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To grow or not to grow?

10 August 2015: posted by Niki Barbery Bleyleben

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Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

-Descartes

“I can’t learn a new language.”

“I’m terrible at math.”

“There is no way I can do a handstand.”

We are thinking beings. We spend most of our waking hours thinking and then thinking some more. Why? Because the creative use of our thoughts and emotions to respond appropriately to unexpected circumstances–well, that’s what makes us human.

It isn’t always easy for us to believe that the act of thinking alone will help us to attain the goals we aspire to, but apparently they do.

What is a growth mindset?

Carol Dweck, the psychologist at Columbia University who coined the term “Growth Mindset” back in the 80s, believes we humans fall into two distinct sets of perceptions when it comes to thinking about what we can and cannot achieve in life. There are those of us who firmly believe that our intellectual capacity is a fixed trait; that whatever skills, talents, and capabilities we have are predetermined and finite (this fixed mindset applies not just to one’s own qualities, but to the qualities of others too). And then there are those of us who believe that our intellect is malleable and can be developed over time; that success comes as a result of effort, learning, and persistence.

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And where do I fit in?

When I first began sifting through the Growth Mindset literature for Big Change, I couldn’t help but think of my own intellectual inhibitions as a child growing up. What circumstances made me doubt my capacity to achieve? When confronted with experiences that called my intellect into question (i.e. a poor mark on an exam), did I feel motivated to rise to the challenge and improve my abilities or did I become demoralised by the experience?

Like many children today, I think it was more the latter.

I spent most of my childhood believing I was a bad student. And the truth is, I was a bad student–from age 6 to 10 I received terrible marks at school. Although I didn’t realise it then, my lack of organisational skills was my greatest weakness (it was difficult to study for a spelling test when I lost the words I was meant to memorise). I remember with such clarity how my body would sink into my desk upon receiving exam results, all those misspelt words covered in red, a sad face sketched on the upper right hand side of the page. “I can’t spell,” I would think to myself, whilst crinkling up my results into a ball and pushing it against the rest of the paper mess in the depth of my desk; my intellectual (in)capacity hidden away from view.

What determines who is fixed and who is growing?

I still consider myself a terrible speller (although technology helps me keep a good cover). The question is, am I responsible for turning myself into a bad speller? Did I stop striving to learn how to be a better speller because of a few setbacks early on?  Is this the result of having a “fixed mindset”? 

Perception may not truly represent reality, but when it comes to how we approach challenges and opportunities, our mindset determines the world we encounter and the possibilities we apprehend. But what causes one child to have a fixed mindset at the age of 7 and the child sitting next to them to perceive the world so differently? Why are some children less afraid to fail than others? Why do some have the confidence or grit to persevere despite the obstacle?

More importantly, what can we do to encourage more children, more people, to take on growth mindsets?

What are we doing at Big Change? 

The more I read through the Growth Mindset literature, the more I am inspired by Big Change’s commitment to supporting innovative ways in which to embed Growth Mindset into classroom culture and the curriculum in schools across the UK.

One of the ways we are doing this is through our work with Demos, Britain’s leading cross-party think tank. Together they will determine the extent to which Growth Mindset principles are included in the training and ethos of key institutions and organisations working with young people in the UK, including primary and secondary schools, youth sector charities, support charities for children in care or those from disadvantaged backgrounds. They will also assess how Growth Mindset principles correspond to child developmental psychology in order to determine the best interventions for children and young people at different points in their lives.

Much like ancient Romans, I personally believe every child is born with genius and it is up to us as a society, as parents, siblings, and as teachers to instil in children the confidence to embark upon their own personal learning journey–to become self-regulating, curious learners with a strong hunger to learn for the sake attaining wisdom and knowledge rather than simply a desire to win.

Stay tuned for more on our Growth Mindset research!