Growth Mindset – You know how to whistle, don’t you?

Clayesmore’s Head of Digital Learning, Mark Fraser, on the ‘backlash’ against Growth Mindset

A colleague at school used to have a dog which he had trained to an extraordinary level of obedience using a whistle.
 
When a friend of his, bright bloke, Chemistry teacher, PhD from Cambridge, complained about the unruliness of his own dog, my colleague gave him a whistle. Three days later, he returned it. ‘Doesn’t work!’ he said grumpily as he slapped it down on the desk.
 
I think of that story, somewhat despairingly, when I hear people talking about the Growth Mindset. I sense that there’s currently a bit of a backlash against the Growth Mindset, some of it pretty aggressive.
 
I might as well lay my cards on the table at this point. I’m a big fan of Carol Dweck’s work. As a school we’ve spent hours discussing it and we believe in it; it makes a lot of sense and it chimes with our own experiences.
 
Doubtless, some of the backlash is politically driven. If you position yourself anywhere on the political spectrum that has grammar schools at the moderate end and ‘progressive eugenics’ at the other end, then the Growth Mindset is likely to be a troubling concept for you.
 
But that’s not the only source of the grumbling. Some of it comes from teachers who, like the chemist with the mad dog, think they have tried it and found it ‘doesn’t work’.
 
Often, I fear, the disgruntlement stems from an impoverished understanding. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh well, at least you had a go – that shows a growth mindset.’
 
Shoot me down but I don’t think that’s what Carol Dweck has in mind.
 
Of course, many ideas are diluted by discussion; it’s a common problem and we probably have a duty to return to the source material more often than we do.
 
Maybe people have lost faith because the promise was too high. People expected miracles and were disappointed when they didn’t happen. Sticking a few posters up on the wall was never going to have the effect we wanted.
 
Incidentally, I’ve started to hear the Growth Mindset described as an ‘intervention’. Maybe it’s just me who has a bit of a problem with this word, not least because of its over-use. Doesn’t it have connotations of a quick fix? Or, at least, a sharp shock that’s going to jolt you back onto a healthier path. Neither seems appropriate here.
 
More likely, it’s simply because the Growth Mindset is really hard to implement in practice. Since I first read Dweck, I’ve consciously tried to change the way I speak to pupils and still I hear myself making mistakes. It’s very easy to do.
 
Add to that the many contradictory messages competing for attention in the minds of our pupils. Look out for the number of times sports pundits will talk, unchallenged, of ‘natural talent’.
 
With all the sports teams I coach I’m aware that, however carefully I phrase my post-match comments, many of the team will receive a very different message from their parents on the journey home.
 
To paraphrase Steve Peters in ‘The Chimp Paradox’, there’s a lot of ‘bad code’ being written which we have to try to counteract. (If ever there was a book that should be Day 1 of any teacher training course, that’s the one).
 
The point, surely, is that real, genuine change is always much slower than we might want it to be.
 
The transition from an overweight, unfit person to a fit one is slow, painful and difficult. The same is true of a mindset shift.
 
Expecting anything else is just whistling in the wind.