In partnership with 3P Learning, Dan Haesler, international keynote speaker, educator, and consultant, met with a group of primary and secondary school teachers in London to discuss how effective feedback and a ‘growth mindset’ can empower students to learn maths. Using the idea coined by Carol Dweck, Haesler explained the difference between a ‘fixed mindset’ and a ‘growth mindset’ and explored the impact each has on a child’s motivation, productivity and learning progress. In his presentation, Haesler suggested that using language that promotes a growth mindset in students can maximise their potential and instil a lifelong love of learning.

Carol Dweck, renowned Stanford University Psychologist and expert in motivation, suggests that success is not dependent on talent or natural ability; instead it is dependent on an individual’s mindset.[1] Dweck asserts there are two ends to the mindset spectrum—at one end lies the fixed mindset and on the other the growth mindset. People exhibiting a fixed mindset, fear and reject challenge and consequently miss out on opportunities to learn. People with a growth mindset, conversely, believe that anyone can achieve success with effort, persistence and time. These individuals seek out challenges and tend to revel in the struggle. It is important to emphasise that students are rarely either entirely of a fixed or growth mindset but almost always fall somewhere in between the two.

Dweck also emphasises that mindset does not have to be permanent. All children are born with a desire to learn, but at some point they lose this and enter the fixed mindset. However, through effective use of language, it is possible to reverse this and nurture a growth mindset in an individual. Likewise, language can also promote the opposite, encouraging individuals to move towards a fixed mindset. Language that praises children for their ‘natural ability’ or ‘intelligence’ cultivates a fixed mindset. Instead, we should be offering praise that is specific and focused on the effort or progress, thereby nurturing the growth mindset. In a study by Dweck, a group of 400 students were divided into two groups. Each group was given a simple test and then praised with language that promoted a fixed mindset (i.e. ‘you’re really smart’) or language that promoted a growth mindset (i.e. ‘you must be hard working’). The children praised in the latter group were more willing to take on challenges and, at the end of the experiment, actually performed better on the initial test than those students praised for their intelligence.[2] Praising students for their intelligence had a demonstrably negative impact on the children’s motivation and performance, and even encouraged those children to consider cheating.[3]

Building on Dweck’s research, Haesler suggests that teachers should also be using language that promotes a growth mindset in pupils when giving feedback to students. According to John Hattie ‘the most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback’.[4]  However, Haesler points out that much of the feedback children are receiving has little or no effect on their learning. To maximise student potential, according to Haesler, it is important that feedback is not confused with praise, based purely on results, but that it also focuses on how to improve. Powerful feedback acknowledges where a student is at the moment but also uses words like yet to encourage the child that they can achieve the desired result with effort and hard work. This type of feedback promotes a growth mindset—inspiring the learner to try again.

During his presentation, Haesler also suggested that using assessments ‘for learning rather than of learning’ can also help to develop a growth mindset in students.  Assessments for learning are formative assessments. They clarify learning intentions and the criteria for success.  They can also promote valuable classroom discussions and can empower students as owners of their own learning.  Given in this format, assessments can help to move the learner forward. Haesler suggests selecting children at random to answer questions, or asking them to work through assessment questions on whiteboards as examples. These activities can help teachers to assess where the students are and identify learning gaps without the pressure of a real test.

Games and digital resources can also help children to develop a growth mindset. As an example, 3P Learning’s own digital educational resource Mathletics uses credits to reward improvement and bonus games which unlock as the learner progresses. The support centre feature, in combination with the wide range of activities, games, and rich learning tasks, also help children to build their mathematical resilience and encourage reflective learning. The adaptive activities ensure that students stay within their zone of proximal development—giving children just the right amount of challenge. In fact, students using Mathletics have been shown to score an average of 9% higher on government testing.[5]

Promoting a growth mindset in students through the right language, effective feedback, assessments for learning and online resources like Mathletics can have a positive impact on a student’s learning development. However, teachers should be cautious not to classify their students’ mindset as either fixed or growth. As Dr Tim O’Brien points out, polarising learners can lead one to develop polarised conceptions about these learners. In such instances, the fixed or growth mindset concept can become ‘a tool for labelling, blame, and exclusion’.[6]  Ultimately, the mindset theory is a tool, not a pedagogic solution. As Haelser pointed out, the aim of education should be to promote a lifelong love of learning. Promoting a growth mindset in learners can help achieve this by emphasising the importance of the journey, as opposed to focusing only on the result.        

Written by Ashley Thomas, Premium Account Manager at 3P Learning Europe & Middle East

For more information please see:

[1] Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, (New York: Ballantine Press, 2006).

[2] Carol Dweck, ‘Caution- Praise can be dangerous’, American Educator Spring 1999, p.2-3.

[3] Ibid, p. 4.

[4] JA Hattie, ‘Measuring the effects of schooling’, Australian Journal of Education 36(1) (1992), 5-13, (p.9).

[5] Tony Stokes, ‘National Numeracy Study’ (Sydney: 3P Learning Ltd, 2014).

[6] Tim O’Brien, ‘Why mindsets aren’t a magic wand’, TES Magazine, 26 June 2015, p.27