The advantages of a Growth Mindset are well known and many schools now have an active Growth Mindset policy. Growth Mindset is a brilliant and deceptively simple concept based on Carol Dweck’s research. She has identified that learning is more effective when we believe that diligence, hard work and careful practice underpin success rather than assuming that ability is the deciding factor. A self-evident truth you might say but sustaining a Growth Mindset is not so easy. Many children struggle to stay with this set of values and despite believing in the value of hard work do find it difficult to sustain. This may not be because they have reverted to a fixed mindset where they assume that their lack of ability is causing them to struggle. An alternative explanation is that despite believing in a growth mindset they lack some of the inner resources needed to keep going at difficult times.
A related concept from Positive Psychology helps to explain this loss of focus under pressure: Positive Psychological Capital or PsyCap is the name for these inner resources which are needed when facing tough challenges. PsyCap is made up of 4 core components: hope, self-efficacy, resilience and optimism. Professor Luthan, who has been researching PsyCap for over 10 years, says: “these 4 resources combined have the greatest impact on an individual’s positive psychological state of development which is characterised by having the confidence to take on the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks”
PsyCap gives the individual both the desirable set of attitudes and an effective set of skills that will positively impact on performance. Psycap is big news in in the business world where staff development and performance impacts on business outcomes but has had relatively little exposure within education.
I want to suggest that PsyCap is how you make Growth Mindset work. How you move from a set of aims and aspirations to a set of practical strategies which will build learning capacity in each child. PsyCap allows you to look at where a student is by examining what they do rather than what they say. It is not uncommon to hold a set of values but not be able to sustain acting on them. Think just how difficult healthy eating or sustaining regular exercise can be. The reality of establishing good habits of body or mind is difficult. We need to dig deep to sustain the effort to change and PsyCap is that inner resource.
Let’s explore the 4 components of Psychological Capital in more detail: Hope, Self-Efficacy, Resilience and Optimism.
Hope is a positive motivational state where two important elements successfully combine. We can call them Willpower (believing you can) and Waypower (having a proactive plan). This is not the fluffy sort of hope which is merely a wish- almost a plea from a passive and helpless individual who says “I hope it will be alright” Instead this hope where you believe it will happen because you know you can do it and have a planned pathway.
Self-Efficacy is having a clear understanding of what knowledge and skills you have which will provide what you need to achieve a specific goal. Carol Dweck’s research on Growth Mindset identified that students with a growth mindset had more accurate and specific self-knowledge than students with a fixed mindset who tended to either over or underestimate their skills, possibly because they didn’t see the importance of accurate self-knowledge.
Resilience is the ability to recuperate from stress, conflict and failure and have an ability to manage change. A Growth Mindset puts high demands on a student so those lacking in resilience will more readily be deterred despite their good intentions.
Optimism: This is a specific definition based on Martin Seligman’s work to extend attribution theory. He identified that having internal, stable and global attributions for positive events was important. Interpreting success as due to your own efforts, likely to happen again and be transferrable to other situations creates optimism. Equally interpreting negative events as due to external factors and not a sign of a permanent downturn was also linked to optimism. Seligman’s work on Learned Optimism has been widely applied to improve both learning and wellbeing.
So what skills contribute to the development of hope, self-efficacy, resilience and optimism? How can we begin early in life to set children on the path to a growth mindset which will sustain their learning, enhance performance and give them a sense of purpose and satisfaction?
What these 4 skills have in common are:
- Clear and specific self-knowledge
- The ability to make plans and work towards a goal
- The ability to self-regulate and avoid distractions
- Robust emotional wellbeing that can deal with setbacks and bounce back to try again
- The ability to create a positive physiological and psychological state that is energising
- An inner dialogue which presents success as a result of your efforts but does not see setbacks as permanent or personal
This may seem a tall order and for many children with adverse experiences it is a challenge but we can look to Positive Psychology to identify what the optimum environment looks like that encourages these skills. Neuroscience shows us that the plasticity of the brain allows new learning to take place to override an existing pattern of behaviour. Where children have gaps in their experience and the skills they need are not well established this can be rectified.
Two of the vitally important early experiences which set a path for independent learning are the development of play skills and later a child’s focus on developing personal interests or strengths. Both create the foundation learning to learn skills and help to establish planning, intensive practice, self-regulation, an understanding of the breadth and limits of your skills and a positive and robust emotional state. The importance of play in early childhood has strong research backing and it is never too late to encourage children to spend their free time in independent play.
Ways to develop PsyCap
- Encourage all students to develop outside interests and strengths. These are the ultimate mastery experiences because students are passionate and self-motivated and experience the impact of sustained and deliberate practice. If football is your thing you’ll practice without needing adult encouragement and stay with it until you have moved forward. Equally if you draw, sing, paint or play chess the hours fly by as you put in the necessary effort to master your skill. Students who have had first-hand experience of a growth mindset approach to a personal interest are more likely to have Psycap to draw upon when learning other skills.
- Consider how to raise both physiological and psychological arousal – the more active, energetic and positive we are the better prepared we are for challenge. Managing the emotional state of pupils has a real impact on engagement and learning and will help children learn to do this for themselves as they mature and grow in independence.
- Mastery experiences i.e. achieving a high level of competence and satisfaction is not just the desired outcome for a particular task but gives a student a blueprint for subsequent learning. A student gains self-efficacy from the experience which can transfer to future learning. Essentially the balance needs to be in favour of mastery experiences with unfinished business kept to a minimum.
- Set clear goals which are specific and challenging. This is a skill students will need for independent learning and they need to see this modelled through how you set tasks for them.
- Use a stepping stone approach to create manageable steps. You can step up to create bigger steps or subdivide further as the task proceeds.
- Encourage students to enjoy the process of learning rather than focus on the outcome. Discuss what gave them satisfaction and what engaged their interest.
- Consider possible obstacles in advance and help students to be prepared to find ways around them. What resources can they call upon to help them?
- Celebrate progress and use those moments to re energise ready for the next step.
- Build self-knowledge by encouraging students to reflect on a task and how they went about solving problems
- Encourage students to set goals for themselves and later to review the accuracy of their aims.
Developing a Growth Mindset is key to effective and sustained learning. At times students will need to dig deep to sustain their effort and motivation and this is when they will need to draw upon inner resources to show grit and persistence. PsyCap is a useful concept to identify those inner resources and to guide us in helping children to build the hope, self-efficacy, residence and optimism they need to succeed.