by Nick Forsyth
Head of Wellbeing, Kingston Grammar School
The teenage brain is a truly remarkable thing. In recent years, researchers have revealed far more of its secrets and, in particular, how it differs fundamentally from the adult brain. While it has a greater capacity to learn and create, we now know that areas of the brain that control behaviour, judgement and emotional control are the last to mature. This partly explains why adolescents are more prone to risk-taking behaviour, more susceptible to stress and mental illness and why they have an increased risk of developing an addiction.
Research into brain development has also given us new insights into how children actually think and learn. The terms ‘fixed’ and ‘growth mindset’ were first used by the world-renowned Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck. The idea is very simple but has huge implications for the way we teach our children and how they see themselves.
The basic idea is this: children with a fixed mindset believe that being ‘good’ at a particular activity is something that they cannot control. Talent and even intelligence are fixed traits that you either have or don’t have. These children also tend to believe that talent alone can lead to success. Such a view is reinforced in a world where instant gratification is increasingly seen as the norm and where a toxic mix of social media, celebrity culture and rampant commercialism can lead to impossible expectations and an unrealistic sense of entitlement. Overnight success? Sign up for X Factor. Fame and fortune? No problem; become an Internet blogger or You Tuber.
Of course, the converse effect is that when things do get hard, as they inevitably will, children with a fixed mindset will show a lack of resilience or will simply give up. “I can’t do it, there’s no point.”
In comparison, children with a growth mindset understand that intelligence or being good at something is not a fixed characteristic but can be increased through effort, determination and sheer hard work. Mistakes and setbacks are seen as learning opportunities while success is rightly framed in the context of perseverance and trial and error. Now “I can’t do it” becomes “I can’t do it yet”.
There is now compelling evidence that teaching children about the power of growth mindset can dramatically improve a child’s academic performance and motivation to learn. In particular, when children understand that at this age their brains are highly malleable and grow stronger with effort and practice, they are far more willing to stick to a task or activity.
Over the last few years the idea of fixed verses growth mindset has gained considerable traction in education and teachers are now increasingly aware that their actions and, in particular, their feedback can subtly influence how their children perform. So praising innate ability – “you’re so talented at maths” – is likely to reinforce a fixed mindset while praising effort and hard work, “well done so far, now let’s see how we can improve” helps to develop a growth mindset.
The concept can also be taught to children in the context of success in sport or music or indeed any field. When asked about his success, Ed Sheeran said, “When people say you are so talented and you’ve been born with natural talent, I say ‘no’. You have to really learn and really practice.” Or Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, talking about his attitude to failure: “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Growth mindset teaches children that their brains are not hard-wired but can grow and develop in the same way that their muscles get stronger as a result of training and exercise. This not only leads to higher academic attainment but it has dramatic effects on how children perceive themselves. Once they know that it’s normal to fail and get things wrong, we see improvements in self-esteem, resilience, having the confidence to try new things and less stress about exams and the need to be perfect. In short, happier, healthier children.
Kingston Grammar School is hosting a national conference on Growth Mindset, “I can’t do it – yet” on Wednesday 7th November 2018.
Kingston Grammar School, founded in 1561, is a leading co-educational independent day school for boys and girls aged 11-18 years. Kgs.org.uk