Georgina Blaskey investigates the new teaching theory being adopted by forward-thinking schools across the country
How many times a day do you praise your child? “Well done, you brushed your teeth!”, “You ate up all your cereal, you’re a great eater!”, “You drew a lovely picture – watch out Monet, there’s a new artist in town!”
For many years, parents have been told to praise their children’s achievements unconditionally in order to boost their confidence and self-esteem. But research shows that frequently praising your child could, in fact, be having the opposite effect.Why? Because it leads to a fixed idea of what they can do – and, just as importantly, what they can’t. This is called a fixed mindset – a personal belief system that your capabilities are carved in stone. The opposite is a growth mindset, the belief that intelligence can be learned and developed, challenges can be embraced, problems can be overcome and effort is the pathway to mastery.
A research study by Carol Dweck, a professor of developmental psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, offered a group of four year olds a choice: they could either redo an easy jigsaw puzzle or try a harder one. “Even these young children conformed to the characteristics of one of the two mindsets,” explains Carol. “Those with a ‘fixed’ mentality opted for the familiar option again, happy in the knowledge they would succeed. Those with the ‘growth’ mindset thought it a strange choice initially, confused as to why anyone would want to do the same puzzle over and over if they aren’t learning anything new. In other words, the fixed-mindset kids wanted to make sure they succeeded in order to seem smart,” Carol continues, “whereas the growth-mindset ones wanted to stretch themselves, for their definition of success was about becoming smarter.”
For many parents, homework can be a stressful time of self-doubt and frustration. Recently in our home, I heard this conversation between my kids: “I can’t do it!” exclaimed my seven-year-old son as he tried to write out his four times tables. “You just can’t do it yet!” said his 10-year-old sister. Over the last few terms, their school has been championing a new approach, encouraging children to understand that learning is a journey which changes, as does their intelligence and ability. By simply adding the word ‘yet’ to the end of the sentence, the children understand that knowledge is attainable. “In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time,” Carol deduces. “In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents can be developed through effort, teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
Carol’s theories are being adopted by schools across the globe, giving children a new set of goals to strive for in which effort is valued above achievement – persistence over easy options. London prep school Thomas’s Clapham has recently introduced the growth mindset to its pupils with great effect, and attitudes of teachers and children are already changing. Headmaster Phil Ward recounts, “One of our Year 6 pupils, Anna, had always found exams challenging, and would often be overwhelmed by panic attacks when faced with an exam paper. Bit by bit, the efforts of her teachers and parents to instil in her a growth mindset brought her the sense that she could battle her way through the next challenge. This duly came when Anna sat for the 11+ entry assessment for a London day school. Ten minutes into the exam she sensed a wave of panic, but this time, the growth mindset kicked in. ‘I can do this, and I will get there,’ she said to herself. Anna secured a place and did so well she was awarded a scholarship. I have no doubt Anna will meet every challenge in the future with the positive intent a growth mindset encourages.”
Along with the obvious academic benefits, adopting a growth mindset can change a person’s perception of themself entirely. Picture the child who feels as if he has no control over his abilities, and is helpless in the face of setbacks. Imagine how disheartened he may feel if he finds something difficult, which could lead to low self-esteem and a sense that there’s no point trying at anything because he’ll just fail. Long-term, this could lead to disruptive behaviour and discipline problems. Then picture the child who believes they can bounce back from failure, who relishes a challenge as an opportunity. This child is engaged in their school work, is more likely to perform well and succeed.
Did you know the power of a three-letter word and how it could change your child’s future? Well, maybe you didn’t know and maybe they don’t know… yet.