Sunday, 4 September 2016

Effort, Education and Growth Mindsets

Never has it seemed so pertinent to write this particular blogpost. With story after story of stress, anxiety and unhappiness amongst our teenagers, particularly girls[1], it seems appropriate to pen a few lines about a way to encourage them and take the pressure off a little as they start back at school, college and university.

We didn’t know it at the time but a chance reading of an article some years ago changed the way we encourage our daughters with their school and college work. Up till then, like so many parents, we’d told them how clever they were, especially when they’d got good results and very often at the end of the school year we’d reward them with some extra pocket money or buy them a present for their good school report.

The article rocked us back on our heels though. It suggested that praising and rewarding people for “being” something – in this case “clever” – carries the message that they have a set amount of that quality. So, in other words, telling your kids they’re clever is not particularly helpful because it does not offer a way forward, a way to improve.

It went on to say that the way to encourage people to achieve more, learn more and develop new skills is to praise and reward effort and link achievements with the effort that has been put in. That way people (and children particularly) are motivated to work harder as they see the connection between input and output and that success lies in their hands and not in some supposedly god-given ability.

It made perfect sense to me, particularly as I’d been someone who’d been told from a young age that I was clever and was praised for good results and achievements. However, I’d never worked it out for myself (and no one told me) that there was such a link between effort and achievement. As a consequence - and here’s the thing - when things got hard, I basically just gave up. If we did a hard tense in French or orbital theory in Chemistry, I’d just tell myself, “Nah!”. The reason? I hadn’t developed any skills in how to work through something challenging or difficult.

And this is the whole point. We need our children and young people to work through tough times. We need them to learn how to be resilient so that when things get hard, we can tell them “hard is not impossible”. We need them to know that the way to achieve and develop new skills is to work hard at them. With effort they can grow, develop and live more fulfilling lives.

I did finally learn my lesson much later on through my old friend, Gary Moss. Gary came into higher education as a mature student. The first thing that struck me about him, apart from his friendliness and bonkers sense of humour, was his incredible work ethic and desire to achieve his personally set goals. I kicked off my student days determined to have a good time while he worked, worked and worked some more. He was a year older than me though, so by the time he graduated with two awards, I’d seen first-hand how far effort could take you. As I entered my final year, I knew what I was going to do and took a leaf out of his book. I took on board one or two pieces of advice from Gary, made sacrifices, worked my socks off and twelve months later achieved my own personally set target.

This is why the article made so much sense to me. Much more recently, I’ve discovered what the article was actually about. It’s called Growth Mindset Theory[2] and it’s been thoroughly evidenced and championed over a number of years by Professor Carol Dweck from Stanford University. The theory is what it says: traits such as intelligence, strength, singing ability or football skills are not fixed, they can be grown and developed through diligence, determination, perseverance, feedback and resilience.

Just so I don’t mislead you about what the theory is, here’s Dweck in her own words:
"In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it."[3]
It’s not to say, of course, that we are not better at some things than others. That we don’t have an innate preference for certain activities. The point is however, that where we want to get better we can. Whether it is school or college, work or sport, soft skills or hard skills, with dedication and effort we can do it.

We can see now how the change of approach with our kids has paid off. We have recognised, praised and rewarded their efforts at school and with other life skills they may have found challenging.  We have encouraged them to see that their hard work will directly link to good results and sure enough, the marks have followed.

I’m constantly in awe of my older daughter, Alice, whose incredible dedication to her studies puts my school efforts to shame. She has made considerable sacrifices by her own admission but she is absolutely determined to do well at college and get the ‘A’ Level results required to go to the university of her choice. Despite being put under considerable pressure at school in our insane, target-driven, educational culture, she has now got in the habit of setting her own goals and of committing herself to the requisite amount of effort to achieve. She’s a real inspiration.

The great thing about Growth Mindset Theory is that it is easy to understand and intuitive. While few of us have dedicated ourselves to improvement in every aspect of our lives, there will probably be times when we have all had some success through perseverance and sheer effort.

Whether it’s building a model airplane, mastering a new recipe or learning to dive, we can probably all draw on an experience where we learned that practice makes perfect and effort makes excellence.

[1] These are just two news links. Google such terms as “teenage education stress epidemic” and you’ll find many more.
[3]  Quoted in Wikipedia

 photo credit: <a href="">film_08_2015_021</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

 photo credit: <a href="">MG_H&F_Alevel_William Morris_03</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

 photo credit: <a href="">Carter D. Carroll 2016 Excellence in History Awards Dinner 43</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

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