Meeting parents on a daily basis, I often hear them speak of their desire for their child to fulfil their potential – academically, artistically and in sporting terms – as well as being in an environment in which the child is happy and supported. In the current over-heated London independent school market, there is a certain amount of anxiety attached to ensuring that the child’s “potential” is maximised and the growth in extra-curricular tutoring has been the clearest sign of the increased pressure on children. However, recent neuroscience is showing that it is our attitude to ourselves as learners which is most significantly impacting on motivation and attainment in the classroom. The research also gives some surprisingly simple tips for how parents can improve outcomes for their children.
The research originally came from Dr Carol Dweck – a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Based on the understanding that at any point in our life we can develop our brain (almost like a muscle) and establish new neural connections, Dweck analysed the impact of children’s perceptions of themselves in relation to learning. She realised that those children who had a ‘fixed mindset’ and believed that intelligence was set in stone (in other words that you were either “clever” or “stupid”) achieved less well in the long term. Those who had a ‘growth mindset’ (through effort, you can improve) went on to higher levels of attainment in school.
This may sound obvious but our society is riddled with language that emphasises a fixed mindset: ‘A bright girl’ or ‘He’s not very clever” come from a fixed mindset perception of learning and the brain. You may think that the children who have labelled themselves as stupid would be on the raw end of this kind of mindset but in fact children who are labelled by themselves and their parents as “clever” are at just as much of a risk of underachieving. This is because if you are attached to the label of being a “clever” child you can become reluctant to engage with difficult or challenging work since it contradicts your sense of yourself as a clever person who ought to find everything easy. Many teachers I talk to will say that some of their most able mathematicians struggle emotionally when they come across a challenging puzzle or problem. These children may fear taking risks or seeking harder work and will not achieve what they could do in the long term. A fear of failure defining you is a feature of a fixed mindset as well as a perception that having to try hard means you just aren’t very clever.
A growth mindset student is not afraid of difficulty because he or she understands that through being appropriately challenged we learn. Rather than fearing mistakes, getting things wrong becomes an essential part of learning. Failure can be constructive and the key to success is not simply God-given talent but sheer effort and hard work. This attitude can result in a child who loves learning for its own sake and is emotionally resilient.
At the Roche School, we embed Growth Mindsets across the curriculum. Our Lower School assemblies involve certificates given to children for the qualities that manifest from a growth mindset such as resilience, tenacity and reflection. I also run small group sessions with the older children leading up to 11+ exams which focus on the research behind growth mindsets and encourage them to apply it to their own studies.
For parents, the key advice I would give is to change the way you are praising your child. Calling your child bright and clever may seem to help their self-esteem but it can establish a fixed mindset belief in their potential. If your child tells you they can’t do something, encourage them to add ‘yet’ to the end of that sentence. Praise effort and motivation over attainment. Discuss how they went about their work as well as the result. In my current 11+ Maths class I have avoided telling the children their marks for recent test papers. Instead, I have personally talked through their mistakes in order for them to learn from them. The children as a result are more focused on the learning and less fixated on their latest test result, and as a consequence, their test marks have improved dramatically!
There is a wealth of growth mindset publications and child friendly YouTube videos available to develop a greater understanding of this topic. Remember, mindsets are just belief systems. We can have a growth mindset when it comes to one subject and a very fixed mindset when it comes to another (e.g. I’ll never be good at Maths). Equally, because they are belief systems they can be changed and as a result we can all have a ‘smarter’ brain!