Growth Mindset – The bleedin’ obvious or something rather more complex?

For those who haven’t come across the concept of Growth Mindset, this blog, by classteaching, offers a succinct overview.

I was quite late to the party, first coming across the concept of Growth Mindset in preparation for an interview nine months ago (for a job I narrowly missed out on – a lucky escape, and a story for another time!). On starting to read, I cheered inwardly at seeing my educational philosophy in writing. My teaching gradually turned to toe-tapping frustrating. Well, of course I ensure students see mistakes as part of the journey. Of course a low mark would never allow me to let one of my students feel a failure. I love a challenge and encourage my students to do the same. In fact, I had a memorable argument with a colleague in which I argued that EVERYONE thrives on challenge and that those who are restless or unhappy probably need more of it.

As a school leader, I have come to value resilience and reflectiveness above most other qualities. We all make mistakes – of course we do! We’re human. It’s more worrying to work with people who believe in their infallibility than with those who are willing to put their hands up. apologise and move on. ‘What have we learned from this?’ was a line used by a line manager once, in response to what frequently felt like the biggest catastrophes. And we DID learn. And by learning, we grew and we became better teachers, better role models, and better leaders.

In the classroom, I am lively and frequently spontaneous. Sometimes I am hasty and I rush. My own inevitable mistakes become part of the fabric of the lesson – the ability to spot them and explain them is hailed and praised. If I start the lesson I’ve planned and it doesn’t work out, I’m  no longer afraid to be honest with myself and my students and take a different tack. My lesson plans look more like flow-charts than organised lists, usually planned with at least 3 different possible scenarios in mind. As a teacher of languages, the exuberant chatterboxes are praised at parents’ evening for their ability to ‘have a go’ and ‘get the message across’ without worrying too much about making mistakes.

I tell my students about initial catastrophic attempts to struggle with  new concepts for my Doctorate. About how I had NO IDEA how to begin designing a survey or manipulating an Excel spreadsheet six months previously. About the piece of work I was smugly happy with, which came back with red ‘track changes’ all over it… and not a single positive or encouraging comment. About dusting myself down, stepping back, and then having another go. So why on earth do I need to read 200+ pages on Growth Mindset, when I live and breathe it as a teacher, a leader and most recently, a Doctoral student myself, would I need to read about Growth Mindset?

Back to my teacher roots: the languages classroom. Every year, I share with my – bemused, slightly revolted and occasionally amused – students the true story about how I didn’t have a bath for ten days on my first French exchange visit. I knew the word for bath. I also knew it wasn’t ‘avoir un bain’ and couldn’t think of the correct verb. So I didn’t ask. And I didn’t bathe.

Forward again to our customary holiday with dear family and friends this summer. The children are getting bigger, and our holidays a bit more adventurous. First stop: Go-Karting. ‘I can’t possibly do that!’ is my first reaction. Day 3: Kayaking. ‘No way. I’ve got no co-ordination.’ Then, caves. ‘Arghh. I’m claustrophobic!’ Cooking fresh lovely French food? My husband and friends are so much better. I’ll do the washing up. Not much point trying, as I’m likely to end up flapping pathetically and it won’t taste any good anyway.

Back to school. One of the perks of my job is the endless learning walk. Dipping in and out of classrooms, cajoling reluctant learners, joining in with learning concepts, celebrating nuggets of excellence and squirrelling away excellent ideas to share and use. Last week, I came face-to-face with a sewing machine. The terror I felt was visceral. The memory of grappling with expensive felt and making an utter dog’s dinner of my wall-hanging. My needles were ‘like cars on the M25′, the teacher said. For the second year in a row, much to my parents’ amusement, I line-manage Science. ‘Not a natural Physicist’, said Mr Wingfield in 1986. Art? I got a D- for my first ever homework. Can’t do it!

I was brought up in 1980s Buckinghamshire, where you took at exam at 11 to decide on the rest of your schooling. You either ‘passed’ or you ‘failed’. Grammar school for the ‘passes’. Secondary moderns for the ‘failures’. Pretty barbaric, yes? Well, no. The system is still alive and kicking. In fact, were we to wish to, we could put our own daughters through the same exam. Were we to want to, we could take up the offers of ‘tutoring’ advertising outside our daughter’s pre-school two years ago, when she was three. I was a competent musician. Note, ‘competent’ rather than ‘gifted’. I worked hard. We went through competitions and were given points from the age of 9 (many younger than me). I remember being told my ‘intonation was all over the place’ at 10. My Mum reminded me I won a competition once – I’d forgotten that bit. With the freedom of university, I put my instruments down, and it was years before I rediscovered the joy of uncensored music-making.

Back to my current classroom. I’ve never pretended languages weren’t hard. It’s one of the ‘selling points’. But for some students, it’s terrifying. To get a C when your partner gets an A is the biggest kick in the teeth. To speak French, recorded, in a tiny exam room for 6 minutes? The ultimate torture! ‘Feeling a failure’ is prevalent, particularly amongst bright teenage girls. A million miles from my ethos?

I remember vividly the feeling of inadequacy and uselessness when I got a B- when my best friend, A, got an A – for a piece of work I was SO proud of. I ‘took the initiative’ and decided NOT to apply to Oxbridge because I really didn’t want to go there anyway. Hindsight: I was probably right, but was there an element of the Year 10 boy who’ll do anything – ANYTHING! – but attempt that piece of writing, from needing the loo to chucking a pen to picking a fight with his partner? Was there a tiny bit – or maybe even more – of Vic Goddard’s NAF student. Never. Accept. Failure. By not risking rejection or risking defeat?

Perhaps I owe more to Growth Mindset that I realised. I wonder if it’s a bit like the truism of authoritarian parents raising libertarian children, before the cycle continues? In any case, something that is never far from my consciousness, as a mother, a friend and a teacher.


Summer, 2014. Urged by my husband, I actually drove the go-kart. It was massively exhilarating, I can still smell the petrol and feel the force of just making it around the corner. My daughter was proud of me. The caves were fine in the end – much wider and more open than I’d imagined. Once I stopped worrying, I even managed the narrow passageways. Best of all, I kayaked! First time around, I flapped and fussed and let my confident partner take a lead. Second time, I took a place in a kayak with a tearful child and a shaken-up friend after they capsized and he lost his glasses. No time for flapping and squawking. I had to pull it together, be calm, look ahead, communicate, and keep talking. And guess what? We survived. And I loved it.

As to cooking… Sigh. Maybe one day.

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