree the following working definition –

In the Forthright Learning Community, independent learners are curious about answers to the ‘big questions.’ They are prepared to be open-minded and resilient in their pursuit. Forthright independent learners are also:

  • willing to be actively involved in extending their own and others’ learning
  • flexible in approaching challenges and in learning from setbacks
  • able to make connections
  • optimistic, and ready to make positive contributions alongside others
  • able to apply and extend  reasoning
  • reflective, and in being so capable of improving their own learning
  • autonomous

The definition will be used to help shape all of the agreed activities. Going forward the group started to define what the signature features would look like at whole school, classroom and learner level with strategies to provide clarity, coherence and consistency for each.

The Forthright definition is pleasing because it has not been sourced from an academic, imposed by an agency or produced by a cabal and because it’s owned by the schools and emerged from honest debate it’s arrived with built-in durability; in other words, its forthright for purpose