Kate Gregson, Freelance ELT Trainer, Teacher and Writer
An exploration of the notion of mindset in CPD
Mindset is a term used by American social and developmental psychologist and academic, Carol Dweck, to refer to our set of reflexive attitudes and tacit beliefs in different areas of our lives. It is ‘the assumptions, expectations, and beliefs that guide our behaviour and our interactions with others’ (Dweck, as cited in Sousa and Tomlinson, 2011, p.18).
This paper aims to investigate this notion, looking in detail at two opposing mindsets in particular relation to learning. It will focus initially on learner mindsets, then on teacher mindsets and their effect on learners and learning. With this impact in mind, the paper goes on to consider ways we might instil a positive teacher mindset through teacher training and professional development.
Mindset, learning and development
Mindset comes across as a very simple idea, but can, it seems, have dramatic consequences for our learning and development, as well as in other areas of our lives, such as in our work, as parents, as friends and colleagues, in our aspirations for the future, or in our political and religious beliefs (Dweck, 2006). Dweck (2006) suggests mindset is formed at an early age through experience and interaction with others and becomes engrained in our person, influencing our educational success right from the early stages of life and persisting into adulthood. As teachers, parents, friends and family, we will all have come across students who are ‘under-achievers’ or who leave school as early as possible, feeling they are not intelligent enough to go any further. Our beliefs about the nature of intelligence in the nature-nurture discussion and the idea of giftedness can shape the way we approach learning and our beliefs in our own ability to succeed, and in our role as teachers this can be transmitted easily to our learners.
A look at two contrasting mindsets will allow a deeper exploration of these ideas. It should be noted that these are viewed as lying at two ends of a continuum; most people fall in-between in reality, leaning one way or the other. There is no intention to label individuals as having one particular mindset, which would imply a misunderstanding of the psychological complexities of human beings. First to be discussed is the so-called fixed mindset, the belief that ‘your qualities are carved in stone’ (Dweck, 2006, p.6). In her earlier work, Dweck (2000) talks about the theory of Fixed Intelligence, or Entity Theory, the all-or-nothing view, where intelligence is seen as something we each possess, from birth, and is something we cannot change; ‘you either get it, or you don’t’ (Perkins, 2009, p.69). Learners with this mindset will focus on their talents and trying to show them off (Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck, 2007). Yeager and Dweck (2012, p.302) discuss mindset in relation to the concept of ‘resilience’, that is ‘whether students respond positively to challenges’, suggesting that it is vital for educational success as well as in life. In relation to this, when a learner with a fixed mindset is faced with a challenge, then it becomes very risky to take it on, especially in the case of generally high achieving learners who might classically fall under the ‘bright’ umbrella and might feel they have all the more to lose. With a similarly negative effect on success, a lower achieving learner may come to feel they do not have the capability to succeed when challenged, so they will not make an effort or challenge themselves either. As such, learners, regardless of how supposedly ‘bright’ they are, will not value effort and will tend to give up in the face of challenge due to a fear of failure. Indeed, as Dweck (2006) suggests, a natural talent alone is believed to lead to success in a fixed mindset, any failure is attributed to ‘insufficient intelligence rather than to their effort or the learning strategies they are using’ (Lin-Siegler, Dweck & Cohen, 2016, p.295).
Conversely, a growth mindset will suggest a belief ‘that your basic qualities are something you can cultivate through your efforts’ (Dweck 2006, p.7). Learning, then is effort-based and intelligence is viewed as something malleable that can be developed (Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck, 2007). As opposed to the entity view, a growth mindset view is of learning as being ‘incremental’, where a learner will tend to break down the learning into manageable units that can be taken on in small steps; an incremental learner works at ‘chipping away’ at understanding, they are not put off by a ‘high hurdle’ (Perkins, 2009, p.69). Effort in learning is justified by achievement and success, and as such, any learner with an incremental view of learning, a growth mindset, is more likely to succeed and progress in their learning, regardless of who they are or what they are ‘naturally’ good at (Dweck, 2000). In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work: brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for accomplishment. It allows all learners to go further, including the ‘talented’ ones.
Various constructivist theories of learning and development support the growth mindset, incremental learning view. Piaget’s view of learning, for example, emphasises the learner as active in their construction or building of their own understanding through the process of adaptation, where new knowledge enters and modifies existing schemata, or mental models of the world (Donaldson, 1978; Piaget, 2002). This would very much seem to imply an incremental view of development and learning, where understanding or knowledge is developed bit-by-bit, rather than as a whole. Vyogtsky (1978) gave greater importance to the role of culture and society to constructivist learning and development, suggesting that more knowledgeable peers and adults are key in collaborating with the learner to guide them to a higher level of understanding. This idea is central in Vygotsky’s ZPD theory, where the Zone of Proximal Development represents
“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86).
In this model, the more knowledgeable other person (MKO) assists the learner in the gradual and continual construction of their understanding, first to their initial potential level, and then, once the child has reached independent understanding at this level, a new, even higher potential level is identified and achieved, and so on. Hence, learning and development are again viewed as incremental, but in this case, the MKO’s guidance is essential in the achievement of the potential level each time.
Furthermore, as ZPD theory suggests working with individual learners’ potential levels, this leads us to look at the educational process of differentiation (or Differentiated Instruction), ‘in which a teacher proactively plans varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and how they can express what they have learned in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can as efficiently as possible’ (Tomlinson, 2003, p.151). Differentiated Instruction, then, discourages the view that learning success is something that some children have, but that others do not, that children are either ‘intelligent’ or not, and that this cannot be changed. In differentiation, learners all work on achievable learning tasks and can thus experience success, leading to the development of a positive attitude where they can and therefore want to make an effort to achieve.
The roots of mindset
The above discussion of constructivism, which underpins the growth mindset, aims to justify a need to address mindset in education. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to go into greater detail about particular mindsets, it will continue by considering where a person’s mindset comes from, then will focus on teacher mindset, because of its influence on learning. This, in turn, will show the importance of dealing with mindset in initial teacher training and continuing professional development.
First, let us consider the roots of mindset; where it stems from. Dweck (2006) emphasises the influence of other people right from early childhood, and it is this societal influence which forms the root of mindset. ‘Well done, you clever girl’; ‘Don’t worry. Not everyone can do maths.’ Throw-away comments like this can have a great impact on a child’s mindset over time, and they can start right from infancy. Later, when a child goes to school, a fixed mindset teacher may make comments such as ‘You got an A. And you didn’t even need to study for the test!’ or ‘Don’t do that part, it’s for the students in the other group - it’s too difficult for you’, further reinforcing the idea that effort is not required, you either have it or you don’t. A teacher with a growth mindset might, alternatively, comment ‘Well done! I know you tried really hard with the writing task, and look how well you could use the new vocabulary’, or ‘How did you do in that activity? Tell me one thing you did better this time than yesterday?’. From this, value is put on effort rather than a grade or achievement compared to others in the class. Although related to general education, this attitude is entirely transferable to the language class and language learning.
It seems then, that influential others, such as parents, extended family and teachers, could have an impact as great as anything biological, suggesting that mindset can be changed (in a growth mindset opinion, of course). An attempt to take on society is beyond this paper, but it is of value to consider teacher mindset in more detail before thinking about how to encourage such attitudes among teachers, with the ultimate aim of influencing learner mindset and, thereby, increasing learning opportunity.
Teacher mindset runs deeper than simply the ‘way we teach’, it has also to do with deep-seated beliefs about intelligence and learning. It is heavily influenced by an individual teacher’s own learning experiences and their upbringing, by culture and society (Sousa and Tomlinson, 2011). Mindset can be exhibited by teachers in their beliefs about teaching and learning, as well as some classroom practices influenced by these. It is important to once again be reminded that polarised examples are given, whereas most teachers, like everybody, will not generally fall fully at one end or the other of the mindset cline. That said, a teacher with a fixed mindset (FMT) will believe that some of their learners will learn but some will not, there are some learners who are not very intelligent or are not naturally ‘good at languages’ and others who just pick it up without even trying. A teacher with a growth mindset (GMT), on the other hand, will be of the view that most learners can learn most things if they make an effort to do so. Hence, the teacher’s role is to inspire and support that effort. This takes us back to Vygotsky’s (1978) ZPD, perhaps with the influence of Bruner’s notion of scaffolding, first defined by Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976, p.90), as teacher support which
“enables a child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts (by) controlling those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner's capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence”.
As such, feedback on learning from a GMT will stem from a view of mistakes as developmental; it will be constructive and will focus on individual learners’ needs. In a FMT’s class, however, the good learners will get good grades and the weak learners will not. This would suggest a GMT preference for formative and diagnostic assessment and FMT for summative assessment. GMTs value mistakes as being developmental and recognize achievement through effort and persistence, not speed or ease of completion of a task; they have a strong work ethic and instill this in their learners. A GMT is more likely to employ student-centered and differentiated techniques in the classroom, as explained above, whereas a FMT might follow more traditional or teacher-led methods such as rote learning and memorization.
In the case where a teacher believes that all students want to succeed, then they will find ways to reach those students who struggle by identifying and working with each student’s competences. As such, GMTs can develop a safe and secure learning environment, where learners feel valued in their efforts and confident, and will be motivated to participate fully without fear of overall failure, in turn promoting their desire to succeed. This desire might disperse into other areas of education and life, and may be, as Sousa and Tomlinson (2011) suggest, life-long.
Despite the described benefits to learners and learning, fixed mindsets seem to prevail in many places, in particular, contexts which value more traditional styles of education or where learners are heavily influenced by societal pressure to succeed in exams. While imposing progressive views and methodologies on teachers in contexts and societies which have alternative values is not being suggested, raising teachers’ awareness of the role of mindset in teaching and learning would seem to be of value. To that end, this is something that can be addressed in initial teacher training and continuing professional development.
Teacher Mindset, training and continuing professional development.
Here, ‘initial teacher training’ is viewed as pre-service teacher education, and continuing professional development (CPD) as being in-service education which tends to be directed and undertaken by the teacher themselves, usually by choice. Looking first at initial teacher training, a clear difference between a FMT and a GMT might be found in their perceptions of the purpose of pre-service teacher training. Where a FMT might consider a teaching qualification as an end-point of development, the point at which you ‘know it all and may go forth and teach’, a GMT would be more susceptible to the view of development as continuing (i.e. CPD) and continuous throughout their career, with pre-service training as ‘initial’, that is, to be followed by further development and perhaps formal in-service training.
Different models of training might instil or reinforce these views, and Wallace’s (1991) models seem useful to show this. Wallace (1991) introduces his Reflective Model alongside the Craft and Applied Science models, which both seem to represent transmission models, where knowledge, wholesale, is given to the trainee. This trainee might, in turn, be described as a passive receiver of this knowledge, one who does not need to exert much cognitive effort. Conversely, the Reflective Model is, as its name suggests, one where received knowledge is used in conjunction with experiential knowledge, gained through reflection on classroom practice (own or observed) to feed in to the ‘continuing cycle of practice and reflection which leads to a dynamic, developmental concept of 'professional competence'’ (Wallace, 1991, p.59). The very nature of reflective practice shows it requires a growth mindset, not only as it represents an incremental view of professional learning, but also because it acknowledges the ongoing nature of professional development. Within a Reflective model of training, then, processes might be utilized that challenge teachers’ thinking and views, that raise awareness of teacher and learner mindset and focus on classroom practices which represent and engender a growth mindset. Furthermore, strategies for CPD can be introduced and developed as part of a pre-service, initial training programme, which can further instill the life-long learning, incremental view of teacher professional development.
After their initial training, GMTs might be more likely to develop professionally, or at least recognise the value of CPD in developing their practice. This might be through reflective practice, with the aim of developing specific areas of their teaching or their learners’ learning, or perhaps more formally through structured classroom investigation or action research. Alternatively, a Critical Friends Group could be established, where teaching colleagues work together in a structured way to support one another in the development of their classroom practice (Vo & Nyuyen, 2010). Other reflective strategies for CPD such as peer observation might be welcomed by a GMT as an opportunity for development, but rejected by a FMT, who could perceive observation of any kind as a threat because identifying issues or problems in classroom practice, to a FMT suggests failure. Similarly, a FMT might fear self-observation, although perhaps be less threatened by it than by peer observation, which could be seen as more public exposure of failures. In addition, FMTs might be less inclined to seek their students’ feedback formatively or summatively, or may reject it, despite it being a source of valuable data for identifying areas for improvement in their practice. A further source of introspective data on a teacher’s practice from reflective journals or teaching diaries might also be devalued by a FMT as, perhaps, a waste of valuable time.
Teaching experience(s) might also be viewed differently, in that a GMT might revel in the opportunity to gain experience of different kinds of teaching in different areas or contexts, as each of these experiences, when reflected upon, can build on and expand a teacher’s experiential repertoire and positively influence their practice. Conversely, a FMT may prefer to teach repeat classes or levels in order to feel safe and unthreatened by any potential difficulties or unexpected situations which might require effort to address and potentially result in failure. In a self-perpetuating cycle, then, the FMT becomes ever more fixed in their limited experience and the GMT continues to expand and grow through their rich and diverse interactions with different learners in different contexts.
To conclude, in an attempt to address learner mindset in order to increase and improve learning, it seems vital to first address that of teachers, who have a great impact on learners’ learning and attitude. In order to do this, it is suggested that we follow a model of training which emphasises and develops reflective practice and instils a belief in and provides skills and strategies for continuing and lasting professional development in teachers.
To this end, the paper opened by defining and discussing mindset, giving particular attention on fixed and growth mindsets and their influence on learning and development, as supported by constructivist views of learning. Some implications and roots of teacher mindset were explored before considering how these might be addressed in both initial teacher training and continuing professional development.
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