By Rebecca Ferdinand, Associate at CoachBright
When I was in Year 10, my maths teacher seemed to equate my value with my weekly test scores. Students were seated around the room test score order. I noticed that if I didn’t do so well on a test, I’d be less likely to be called on to answer a question. Our teacher implicitly let me know that, for her, test scores reflected my intelligence and merit as a student. In any given week, students with low test scores felt demotivated and students with high tests scores lived in fear that they would fail next week.
Unfortunately, my maths class did nothing to create an atmosphere that fostered a love of learning and challenge. Carol Dweck, an American psychologist, and her colleagues at Stanford University might say that our class encouraged an unhelpful fixed mindset in us. In a fixed mindset, people believe that qualities such as intelligence and talent are fixed and permanent. Time is spent measuring abilities such as maths competency instead of trying to develop them. After all, why make an effort to get better at maths if your perceived ability is set in stone?
At CoachBright our programme is designed to instil a growth mindset in students. With this outlook, students believe that all of their abilities can be developed through determination and hard work—talent and natural ability is merely the starting point. After hitting a setback in his exam results our Year 12 coachee Timothy from ARK Globe Academy said, “It’s a stepping stone to a better future next year. I’ve just got to keep my head up and keep working’. Unlike the students in my old maths class, our coachees understand that intelligence can be developed and focus on strategies for improvement instead of worrying about how smart they are.
Evidence tell us that holding this mindset can help improve motivation and achievement in learning. In 2007, psychologists followed hundreds of students making the transition from primary to secondary school. They found that students who held a growth mindset were more motivated to learn and face challenges, and outperformed those with a fixed mindset in maths. This gap in achievement continued over two years, with growth mindset students displaying an upward trajectory in grades compared to a flatter trajectory for fixed mindset students. (Blackwell et al., 2007). All the students followed had entered the new school with similar past achievement. It seems that whether their mindset was focused on measuring their basic abilities or working hard to face learning challenges had a significant effect on their maths grades during this challenging time.
So how can we instil a growth mindset in our students?
Firstly, it’s important to make it clear to students that their performance on tests only reflects their current efforts, not their intelligence or value. When students do well, teachers and coaches should avoid praising students for high grades, as my old maths teacher did. Instead, praise should be given for efforts or strategies. With this in mind, if students are ever unhappy with their performance, there is always constructive action to take: work harder, find more learning opportunities, ask a teacher or coach and so on.
Teachers and coaches can also help students value learning for learning’s sake. Students can become preoccupied with proving their values through grades. Allow students to embrace their mistakes, enjoy putting in effort, and keep on learning regardless. Grades are important, but learning is most important.
To hear more from Carol Dweck, view her TED talk here.