Mindset in ELT
12th June 2017
by Kate Gregson Associate ELT-Consultant
“I can’t ‘do languages’, I’m just not one of those people!”
“He’s such a bright little boy!”
“Hey, you got an A. I knew you would, you’re so clever!”
We have all heard people say these kinds of thing – teachers, parents, classmates and friends. They are seemingly harmless, often complimentary comments to make, but in fact they are more damaging than you might at first think; you simply need to look beneath the words at the thinking that inspired these comments: First, that ‘intelligence’, of any kind, is something we are born with. It is fixed – you either have it or you don’t. If you are ‘clever’, you don’t need to make any effort to succeed. If you do then fail at something, though, then that means you’re not clever any more, so it’s better not to take the risk in the first place. In turn, if you are not ‘clever’, then it doesn’t matter how much effort you expend because you won’t ever be able to achieve as much as that ‘clever’ person. So, there’s not much point in making an effort for anything. As such, clever kids get good grades, not-clever kids don’t. End of story.
Carol Dweck has written extensively about the notion of mindset, defining it as ‘the assumptions, expectations, and beliefs that guide our behaviour and our interactions with others’ (Dweck in Sousa and Tomlinson, 2011, p.18). The kinds of belief I mention above, whether explicitly expressed or identifiable through these kinds of comment, usually indicate what is known as a fixed mindset, which Dweck suggests is the belief that ‘our qualities are carved in stone’ (Dweck, 2006, p.6), an entity view of learning – ‘You either get it, or you don’t’ (Perkins, 2009, p.69).
At the other end of the continuum, would be those who hold a growth mindset, ‘The belief that your basic qualities are something you can cultivate through effort’ (Dweck 2006, p.7). This represents an incremental view of learning, breaking down the learning into manageable units that can be taken on in small steps; a constructivist ‘chipping away’ at understanding (Perkins, 2009, p.69), where the learner gradually constructs their own understanding, or schema in a Piagetian sense. The addition to this of the idea of ever-increasing potential which can be achieved through peer support also clearly seems to fit Vygotsky’s ZPD theory (Vygotsky, 1978), which suggests that a learner can develop from their current level to their potential level with support of another more knowledgeable person before continuing their development in a similar vein up to the next increment.
Compare these comments to the above:
“I like doing difficult things at school. I can feel my brain getting bigger!”
“How was school? What can you do now that you couldn’t do this morning?”
“Mistakes are really useful. When my friend shows me where I went wrong, I will know what to do next time!”
The idea of fixed and growth mindset is something that has been gaining more and more of my interest in recent years in my role not only as a language teacher, but also as an academic supervisor, trainer, materials writer and mum. It seems to me that in these roles, we have great influence over the forming of mindset in our students, our children and the wider environment we all inhabit – as parents our influence is constant and impacts on our children right from birth, but our influence as a teacher is just as strong once children begin their education, and this in turn is heavily determined by our own mindset and reinforced in our teacher training.
A teacher with a growth mindset will think that most learners can learn most things if they make enough effort to do so, that their role is to inspire and support that effort. We should reward effort, rather than something done quickly and easily. If learners work hard and tackle a problem bit by bit, then learners can all succeed. The fixed mindset teacher, on the other hand, may feel that some learners will succeed and some will not, depending mostly on their genetic make-up, which the teacher can’t really influence. Good learners will get good grades. A fixed mindset teacher may be very keen to stream, group or even exclude learners according to whether they are identified as ‘strong’ or ‘weak’. As teachers, we know that our views influence our own teaching philosophy and, therefore, also the way in which we deal and interact with learners in the classroom. As such, our influence on learners’ view of learning is very strong, our challenge being to positively influence learners’ mindset, and hence to foster motivation, a desire to make an effort to succeed - a love for learning.
In addition to the influence on the learners, a teacher’s mindset can also influence their views on professional development and, through this, the opportunity to become the best educator for their learners that they can be. Where a fixed mindset teacher may perceive initial teacher training as an end point, a growth mindset teacher will more likely view it as a beginning, a springboard to skills in effective reflective practice and life-long learning as Continuing Professional Development (CPD) as they strive to continue to develop and improve their teaching skills.
So how can we instil this growth mindset, this drive for CPD? Not only in initial teacher training, but also at an in-service level, training should directly and indirectly encourage teachers to challenge their beliefs, question their practice. Through this, training might focus on giving teachers the skills to reflect on their practice, as you might find in Wallace’s (1991) reflective model of training or Bax’s (1995) context-sensitive approach.
Once back in this classroom, this might translate into reflective practices such as action research, or more informal practices such as journal keeping. Collaborative techniques between peers can also support this view, such as peer observation and support or the more formalised Critical Friends Groups (Vo & Nguyen, 2010) and other more individual, formal or academic CPD activities, such as attending or delivering in-service training, presenting papers and so on.
Now, having read widely on mindset, having reflected on how and why we might try to influence teacher mindset through training and CPD, do I feel like I am a better teacher or trainer? The answer to that is mixed. While my practice may have changed as a result, despite my firm belief in the value of a growth mindset, it is still sometimes difficult to avoid uttering some of those kinds of comments. My son remains very fixed in his mindset and it is a continuing battle to help him change his thinking. I feel like I am still quite near the beginning of my mindset journey!
Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. London: Robinson.
Perkins, D. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Sousa, D.A. & Tomlinson, C. A. (2011). Differentiation and the brain. How neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Vo, L.T. and Nguyen, H.T.M. (2010). Critical Friends Group for EFL teacher professional development. ELTJ; 64 (2), 205-213.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society. London: Harvard University Press.
Wallace, M. (1991). Training foreign language teachers: a reflective approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.