When we give children a great start in life their chances of being happy, confident and successful soar. As a Child Psychologist I’m interested in what works to give each child what they need to flourish. I’ve focused on growth mindset as the letter G in my A to Z of Flourishing series. The evidence shows that the attitude you take with you when you start out on something determines success. A growth mindset is the belief that effort underpins success rather than the assumption that ability alone is the deciding factor.
Confidence for learning: the Growth Mindset
In today’s news we are told that British pupils are held back by parent’s defeatist attitudes. Not surprising if you consider the traditional beliefs which were so common in education until very recently, the traditional belief that ability is everything. Now we know different.
How you think about learning profoundly influences what you do. Carol Dweck’s research has shown that success is not down to innate ability alone. Her work in schools across the U.S. has illustrated how mindset powerfully influences the learning process. She has shown that what someone believes about the nature of ability profoundly affects their engagement with learning, their persistence when faced with challenge and their willingness to take risks and make mistakes. Dweck describes two contrasting mindsets – the fixed ability and the growth mindset – and their impact on learning.
The fixed ability mindset
This view is linked to traditional concepts of intelligence. When a child believes that the ability to learn is a capacity with fixed limits, this affects what they do when faced with a challenge. If the child cannot easily find a solution, they are likely to assume they have reached their ceiling of ability and will either withdraw or ask for help. If they regularly meet challenges in a subject, they may then tell themselves that they lack ability in this area and may in future avoid further involvement or lower their expectations. This creates a cycle of low effort and a focus on seeking external solutions. The child assumes that they are the problem and discounts the importance of either gaining more experience or increasing practice levels. They are even less likely to try to identify effective problem solving strategies. Interestingly much of Dweck’s research has been focused on children’s mastery of mathematical skills which depend on a combination of learning facts and developing creative problem solving skills. A fixed mindset is a distinct disadvantage in this subject where persistence and experimentation often lead to breakthroughs to a higher level of understanding.
The growth mindset
When a child is encouraged to believe that learning is an ability which improves with practice, the outcomes are very different. Learning to apply effort and developing a set of useful problem solving techniques gives a child confidence and a sense of control when facing a challenge. The challenge is seen as a practical issue rather than a personal one. Carol Dweck describes children in the growth mindset group who respond with “I Love a challenge” while the refrain of the fixed ability group was “I’m no good at this”. Learners who think of ability as similar to a muscle, which strengthens with practice, are going to be comfortable with exploring and using strategies which develop their problem solving skills. The hallmarks of a growth mindset are effort and persistence which increase the time spent engaged with a task and which in turn increases the experience that they subsequently gain. Time spent practicing a skill is, unsurprisingly, strongly associated with success.
The features of the two mindsets
| Fixed ability mindset
1. Leaning ability is fixed by intelligence
2. Mistakes result from personal limitations
3. Progress depends on outside help
4. Speed of learning is a sign of ability
5. Learning strategies are just technique
6. Practice merely polishes performance
7. I have limited control over results
| Growth mindset
6. Practice can lead to breakthroughs
7. I have significant control over results
How self-efficacy affects performance
The common factor which explains these two contrasting mindsets is ‘self-efficacy’. This psychological concept identifies how a positive and optimistic belief about your competence and skill in any area strongly influences your likelihood of success. If you believe you have control over the results, and are optimistic about your likelihood of success, you are more likely both to get involved with a task and to persist when it is not straightforward. This is self-efficacy.
Children with low self-efficacy have a pessimistic view of the likelihood of their success. They tend to avoid tasks when they can, or disengage quickly when the challenge becomes apparent. Dweck’s research is particularly useful in reminding us that many children can have just such a narrow view of themselves as learners. When a child’s view of their intelligence is dominated by a fixed ability mindset, the child assumes the factors influencing success are not within their control. In contrast, if a child is encouraged to develop a growth mindset they will be confident of being in control and feel optimistic about taking action.
How to help a child develop a growth mindset
Adults will make a real difference to a child’s life by doing two relatively simple things. Doing them frequently and consistently so the message is strong and the habits become firmly established. offer two gifts of life long value.
1. Self- efficacy
Ensure the child knows they have huge potential to learn and are capable and competent. To give this gift, the adult acts like a mirror reflecting back the good, the optimistic and the useful things that they notice. This helps a child to be aware of what they can do and of the promise of continuing improvement as they go along. They don’t just believe they can they know they can.
Allow the child room to explore, grow and experiment. A significant degree of freedom is essential so that the child can make choices and discover what they are capable of. The adult should offer support which helps the child to consider the problem but does not control how the child takes action, how to do something rather than prescribing what to do.
What a child believes about their capacity to learn makes the difference between firing on all cylinders, and moving along slowly and spasmodically uncertain of direction or destination. A growth mindset underpins how the child makes sense of their experience of learning and allows them to face the future with confidence. Learning is a skill that you can practice and challenges can be faced squarely with the right tools and support. Now that really is empowering learning.