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Mindset Mischief

Scottish Education, and education systems around the globe, has been enthralled by the research of Carol Dweck.  You could scarcely find an education who is not well versed in what the terms ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’ mean.  Most would be more than able to describe the importance of encouraging the growth mindset in children and could suggest strategies to help you do just that.

The short version of that advice would most likely be to give children praise for the effort they put into a task rather than the outcome they achieve.  The reason for this being that Professor Dweck’s research found that small changes to the style of feedback given to children made a very big difference to their attitudes to learning, response to challenge and educational outcomes.

Against this backdrop Professor Dweck’s article in the Times Education Supplement on 29 January was particularly interesting.  The title of the article was ‘Praise the effort, not the outcome? Think again.’

That headline immediately sets hares running.  Was Professor Dweck recanting?  The opening paragraph certainly seemed to suggest that:

“Always try to praise the effort, not the outcome.  That’s the lesson that parents and teachers often take from my work.  But it is the wrong lesson, or it can easily become so.”

So have we been doing it wrong? That depends.  Professor Dweck goes on to reinforce the link between process praise and growth mindsets and between ability praise and the fixed mindset.  However, having seen the lessons of her research be put into practice around the world she has come across common misconceptions and errors in implementation.  She highlights two key areas for attention.

The first is a lack of focus on outcomes.

The second is a reminder that praise is not just for when children struggle.

In relation to the first of these Dweck reports that “We are now seeing some educators piling on the praise for effort regardless of whether learning and progress have taken place.”  There are clear risk with this approach – in short it risks undermining the benefits to be had from purposeful process praise.  Instead, she says, when children try hard but fail we should start by praising their effort but we cannot leave it there, after all the focus for educators is about more than a feel-good factor, it is all about progress in learning.  The next step is to explore with the child what their strategies have been and what they might do next.  The lesson is that “A growth mindset is not just about praising effort regardless of outcome: if students persevere with ineffective strategies, they may end up feeling particularly inadequate.”  So, remember that outcomes matter.

In relation to the second the lesson is much simpler.  Just because a child achieves great results doesn’t mean the process praise should be ignored.  Rather, this is the cornerstone of the growth mindset – recognise the achievement but focus the praise on what the child has done to get there.

It is probably best to leave the last words to Professor Dweck:

“So, praise the effort not the outcome? Let’s change that to: praise the effort (as well as the strategies, focus, perseverance and information-seeking) in relation to the outcome – with particular emphasis on learning and progress.  True, it may not roll off the tongue quite as easily, but it will certainly help our students more.”

(If you haven’t read the full article it is worth getting your hands on a copy.  It is interesting to note that this was the first in a series of articles she is writing for TESS.  The next is appearing on 4 March – one to look out for perhaps…)


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