Growth Mindsets in a Fixed System



I’ve done a couple of training days recently on Growth Mindsets and have been asked if I’d jot down the key things we’ve covered.

When I’m asked to do this training, I have to put a grenade warning on it. This is not a “this is what GM is and how to do it” course. It’s an uncomfortable truths course. Because the reality is, that while Growth Mindsets might be one of the biggest buzzwords in education, schools in the UK are working in one of the most restricted “fixed mindsets” systems in the world.

On the surface, the government would seem to embrace GM. They might say “Of course we promote Growth Mindsets! No child should be allowed to fall behind; we have high expectations for all, mirrored in our refusal to accept circumstances for failure; we even got rid of levels. And look at how many times we mention grit and resilience in our speeches. Proper GM us.”

But that would be, well a rose tinted view. In a proper growth oriented system, children would be given several chances to reach their potential – they wouldn’t be forced into a linear system. They would not be put in sets, not given “target grades” based on past performance. All of their achievements and pathways would be valued in the moment – whether academic, artistic, physical or social – and with a view on the next steps. Contexts would be taken into account and funding put in place to support those who needed extra help, including counselling, SEND support, resources and family support. A growth mindset government would not cut funding. They would not make it increasingly difficult for children to overcome set backs. So it’s clear that we are having to promote an idea that at best expects us to find ways to thrive in-between the concrete slabs of high stakes, linear testing, shifting goalposts and accountability based on suspect data.

To truly have a growth mindset, you have to accept that reality and then do everything in your power as a teacher and leader to make your school culture as positive as possible. That might mean asking some tricky questions to which there are no straightforward answers:-

  • Is it possible to really have growth mindsets in our schools if we use language such as high, middle and low ability?
  • Is it possible to have growth mindsets when we set/stream children?
  • Is it possible to have a growth mindset culture and still have graded lesson observations for staff?
  • Are any efforts on our part futile unless we also train parents and governors on the principles of growth mindset thinking?
  • Are we using growth mindsets and words like resilience and grit to excuse a dull curriculum – i.e. as a synonym for getting children to endure boredom?
  • Is there really a difference between GM and Assessment for Learning? How do we ensure this isn’t simply a fad that is forgotten in a couple of years’ time?
  • Is evidence from research into genetic heritability of intelligence (e.g. Plomin et al), at odds with what is effectively a ‘nurture’ approach from Dweck?
  • Is it true that people are either growth or fixed in terms of mindset? Does it not depend on circumstance and subject? In which case, are all those questionnaires a waste of time?
  • Is it possible to preach growth mindsets when sending children into a norm referenced exam system that makes the assumption that the same number of children should pass each year, regardless of whether or not they are getting better?

While there are no easy answers to the above, they form a day in which some much deeper thinking takes place and where we look to other areas of cognitive science and psychology to find some possible solutions. We explore the importance of motivation, of incremental feedback rather than praise, of stretching and challenging all children, of questioning, of moral purpose and of embedding the theory across the whole school – children, teachers, parents, governors and local stakeholders. We share ideas and we go away not with a silver bullet, but with a clearer sense of purpose and set of potential actions to effect change.

To my mind, this is what CPD should be – a trigger for change and for deeper thinking, not a set of top tips that conveniently gloss over the bigger issues that often get in the way of good intentions. In a recent discussion, for example, during a lively debate about the pros and cons of setting, one teacher said

“Whether we set or not should be irrelevant – it’s the attitude that matters. Children knowing they can move up and improve and schools making that a possibility.”

She was right of course – in schools who do set children (let’s leave the evidence behind on this for a moment) – ┬áthe problem may not be in the setting itself, but rather in the fact that there is always limited room at the top. If we are to be truly working towards a growth mindset culture, there must always be room for movement in reward for effort and achievement. If that leads to three set ones, then so be it. It’s in these discussions that possible solutions begin to present themselves. That’s not about a “consultant”coming in and telling you what to do. It’s about someone throwing difficult questions at you as professionals and then giving you the time and space to work towards solutions. Now I come to think about it – isn’t that what good teaching should aim to do?


5 thoughts on “Growth Mindsets in a Fixed System

  1. One of the most powerful articles I have read on the reality of attempting to teach GM / resilience in a toxic system created by a government that favours obedience and conformity above all else!

  2. Thanks for this article Debra, more as you say about professionalism and the way it has been castrated by various administrations over a number of years. What struck me was your sentence:

    “this is what CPD should be – a trigger for change and for deeper thinking, not a set of top tips that conveniently gloss over the bigger issues that often get in the way of good intentions”

    and I thought that with the announcement about the route to teachers via an apprenticeship this is another part of this deprofessionalisation and think you could replace CPD in your sentence about with ITE.



  3. I was at a conference in Madrid with Matthew Syed who said that the problem with UK schools is that we have ‘institutionalised’ the fixed mindset. As someone who delivered workshops with G & T students back in the day I couldn’t agree more. They were hard to work with.

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