Teachers and ‘growth mindset’

How can we help students excel?

‘John’, London secondary school teacher

In schools up and down the country, teacher training sessions are taking place on ‘growth mindset’. The theory is simple. It argues a student’s ability to learn is intrinsically linked to their mindset.

Carol S Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, found students with a ‘fixed’ mindset may believe their intelligence is fixed. Therefore there are limitations to what they can do. “I’m not good at maths” or “I’m not a very practical person”.

A growth mindset suggests openness to change, feedback and determination to progress in challenging areas.


Training in our school has focussed on adapting teachers’ language to motivate students. On the face of it this is very progressive. Students from deprived backgrounds often have lower self-esteem and self-belief than peers – support for them in particular should be encouraged.

However, like any idea in education, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – as any good hospitality and catering teacher will tell you. In our school it has been used to challenge teachers who raise concerns about students’ progress.

A teacher in one recent department meeting identified a student who was working below his target in English. This student has a precarious home life which adversely affects his behaviour and focus in school.

He has been on the verge of exclusion in the past. But we were told he should meet his target if we “applied the growth mindset”.

In other words, mere thought processes can overcome external economic and social factors. This despite research in 2011 finding social class could put students up to eight months ahead of peers.

Cynically applied, this reinforces the right-wing lies peddled in the capitalist press. They say your social standing ultimately comes down to whether you have a ‘can-do attitude’.

This was not Dweck’s intention. She says her research has been misinterpreted. There are hard limiting factors that need to be dealt with alongside changes in language and culture.

For all students to excel requires changes to the education system as a whole. The Tory government recently sanctioned extending a grammar school – for the first time in 50 years. This is a step backwards, towards more segregated schooling through the 11-plus examination.

An over-emphasis on exam results means many students feel demoralised and undervalued if not ticking the right boxes.


Cuts to budgets, performance-related pay and excessive monitoring are causing low teacher morale. This inevitably impacts environment and ethos.

£9,000 university fees have affected the ‘Aimhigher’ initiative. And narrowing the curriculum has meant many students don’t get to explore a broad range of subjects and ideas.

Teachers should welcome high-quality, research-based training. But that must be coupled with willingness to fight cuts, privatisation and excessive workload.

That is the key to fostering a positive environment in every school, where growth mindsets can flourish.