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Application of Growth Mindset to Increase Academic Attainment in Primary Schools

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Table of contents

  1. General Overview
  2. Literature Review
  3. Learner Motivation
  4. Identity Incentives
  5. Epistemic Apprenticeship
  6. Summary of Advice

General Overview

The growing speed of new technological advances and globalization means there is a need for pupils to adapt and learn new skills to survive in the modern day world. The academic attainment among primary school pupils in Stoke-on-Trent is well below the national average; where 50% of pupils are eligible to free school meals and EMA bursaries due to low income. Educational underachievement is defined as performing below the national standard on assessments. Previously, self-esteem interventions were used to improve educational attainment but were not successful as children did not have conscious knowledge to self-report their own self-esteem levels. High academic achievement is associated with better career prospects, health and critical skills for adapting and not being left behind in the turbulent 21st century. Growth mindset’s are defined as viewing intelligence as malleable whilst a fixed mindset see’s intelligence as innate. NIACE (2010) report suggests growth mindset interventions is most beneficial for academic attainment, comparative to other educational strategies.

Pupils have become increasingly more vulnerable to stereotype threats – labels that reinforce oppressive intergroup relations, leading to self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Hutching’s (2015) argues this result is due to children becoming aware that exams, affect their life trajectory. NSPCC (2015) found in 30% of disadvantaged pupils exams triggered anxiety attacks and depression whilst 15% in 2014-15 committed suicide. Putwain (2016) suggests that stereotype threats have greater negative consequences for disadvantaged pupils as they face greater structural and psychological inequalities such as; poverty, black Caribbean’s being seen as a threat to teacher’s authority, challenges of an ethnocentric curriculum, lack of support for disabilities and lack of male role models for boys. However, Manci (2010) suggests Indian pupils may have a positive experience of teachers fixed mindset and stereotypes as they are perceived as hardworking. This indicates stereotypes interact with fixed and growth mindset’s through expectations being seen as either innate or malleable. For instance, pupils may believe they don’t have a maths brain, which can cause underachievement. New growth mindset interventions supported by contemporary research are required to increase academic attainment, by teaching how pupils how the brains malleability shows intelligence is developed through persistence and effort. This approach helps disadvantaged pupils to buffer against stereotype threats and be resilient when faced with setbacks, increase confidence, creativity and self-evaluation for academic attainment.

Literature Review

Three research areas are particularly relevant and are recommended as best practices by Claxton and Carlzon (2018) ‘Powering Up Children’ Framework: Learner Motivation, Identity Incentives and Epistemic Apprenticeship. They are discussed as an application of Dweck’ s incremental theory for a growth mindset intervention and findings on improved academic attainment amongst pupils. This review will support the relevant advice and framework recommendations.

Learner Motivation

Research has suggested that teachers stressing the importance of core subjects such as Maths and English, however vital they may be, are not as effective as teaching pupils the benefits of learning how to learn. Lifelong learning theory developed by Laal and Laal (2012) expresses the rationale behind this conceptualization, whereby the growing change in technology and globalization means people need the ability learn new skills to survive and adapt to modern day life. Best practice recommendations suggest teachers should use pedagogical (educational art) practices and growth mindset motivational frameworks to teach pupils about the neuroplasticity of the brain and that these malleable qualities are developed through practice and effort. By teaching pupils in primary schools how to learn rather than what to learn, we are able to nurture an immeasurable form of social development that can reduce the effect of poverty, oppression and exclusion. Dweck (2009) proposes that this lifelong learning approach adopting an incremental theory in favour of a growth mindset, allows pupils to see intelligence as a muscle that can be developed rather than a fixed innate trait.

The effect of the growth mindset intervention has been significantly shown in many areas concerning pupil’s belief systems, including improved academic attainment. Fraser (2017) conducted semi-structured interviews at 28 different schools and found growth mindset intervention increased pupils performance in the classroom culture, outside of teaching and pupil approach to learning. Whereas, Goudeau and Croizet (2017) found that without a growth mindset intervention, making students’ performance visible in the classroom by ask ing pupils to raise their hands once they completed a difficult comprehension task, threatened disadvantaged pupil’s self-image when being compared unjustly to upper class students. Schmidt et al (2015) review concluded that learning how to learn does not buffer against the effects of stereotype threats due to teachers fixed mindsets on pupil’s personalities and abilities. Teachers may lack the understanding of dynamics that lead characteristics of seemingly talented pupils fixed mindset’s, to avoid failure which diminishes their effort. This is a limitation of Frasers (2017) study does not account for differences between participants such as ethnicity, disability and gender in interactions outside the classroom effecting educational achievement. Nonetheless Rissanen et al (2019) makes a clear recommendation for a growth mindset pedagogy, suggesting they increase process-focused thinking and produced personalised learning strategies in pupils. This proposal is supported by additional research by; Park et al (2016) found children’s achievement in mathematics was largely influenced by their process-focused thinking but hardly influenced by the fixed mindset’s of their teachers. Furthermore, researchers concluded fixed mindset’s can cause reduced learner motivation and a subsequent lack of engagement in process-focused thinking (‘hard-work’ rather than ‘smart work’) that is associated with increased academic attainment.

However, most research employs a scenario methodology and although these have addressed meaningful gaps in current literature, there is evidence that lay theories of lifelong learning may lead pupils to view learning as requiring more effortful control, compared to if intelligence was seen as an innate ability. Klinger and Scholer (2018) study 1 used Job et al (2010) resisting temptation questionnaire which contained scenario-based questions whereas study 2 involved an act of self-control that was measured across time for persistence and consistency. Evidently, study 2 suggests more reliable findings compared to study 1 due to higher ecological validity, yet in the high effort condition it was harder for participants maintain performance and consistency over time compared to participants in the low effort condition. This indicates that a fixed mindset which proposes intelligence is an innate ability, may be beneficial to pupils where there is no stereotype threat: a label that reinforces oppressive intergroup relations. This is because of how the individual experiences and interprets effort. For instance, if the ability is perceived as an innate talent (‘Asian student’ naturally good at mathematics’) the task seems easier, motivating privileged pupil groups to succeed academically.

Although, research mainly emphasises the importance of a growth mindset, when there are some circumstances where a fixed mindset is beneficial. Hattie (2009) argue fixed mindset’s were more beneficial with tasks that are easy, require creativity or resourcefulness by abandoning prior failed methods of learning. Furthermore, Job et al (2015) found that using growth mindset to encourage repeated practicing of previously failed strategies can inhibit learning. Therefore, as Hattie (2009) suggests, when growth mindset interventions are not applied in accordance with the correct motivational framework, effectiveness on pupil’s academic improvement is significantly reduced; concerning the overcoming of setbacks and repeated failures. Nevertheless, as Clarkson (2016) recognise, the benefits of a fixed mindset is circumstantial, whereby if the growth mindset intervention is to teach process-focused behaviours for effective learning; reconstructing this effort as enjoyable can motivate self-regulation when facing academic setbacks. Edward (2006) proposes an emphasis on how neuroplasticity of the brain can lead to the development of identity- congruent character strengths that they desire, with persistent effort.

Identity Incentives

Research confirms that growth mindset interventions did assist performance through persistence, only when pupils were given autonomy to choose their goals. To help pupils internalize growth mindset’s Iyengar (2010) argues incentive systems which accentuates rewards and processes of learning, is paramount to sustaining growth mindset motivation. However, Nisbett et al (1973) key problem with rewards is the focus shift from intrinsic motivation (“I like working hard”), to extrinsic motivation (“I work hard for the reward”). This over justification effect was found Nisbett et al field study with 4-5-year-old children who had drawn pictures for the sole purpose of receiving an extrinsic goal – a surprise. In addition, some research stipulates autonomy to choose goals in order to maintain a persistent educational performance is not required as pupils achieve even more when the goal is enforced by authority figures. Manchi et al (2017) found Indian girls performed better educationally, when rewards and goals were validated externally as they desired to appease others. This indicates identity plays an important role in incentive systems maintaining pupil’s effortful performance overtime.

Nonetheless, according to Oyserman and Destin (2010) an identity based motivation framework, can overcome these problems by giving pupils incentives that are identity congruent where pupils choose who and where the reward comes from and their goals for achieving this. This persistent effort comes from a need to maintain a positive group identity and is well supported by the literature. Manchi (2017) argues black Caribbean pupils would prefer personal choice incentives compared to teacher choice incentives, as they have a lack of identification with our ethnocentric curriculum that is not inclusive of black history. A focus on identity-congruent incentives paired with the motivational growth mindset framework, is recommended.

Epistemic Apprenticeship

To some extent, the pedagogical culture that teachers create in their classrooms affects the resilience, creativity and dependence of pupil’s performance and academic attainment. This school culture is constructed by teachers fixed and/or growth mindset’s, in the form of classroom discourse, design of activities and attitudes towards learning. For example, teacher’s person-based feedback can create fixed mindset’s (“you are really clever”) whilst process-focused feedback (“you worked really hard”), cultivates a growth mindset, rewarding the strategy. The building learning power approach (BLP) predicts that teachers changing their roles to learning coaches would boost pupil’s achievement and involvement.

A recent evaluation for BLP by Claxton (2013) proposes giving pupils an active role in the design of their education and assessment method creates a beneficial epistemic apprenticeship; a set of skills to approach difficulty that shapes the identity of the thinker. However, Claro (2016) analysis of a national dataset did find low income meant pupils were 13 times more likely to underachieve due to a fixed mindset. Chakraborty & Jayaraman (2019) notion that structural interventions such as midday free school meals can improve math and reading test scores by 18% in less than a year, is thus quite powerful. Nevertheless, the study only explained variance in academic attainment, of basic demographics (age/gender) and so the results should not be heavily weighted as income was not taken into account as a mediating variable.

However, there is evidence that psychological inequalities are more potent instigators of pupil’s educational attainment. Claro’s (2016) report illustrates that structural inequalities give rise to psychological inequalities and it is these that cause barriers to educational attainment. Claxton’s (2006) BLP proposes teachers can create a growth mindset by targeting each ring, building blocks of an epistemic apprenticeship. Church and Morrison (2011) test BLP habits of the mind and thinking visible and found children’s focus shifts away from standard techniques. Researchers recommendations suggest the BLP approach for an epistemic apprenticeship, is complimentary to growth mindset interventions. Claxton (2018) framework allows for a change in school culture that allows teachers to challenge children’s habits, dispositions through thinking routines.

Summary of Advice

Relevant advice on how to facilitate the discussed topics within this handout, to improve and maximise academic attainment amongst primary school pupils are suggested below. This advice is also extendable to other, more structural interventions, which include practical applications such as free midday school meals for pupils and the implementation of an epistemic apprenticeship to change school culture and/or to compliment the growth mindset intervention.

Previously improving the underachievement of primary school pupils focused on boosting self-esteem interventions. However, contemporary research indicates increased effectiveness of growth mindset interventions. Message content should emphasise how to learn rather than what to learn, for example: “The brain is like a muscle where learning new maths skills requires lots of practice and effort to get good at”. Content could be interspersed with identity-congruent message to gain persistent performance on assessments; emphasising how brain malleability can develop character strengths they deem desirable with persistent effort. For example: teacher may say to male pupil “if you put effort into this revision class you’ll demonstrate your resourceful skills” or (Indian pupils) “if you manage to finish your reading book you’ll show your hard work” Messages must be applied in a persistent manner within a consistent environment, thus encouraging pupils to repeat previously failed strategies will impede learning. Predominantly, reinforce to pupils that intelligence is not an innate trait and teachers should avoid holding fixed mindset’s based on pupil’s backgrounds, personalities and abilities. Stereotype threats can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. This increases chances of educational attainment through emphasis on learning strategies when faced with setbacks and sustained effort achieving goals, rather than intelligence being an innate ability, where disadvantaged pupils’ lose confidence due to structural inequalities.

Identity incentives can be a key influence on pupils self-regulating their sustained effort on a task and are complimentary to growth mindset intervention. The identity motivation framework proposes giving pupils autonomy and control in choosing their own educational goals and incentives boosts performance if identity-congruent. For example: pupils may like to receive certificates from teachers acknowledging their hard work. Caution is required to avoid an over justification effect where pupils work for reward rather than the process. This allows efficient incentive interventions to self-regulate effort on a task.

Changing school culture created in teacher’s classrooms can benefit the effectiveness of growth mindset interventions. Teachers should make a move towards the role of a learning coach where they use process-focused feedback rather than person-based when communicating about pupils. For example: “Well done, for your determination”. Using visible thinking and habit of the mind strategies encourage pupils to develop an epistemic identity, by challenging their dispositions through thinking routines. For example: Pupils have to work out the dispositions of creativity rather than being told a creative technique. This frames the relationship between the learner and knowledge produced, allowing for an epistemic mentality – a set of skills to approach difficulty with. Teachers are recommended to think about how as learning coaches they want to position the pupils as learners and what knowledge is being assumed by the lesson design. Such guidelines are more likely to yield sustainable growth mindsets in learners and are strengthened through the epistemic apprenticeship approach within school culture re-engaging learners to be resilient, creative and self-evaluative.

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Application Of Growth Mindset To Increase Academic Attainment In Primary Schools. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from
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