It’s all in the mind or does it even matter

Posted by Raj on Mar 7, 2016

At various times we may have heard someone say, ‘positive mental attitude,’ this is what it takes to overcome a difficult situation or adversary. Angela Duckworth investigated wether investigated whether there is a correlation between ability and achievement in students. I would imagine a student who is continually outperformed by other students of greater ability may despair and eventually stop trying. But interestingly, research shows that ‘grit’ is found to be an important factor in achievement. Duckworth set out to discover the secrets of success in various settings and different age groups. Grit (stamina passion and perseverance), she concludes, was the overriding factor that led to achievement. Is this true ? When I look back my experience as school boy,  I remember that the highest achiever at the age of 16 the school I was not the one who had the highest IQ at  age 11. In my school we streamed from the first week of school following a series IQ tests.

Jo Boaler’s contribution to the discussion talks about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Boaler asserts that a student who believes in a fixed mindset, i.e. students are either intelligent/smart or not, will continue to believe that, and not reach their potential. A ‘growth mindset’ is the belief that intelligence and smartness can be learned. This is is heartening, as this is the kind of question a parent may ask of a teacher, ‘will my Johnny be able to do well in his exams, you should do more to make sure he does.’  A growth mindset puts an emphasis the student to believe hard work will pay dividends. To say, ‘Johnny is not good enough’ would not go down well, but to encourage a work ethos on the student is reasonable, and while not guaranteeing success certainly provides hope.

Carol Dweck points out the danger of overpraising. A student praised for their ability and not their efforts may be discouraged when they come across a problem that they can’t solve; doubts can creep in as to their ability – the cornerstone of their confidence. Also, it is important that they deserve praise for how hard they work not what they are potentially capable of. To help their growth  students need to appreciate when a difficult task is indeed difficult and the approach they should take.

If we are to learn from Duckworth’s research it must be that we encourage students to strive and reach for their goals. If they believe that ability will always triumph over endeavour, then there is little point in ‘tying’ and it is just as well accept that no mater hard you try you will always be second best. A good teacher will not allow this to happen. We have evidence that there is no factor that prevents a student from learning maths in terms of genetics, so the appropriate amount of praise should encourage the average student to improve if not be better than the so called ‘able’ student.

Reflecting on what has been said by these influential academics, I can look back at my past efforts and recognise that I have been less effective as a student than I may have been had I known: intelligence can be learned; do not be afraid of  difficult problems; avoid a fixed mindset and accept praise warily. What was not said was, ‘it’s never too late learn.’ However, as teachers we can guide students and in a small way they will be standing on our shoulders as we stand on the shoulders of the like of Jo Boaler and others.



  1. Emma
    7 March 2016

    I found your think-piece really interesting Raj. Particularly your last paragraph in which you reflect on your past as a student. I wonder whether you will employ anything you have learnt from the past weeks in your own learning now? I think you are right, that we have a responsibility as teachers to guide students using the knowledge we have acquired over the past months regarding teaching and learning.

  2. pepsmccrea
    7 March 2016

    Great to see you take on these ideas so wholeheartedly, and reflect about your own ‘grit’ and learning. In future, I’d be interested to see you look for weaknesses in the arguments presented as well.

  3. Kkay
    11 March 2016

    I find it quite interesting where you nicely put it that with a growth mindset in mind, a parent would ask the teacher to make sure Johnny’s grades improve. Wouldn’t this be a chance for the teacher to explain how the parents themselves, and their home environment, could be the turned into a positive catalyst for the growth mindset? As I have said in my piece, growth mindset should start with the public at large, thus at home, and filter it to their children. In everything, charity begins at home.

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