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Embracing failure - A growth mindset

16 December 2014

If you have never failed – you have never tried anything new.

  • Growth mindset

Brains and talent are just the starting point; your most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This is basically the ‘growth mindset’ mantra, an idea developed from decades of research on achievement by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck .  At first glance this appears to be blindingly obvious.  On deeper reflection the profound impact of this mindset becomes apparent. It changes everything: the things we do as teachers, even the very language that we use to communicate with children.

Dweck identifies two ‘mindsets’, fixed and growth.  People in a fixed mindset believe you are either good at something, or not, based on your inherent nature - it’s just who you are. People in a growth mindset believe anyone can be good at anything, because your abilities are entirely due to your actions.

In a fixed mindset, you believe “He’s a natural mathematician” or “I can’t sing...”  In a growth mindset, you believe “Anyone can be good at anything. Skill comes only from practice.”  A fixed mindset is really providing a way to surrender, to give in at the first hurdle, for why would you persevere, why would you continue when you are ‘naturally’ unable to achieve?  This lack of resilience is devastating in the face of any setback.  The growth mind set knows there will be failure and setbacks and uses these experiences to learn and develop new strategies.

In a fixed mindset, failure becomes

terrifying, it’s an attack on you and who you are, fixed mindset people tend to try to hide their flaws. A growth mindset would openly admit flaws and failures, and then seek ways to improve or fix them. A growth mindset person is therefore much better prepared to deal with the unknown or a rapidly changing future. A fixed mindset person would try to stick with what they know, work in areas where they are completely confident. There is an aversion to risk taking.

When failure becomes the defining factor, the burden is crushing. Outcome becomes everything in a fixed mindset approach, if the outcome is not achieved then all the work is wasted and lost. Growth mindsets are always learning. They know that long term success comes from the mastering of valuable skills; they know that passion and purpose come from doing great work, which comes from expertise and experience; all the things that are gained as one works toward a goal, even if the final goal is eventually unsuccessful.

For a growth mindset person, it’s all about the learning, with setbacks and failures being an intrinsic part of that learning.  What is required is the resilience and hard work to overcome these setbacks.

As teachers we must seek to nurture a growth mindest in our pupils. To teach that even the hardest things can be conquered and it’s not easy, there are no short cuts, but along the way you will master new skills and gain new experience. We must get away from talking about ‘potential’ in a child as we have no idea what any child is capable of. We must stop talking about ‘talent’ and ‘being gifted’ as all skills are attained through hard work not bestowed by magical forces. We must think beyond the walls of a traditional school to encompass a much broader canvas; a growth mindset lasts a lifetime and is productive and achieves throughout that lifetime.

Jon Crew, Head of Year 4