Developing a Growth Mindset Culture in the Classroom


I would describe myself as one of life’s ‘tryers’. I’ve never been a person who got top grades, or went to county level when playing sport and I definitely wasn’t one of the best teachers at University, but when things get tough I’ll work hard and (normally) get results. I’ve always had this pedagogy through teacher training and into my career. This approach to learning is called ‘Growth Mind Set’.

The difference between a person with a fixed mind set and a growth mind set can be seen in the diagram below:


In this blog I am going to share with you I’ve tried to develop growth mind set teaching into my everyday practice.

1. Praise the Process, Not the Outcome

Being a PE teacher I see pupils trying and failing to achieve things on a daily basis- that’s one of the wonderful things with my subject: failure is visible so teachers can see it straight away and support. Pupils need to be taught that failure is a good thing and we need to develop a culture in our classrooms where pupils feel comfortable failing. 

If a task is set at the correct level of challenge then 50% of pupils should fail at it. That’s potentially a lot of failure for pupils to deal with everyday, but as a school and as a classroom practitioner, we need to support that failure and show pupils the link between failure and learning. (For more on this topic follow @Alastair_Arnott on Twitter- Author of the fantastic book ‘Positive Failure’)

The overall outcome of the process is what pupils are eventually judged on through assessments, but pupils need to understand that the process they go through to understand a new concept is just as important (if not more important) as getting it right.

In my teaching I have been attempting to only give pupils feedback on how they attempt to achieve a skill or understand a concept, not the overall outcome they achieve. This has had a huge impact on the resilience the pupils show when they are confronted with a challenge that is beyond their current skill set.

2. Intelligence (and Ability) is Not a Fixed Trait

Throughout my childhood my older brother was described as ‘the academic one’ and I was ‘the sporty one’. From then on I have always assumed that some people are ‘engineered’ to be academic, some sporty, some people are naturally more inclined to speak a language or play an instrument. This is absolute nonsense. Any of the pupils in our classes can achieve an A* if they are given purposeful teaching over a long enough period of time and have an intrinsic motivation to succeed. (If you don’t believe me please read ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed or any one of the many books published by Carol Dweck)

The challenge I have set myself in my classes is making the pupils realise this. I work in a Modern Comprehensive in a Grammar School system- at the age of 11 the pupils are told that they are ‘not intelligent enough’ to go to a different school. This is a massively damaging label to put on a prepubescent child and one that can affect their development for years to come.

My department have recently gone about getting pupils to look at inspirational sports stars who have had to overcome barriers in their life to achieve against the odds and pick a role model for their class. This is helping pupils see that talent and intelligence isn’t something that someone is born with, but something that they have to work to develop.

It’s important not to let pupils label each other as ‘intelligent’ or ‘thick’ because they’re not. They are just at different stages of the learning process. As teachers we need to provide scaffolding to support pupils who struggle with certain things, but nothing is unachievable if pupils are given the correct level of support and understand that they can achieve if they work hard enough at anything.

3. Effort= Success

Following on from my previous point, pupils need to understand the link between effort and success. Every class has a pupil who just understands things- it seems effortless to everyone else around them. There will come a time when that pupil will struggle and if they don’t understand the link between effort and success they will quit at the first hurdle. The aim for me was to get the pupils to understand that the best response to failure is increased effort. Practise doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent.

This is one of the reasons that I fully agree with getting rid of attainment levels in Key Stage 3. Pupils don’t need to know what level they are achieving, they just need detailed and effective feedback on how hard they are working, or attitude to learning if you will.

In recent studies people who were given financial reward for achieving successful IQ Test scores scored higher, on average, than those who weren’t offered an incentive. To a certain extent IQ tests measure effort and desire, not intelligence, and school examinations and assessments are exactly the same.

Grades can have a detrimental effect on pupil’s motivation to learn, both those who think theirs is unattainable and those who exceed theirs, but effort is an achievable target for every pupil. If they work their hardest they will achieve their potential- they don’t need a number and letter to guide them in how hard they should be working.

4. Pupil’s Intrinsic Motivation is the Key Variable

My desire to become a better Footballer as a child was what made me better at Football than my ‘academic’ older brother. That is the only difference between my (small) success in this and my brother’s total lack of ability in this sport.

Pupils who want to succeed and have an intrinsic motivation to overcome barriers and do well in your subject will be the successful ones. You can probably list a dozen pupils you’ve taught who are good examples of this principle!

Lessons, especially in Key Stage 3, should look to engage and enthuse pupils about your subject. If they do this then they will develop increased knowledge and improved skills as they move into and through Key Stage 4. Our challenge as teachers in Key Stage 3 is how we get pupils to love our subject and enjoy learning.

By adopting these four approaches in my planning and teaching I want to develop pupils who have a growth mind set. Pupil’s whose response to a challenge is to work harder and who actively seek challenge, not crumble when confronted with failure. I believe that it’s this attitude, and not grades, that gives pupils to best chance of succeeding in life.

Thanks for taking the time to read!

If you have any questions or feedback on this blog please send them to @MikeHarrowell