Setting by praise.

Posted by Sergio on Mar 7, 2016

Jo Boaler believes that a Growth Mindset is essential to learning as the amount of effort students put in directly cause’s new connections to form in the brain. If this is true then would an absence of effort cause the brain stagnate? And do you always have to show effort towards a subject for you to be good at it? I say this because I distinctly remember a student in my year who many acclaimed as being a genius who didn’t put a lot of effort into school and was regularly described as lazy. But he did put a lot of effort into extracurricular activities. He taught himself to code, ran a side business and frequently skipped lessons but could still understand all the material. While he certainly isn’t the typical student we’ll be facing he’s certainly a potential one.

In a sense this student exemplified the ideas of Growth Mindset because he would put a lot of effort into the things he wanted to do and often succeed at them. But I have to wonder about the fact that he didn’t need to try in Maths in order to get A* in Gcse and A level. To me this suggests that something closer to what Dweck discusses could be real. Indeed Dweck believes that praising children based on their intelligence is to their detriment because it will make them afraid to fail. Could it be that Growth Mindset helps lifts the limitations and barriers we place on ourselves? Certainly this student wasn’t afraid to fail but isn’t the safest way to avoid the sting of failure to not try hard enough for it to matter?

This leads quite well onto setting. Both Dweck and Boaler believe that setting has a lot of negative repercussions on children’s learning and Boaler believes that setting communicates that Maths is all about ability. I remember asking a teacher of 20 years what she thought about setting and whether or not it was the correct approach and she said that the lower ability students feel safer in the lower sets and perform better than when they were in higher sets. This doesn’t seem too different from the idea that Dweck suggests about children being afraid of no longer being smart. Indeed it might be that some students don’t enjoy the constant feeling of intellectual inferiority and that they’d rather be doing something that made them feel better. In this respect maybe sets are a good thing? If you can make students feel positive and less threatened by a subject they should theoretically do better.

Finally Boaler discusses the invaluable effect that mistakes have on the human brain. Boaler quotes a study that suggests reviewing mistakes is necessary for learning as it creates new synapses in the brain. It’s curious because after retaking my first A level year I put both me’s in contrast and thought about why I couldn’t understand any of the Mathematics. Ultimately my lack of confidence and fear failure meant I didn’t want to think about the Mathematics or why I didn’t understand it. But when I returned the topics were no longer so intimidating and I knew I had a long time to improve. As educators we should try to determine why students aren’t thinking about their mistakes and how we can help them feel safe and inspired to do so.

1 Comment

  1. pepsmccrea
    7 March 2016

    Some strong interpretation of the research here, looking at the various factors at play. Interesting to contrast the ideas with your case study. The next step is to begin to look at what you might do about all this in the future…

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