Monday, 13 July 2015

Our year of Growth Mindset research

After embracing the ideas and principles behind growth mindset, we'd decided it was definitely a road we wanted to travel down and explore. This post details how we decided on an organic approach to introducing it as a whole-school focus. One of the important things for us was that staff should not be asked to take on anything that we hadn't, in part at least, tried out first in our own context, with our students. 

Through our Teaching & Learning groups, Head of Drama Simon Beasley (@EconomySir), volunteered to run a pilot project that would trial a number of growth mindset strategies and, importantly, measure its impact.

The following guest blogpost is by Simon and details the year of our first official growth mindset trial.

Our Growth Mindset Pilot Project

Simon Beasley

The study took place over the course of the academic year 2014/15 and went through various stages:

     Student questionnaire
     Lesson studies (observations of key students in a range of subject lessons)
     Results analysis
     Staff interviews

Mindset Study Group

After we had completed the initial school wide questionnaires I picked out six students (4 girls and 2 boys) to work with who showed signs of having a fixed mindset and who were high achievers. These students were chosen as while they were doing well in school they had not yet managed to break into the top grades. We had identified this profile of student as one that was prominent at our school and could potentially benefit from a push towards growth mindset thinking.

We met each week at guidance time. I delivered seminars on mindset theory and brain development and we discussed the theories. The students were asked to try to apply a new skill each week from what had been discussed and this would feed into the following weeks discussion.

Students were also asked to keep a diary of their experiences throughout the study.

I undertook lesson observations of the students in order to see if they were indeed exhibiting fixed mindset traits. Finally I also interviewed the teachers of the students in order to gauge their impressions.


In the lesson observations the students exhibited very "typical" behaviour when they faced challenges. One students actually cut out sections of spare paper in order to glue it into her book to cover up where she had made a mistake.

Students who were on the surface quite able switched off the moment that they had to complete a task they found difficult and, where possible, they would simply seek out the answers from any source rather than trying to figure it out for themselves.

They had developed their learned helplessness and would be very needy of the teacher exclaiming that they could not do the task and that it was too hard.

I interviewed eight teachers overall from Maths, English, MFL, Geography, Science and DT in order to ascertain a wide range of opinions from a variety of subjects. Each of the teachers when interviewed said mostly the same thing that the students were doing well but that they were not very resilient and that they required a lot of support.

One teacher mentioned that one of the students refused to allow her note book to be marked as there were mistakes in it and that they would only hand in polished work.

Throughout the sessions the students were very responsive to the seminars and that they understood the thinking behind developing a growth mindset. However, they were exceptionally resistant to applying it to their work.

The main argument being that they were doing okay and that if they tried the ideas out they feared either getting something wrong or being perceived as a 'try hard' by other members of the group.

Even when they were presented with articles etc. that demonstrated to them that this is exactly the problem with being fixed in their approach the risk was not deemed to be worth taking.

The students all agreed that the system was right but there was also scepticism that it would be another initiative that would be big for a while before they slipped back into the status quo.

Student questionnaires

Once this study had run its course I presented the findings to the Teaching and Learning group and it was decided to trial the ideas in several classes with teachers adapting their language and style to help foster a growth mindset amongst the students.

Before the trial I gave out questionnaires to the students in order to gauge their perceptions of what makes a successful learner.


The responses were unsurprising given the reactions of the students from the initial group. The 93% of students answered that hard work was more important than natural skill. They also showed that the students realised that with the right effort the students would continue to improve and that they would be capable of improving in all subjects.

On the surface of it this was going to be an easy task. With the overwhelming majority of students already had a growth mindset and knew the secret to their own success.

Lesson Studies

The staff in the study were given copies of Mindset by Dweck in order to help them to understand the theories. I also ran a couple of sessions where resources were given out to support the staff. Each member of staff then came up with a way of implementing the ideas and measuring their success.

In Maths the focus was to be on changing the language of the teacher so that they spoke to the students in a manner that helped to instil a growth mindset (see appendix)

In Science the teacher focused on teaching the neurological aspects of leaning and the importance of understanding the neuroplasticity of the brain.

In Geography the focus was on feedback and methods the students could develop to improve their work in a more independent manner.

I undertook a series of lesson studies to observe the impact of the teaching and the reaction of the students to the work.


This was a very interesting phase of the study. The students who were in lower sets seemed to fully embrace the system and were responding exceptionally well. The atmosphere in the classes that I visited was purposeful and the students were active and thriving.

In one Maths lesson the students made an enormous amount of progress completing work that would not be expected of them.

However, this was starkly contrasted by the students in the higher sets. There was a great deal of resistance to the work. Students shied away from challenging tasks. They were still obsessed with making sure that they got things right and became distressed when there was a possibility of getting it wrong. In a Drama lesson a group of very capable but fixed mindset students completely fell apart in their performances when expected to learn lines. This was a task that had been completed with ease by a less able group from the year below.

In another Maths lesson students all opted for the easier questions rather than the challenge work despite having been taught the method well at the start of the lesson. When the students were challenged they were capable of answering the questions they were just afraid that they would get it wrong and therefore feel stupid.

Even though these students knew that the best way to improve was to challenge themselves. They still felt too insecure to take the risk of trying questions that they may get wrong. this contrasted so much with the lower ability students. These students are used to getting things right. When they do well in a test or in class it reaffirms their self-belief that they are intelligent. Anything that challenges them or that risks making them feel like they cannot achieve easily feels like it challenges this self-belief. This then becomes a viscous cycle which makes the students extremely wary of completing anything but that which they feel they can do without challenge.

These students therefore will never be able to break through their own self imposed glass ceiling while they are too afraid of being uncovered as a fraud who should not be in the highest set. It felt like their position in the set was more important to them then their actual ability. They felt like if they could stay in set 1 then they would always be intelligent. However, the less they pushed themselves and the more comfortable they became the less likely it becomes that they will achieve the very top grades.

Data Analysis

Each of the teachers did a baseline test with the groups that they were working with and in most cases a control group was used as well in order to give comparative data. In Science the students were tested with a mock GCSE exam in January and the test was repeated with another paper in March and then June.

The data for Geography was taken from the schools teacher assessments taken in November, February and June. These assessments are based on classroom tests and homework.

In Maths the results were from tests completed in November, March and June.
All of the groups were measured against control groups who were at a parallel ability level in the year group.


In Science the mindset group were on average 0.4 of a grade higher and made 2.6 grades more progress than the control group. These are impressive results but the most interesting aspect of this was that some of the students in the control group were also in the mindset group for Maths where they had made enormous improvements using the mindset skills.

I think it is possible to draw the conclusion that the teacher has a vital role to play in ensuring that the skills are transferred between the subjects. While it could be argued that the students may have more of an aptitude for one subject over another. I think that both subjects are similar enough that had the skills been applied in both areas that the improvements would have been different.

In Geography the control group improved on average by 1.4 sub levels whereas the mindset group improved by 2.5 that is a difference of 1.1 sub levels over the course of a year. If this can be maintained throughout KS3 alone the students will achieve roughly a whole grade higher over the course of Years 7-9. 

In Maths the set 3 students in the mindset made more progress than those in the control group. The control group improved by 0.9 of a grade while the mindset group improved by 1.2 grades. However, the results in the top set were not as impressive. The mindset group improved by 0.7 and the control group by 0.9 of a grade.

This follows the pattern of what we were expecting from the observations and the focus group that I ran in the first half of the year. The more able students found it difficult to adapt to the challenge. It forced them to be more cautious as they struggled to maintain their self-theory.

  • While the results are positive some factors need to be considered in their evaluation:
  • Some students had been taught about mindset in other classes and so it is not possible to categorically state that the students in the control group have never been taught about growth mindset.
  • Also some of the teachers in the project had already been using aspects of mindset theory in their teaching which may have weakened the impact of the intervention.
  • One of the teachers in Geography and one in Maths had started the project at the start of the year and so the comparative results were taken from the year before to act as a baseline.
  • Each of the classes had different teacher for the control and mindset classes.

Each of these factors I do not feel have a negative effect on the results as a whole. The results and patterns are clear throughout and fit in with the wealth of research carried out by other studies. 


In the final phase I interviewed each of the teachers involved in order to gauge their perceptions of what differences, improvements and difficulties that they had faced over the course of the trial.


"I felt that in lifting the lid on the students I also to a certain extent lifted the lid on my own teaching. I felt like I had brought certain expectations to my classes that I am not proud of and that this process forced me to re-evaluate my prejudices as it were of what a grade E student could achieve."

"Students have higher aspirations. It hasn't worked on all but the majority are working towards achieving much more than they usually do. While students may not be passionate about the subject they have become much more passionate about improving"

"It is a much more enjoyable process and way to teach. I have felt stuck in my ways and this process has helped me to re-evaluate things like marking and its use. That improvement has given me a real sense of achievement"

"As a consequence I have more extension materials available and the students have become more independent. I feel more comfortable having students working on different things rather than keeping everybody together in a more rigid style"

"It feels like teaching used to feel like. We are working towards getting better and becoming more knowledgeable for the sake of it rather than performing for an inspector or imposing something contrived on our teaching"

"It works a lot easier with the lower sets who are naturally more open. I think that is because they have probably already experienced failure and overcome it more that those in Higher sets. The more able seem to find it an insult that people who are not as bright can become as good as them through effort and time and it makes them defensive"

"It is a really positive approach, there is always room to get better. The students at first are very cynical and mock the language of it. But after time they get used to it and see that it works and they see the value in it"

Changing Mindsets

The Changing Mindsets project also ran a project that targeted Year 5 pupils in Portsmouth, Southampton and Hampshire. The delivery  of the interventions was led by the University of Portsmouth and took place between January and May 2013. Their key findings were...
  • Pupils who received the growth mindset workshops made an average of two additional months' progress in English and Maths. These findings were not statistically significant which means that they could not be confident that they did not occur by chance. However, the finding for English was close to statistical significance, and this suggests evidence of promise.
  • Pupils whose teachers received the professional development intervention made no
  • additional progress in Maths compared to pupils in the control group. These pupils made less progress in English than the control group, but this finding is not statistically significant and they could not be sure that it did not occur by chance.
  • FSM-eligible pupils who were involved in the professional development intervention gained a better understanding of the malleability of intelligence.
  • Intervention and control school were already using some aspects of the growth mindset approach. This may have weakened any impact of the interventions.
  • Future trial could examine the impact of a programme that combines the two interventions and runs for a longer period of time.

  • Using mindset language and thinking makes a noticeable and measurable impact in our school
  • If the system is not re-enforced by the teacher the students will slip back into old habits.
  • Students in the higher sets feel that they have more to lose and so resist adopting the methods.
  • This resistance holds them back from achieving the best results.
  • The teachers who have used this method have really enjoyed it and all feel it is worth the effort to make the adjustments to their own views and the way that they teach.

Next Steps for the new academic year

Some recommendations:
  • Widen the study to include more departments and staff.
  • Include more higher ability students in the studies with staff more experienced in teaching growth mindset.
  • Roll out a programme of mindset activities with the higher learning potential students in order to improve resilience.
  • Develop a series of lessons on resilience with staff and tutors.
  • Encourage staff to change simple language choices and expectations in order to embed mindset thinking throughout the school.
  • Develop a programme of challenge that stretches the more able but scaffolds their fear of failure and develops their resilience to encourage them to take risks.

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