"I don't have to praise you like I should": an inset day with Barry Hymer and the growth mindset
The Growth Mindset is the subject of an educational book by Carol Dweck and represents a cutting edge attitude to student learning. Based on a recent inset with Professor Barry Hymer, from The University of Cumbria, my reading of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset (2006) and some previous subject insets, I will attempt my own definition. A growth mindset is an approach to learning which rejects notions of fixed abilities and innate influences on achievement. Instead, a growth mindset sees ability as a process and intelligence as fluid. Furthermore, in a growth mindset world, there is little point in knowing what the individual next to you is achieving, since their status does nothing to grow your ability. Under a growth mindset, labelling achievement, frequent summative grading and ‘who did the best’ is counterproductive.
Barry Hymer, it should be acknowledged from the outset, is an engaging, good humoured and distinguished speaker. His inset ‘slot’ began at nine in the morning and finished at four in the afternoon (with the standard break for lunch - no one grows without food!). Personally, I thought his presentation was, well, fluid (like my intelligence), and included frequent ‘break out’ moments for discussions, a feature of his expository style which oozed confidence.
A growth mindset requires nurturing and, naturally, the last thing that you do with something still growing is to treat it as though it’s fully grown. When it comes to assessment (formative especially), rewards and verbal feedback Barry Hymer treats learners as individuals in a process, not individuals defined by grades or fixed expectations. It’s not that grades don’t matter, but believing that a grade is fixed will not help you to improve it. I blogged elsewhere about Jordan Peterson’s idea that comparison to oneself yesterday is preferable to comparisons with other people. Focus on the process and the grade follows: paradoxically, one’s status improves by forgetting about it.
Barry Hymer also dislikes praise, which he distinguishes from recognition. A ‘well done’, however intentioned, does nothing for the growth mindset because it implies completion and a sense that the work cannot be improved. Apparently the Fiennes family (Joseph, Ralph and a host of other siblings who are all successful) never received praise from their parents growing up. Instead, if taking say a painting to show them, the Fiennes parents suggested ways that it could be improved. Barry Hymer is equally reticent about reward stickers, since they suggest praise for an ultimate achievement and deflect focus from the learning curve (although he eventually patented his own achievement stickers insisting on growth mindset quotations).
Hymer has many references and sound bites, from the world of sport especially, to legitimise the growth mindset theory. Pep Guadiola, for instance, expressed indifference to breaking records: what matters to him is improving his team. Barry Hymer certainly encouraged lively discussion and debate. The difference between praising a process and praising an outcome is not always clear, as several colleagues pointed out. In a school of nine hundred boys there are those that are motivated by competition for the best grades and those who seek to better themselves as independent individuals. The challenge is to get the best out of everyone.
There is every reason to believe (and assume) that each individual student can improve their present attainment and, in this regard, the growth mindset has much to offer. At the same time, where there are league tables, there will always be competitive students (and parents) for whom being the best matters. Growth mindset is an idea that has been rigorously challenged by researchers and critics, but continues to affect teaching and learning in the US and UK.
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books: New York