20. Growth Mindsets and Failure: Three Key Techniques

20. Growth Mindsets and Failure: Three Key Techniques

Students with a fixed mindset are more likely to fear failure. For them, failure tends to be a wholly negative experience. It works roughly like this:

  • I believe that intelligence, ability and talent are fixed and cannot change.
  • Failure means I can’t do something.
  • Because I believe that intelligence, ability and talent are fixed, I also believe that you cannot stop being a failure at something. To believe otherwise would undermine my starting premise.
  • I therefore do not like failure and don’t believe you can learn from it.
  • I try to avoid failure for these reasons. Over time, this may lead me to develop a fear of failure which is out of proportion with the true consequences of failing.

When promoting growth mindsets, we need to get students out of this way of thinking. We need to help them think differently about failure and its consequences. Our aim is to make failure OK. To help students understand that failure is just an event in life – not a mark of who you are. On top of this, we want students to realise that you can learn a great deal from mistakes and failure. Often more than you can learn from success.

With this in mind, here are three key techniques you can use to help students change how they think about failure:

  • Mistake Quotas. Set a mistake quota for your lesson. This is a minimum number of mistakes you expect every student in the class to make. Indicate that mistakes are a sign that the level of challenge is sufficiently high. Therefore, if students are making mistakes this means they are having their thinking stretched. Specify what you mean by mistakes. For example, a student using a word incorrectly rather than crossing out an ‘a’ and replacing it with an ‘e’.
  • Mistake Logs. Ask students to keep a log of their mistakes, alongside what they learned from them. Provide reflection time in which students can do this. Alternatively, create a class log in which mistakes or misconceptions are stored beside what the class as a whole learned from them. For example, you might make a wall display in which mistakes are logged as the year progresses, alongside the learning to which they gave rise.
  • Rationalising the Consequences of Failure. Talk to individual students about their fear of failure, as it relates to your subject. Ask them to talk you through their fears and then help them to rationalise these. Doing this gives students a more realistic way in which to think about mistakes and helps them to dampen the emotive forces which might be precluding them from taking risks with their learning.

Notice how in each of these strategies the intention is to help students think differently – more positively – about failure and mistakes. This characterises the growth mindset perspective on mistakes. They may not always be welcomed, but the student will acknowledge that they can learn from them, just as they will acknowledge that their own abilities, talent and intelligence are open to change.


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20. Growth Mindsets and Failure: Three Key Techniques
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