Do we really have a growth mindset?

//Do we really have a growth mindset?

The ladder of life is full of splinters, but they always prick the hardest when we’re sliding down.

Samuel Clemens

I spoke at a Growth Mindset conference with Olympian and sports journalist Matthew Syed today. Needless to say, he got star billing.

I took the view that whilst we may all profess to value a growth mindset in pupils we have a very fixed mindset to teaching and education. Syed made the point that there are important differences between how the aviation industry and surgeons treat failure. When an aeroplane crashes, airlines go to great lengths retrieve the black box flight recorder in order to find out what happened. They learn from any mistakes that were made and go to great lengths to avoid the possibility of the same mistakes ever happening again. Surgeons, by contrast, are prone to dismiss patient deaths. They say things like, “It was just one of those things.” Or, “There was nothing that could be done.” In this way mistakes are perpetuated and surgeons carry on killing people in the same ways. The implication was that aviation has a growth mindset whereas surgery has a fixed mindset.

Now, this sounds plausible enough, but I think it’s worth considering why these industries behave the way they do. In aviation there’s a good chance that the pilot and anyone else responsible for the disaster is dead. There’s no further risk for having the consequences for failure unearthed. Also, airlines have gone to great lengths to systematise their means for gathering feedback: it’s not left up to vagaries like an individuals’ mindset. In surgery, on the other hand, there are severe consequences for surgeons acknowledging culpability in the event of a patient’s death. Admitting error could easily result in a lawsuit and is probably career suicide. There is no ‘black box’ mechanism to ensure that other surgeons can learn from mistakes, it’s left entirely to individuals to ‘fess up to their mistakes.

I think there’s an analogy here with education. Teaching has become increasingly high stakes. The consequences for having a poor lesson observation or a bad set of exam results can be pretty awful. It’s all very well to embrace challenges and mistakes but if some bastard is waiting to clobber you for them, you won’t last long. Teachers are incentivised to cover their backs and find excuses for any mistakes. And let’s be clear: we all make mistakes. If we want to engender a growth mindset in education we need to remove the consequences for failure. We need to make it OK for teachers to admit their mistakes and, in so doing, learn from them.

How could we do this?

Here a few off the cuff suggestions:

1) Start trusting teachers. No one goes into teaching for the financial rewards or to bask in the warm glow in which the profession is held. Teachers teach because they think it matters. Why not assume most teachers are doing a good job and relieve some of the appalling burden of accountability? Trust is a far more effective way to improve teaching and learning.

2) Equality is unfair. Treating all teachers the same might seem superficially reasonable but in fact it’s incredibly unjust.


If as a senior leader you don’t know who your struggling teachers are, you don’t deserve your salary. Treating every teacher as if they’re potentially at risk of failing might demonstrate equality but as a way to win hearts and minds, it’s absurd. If you know teachers are doing a good job, leave them alone. Or, better: learn from them.

3) Stop judging lessons. The average teacher will teach between 750-800 lessons per year. Sampling 2 or 3 of them is no way to judge effectiveness even if the evidence about the absolute lack of validity and reliability of lesson grading wasn’t so compelling.

4) Make ‘support’ supportive. Rather than putting people of capability and trying to drive them out of the profession, actually try to help them. Some of their problems might be the school’s fault. Are they struggling to mark their books? Maybe their workload is too great? Are they struggling to maintain discipline in class? Maybe the school’s behaviour system isn’t up to snuff.

I no longer teach. I get to swan about the country spouting off about whatever’s on my mind. Last night, on the dawn of a new term, my wife (who’s also recently left the classroom) and I commented on the lack of dread we felt about the week ahead. Why is it considered reasonable that teachers feel like this? Why is it acceptable for young teachers to sob in the toilets about their workload and children’s dreadful behaviour? And how is possible to defend a system in which 50% of teachers leave with the first five years?

This is my bottom line: It is morally reprehensible to expect teachers to sacrifice their home lives on the altar of professional responsibility. If we really valued a growth mindset approach to education we’d make damn sure it was safer for teachers to learn from failure.


2015-01-06T00:34:51+00:00January 5th, 2015|leadership|


  1. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  2. J January 6, 2015 at 12:03 am - Reply

    I used to refer to the education ‘system’. Now, apart from recognising the ‘complex whole’ that has yet to be sorted out I cannot think of a more unsuitable term for education.

    The education sector (primary, secondary, tertiary) is not working together, in fact as a system it’s not really working at all (sure there are constantly changing component parts that work). Instead it is pulled apart and frequently remodelled by careerists – in politics, education, business, and by other interested parties – as rapidly and as quickly as their CVs.

    As a parent dealing with the education sector for over eight years I, and more importantly, my children have been in a system for three years more than the average teacher survives before walking away.

    Remember that for every adult teacher who can’t bear it any more there are more children who dread going to school every day: where no-one listens when they are repeatedly hurt; who want to both ‘know’ and ‘be able’ (knowledge/skills); who can’t help or change their postcode; who can’t wait to be grown up so that they can be listened to and make their own decisions.

    My father is retiring from education this year, early. He’s done. Knackers yard early for him. I have seen the impact of the education sector at close quarters on my father, on my children, on family life.

    In July my children finally finish at their current primary school. I no longer believe it will be better next time, just different. I am conscious of that die-hard hope in my heart that it could be better, but also from other parents that it could be worse. There is just no way to know. Not the league tables, nor the exam results, nor the Ofsted reports, nor the websites. Not even the schoolgates where parents are too invested in avoiding the slightest whiff of becoming a school that requires improvement (house prices, darling! status!).

    Children, parents, teachers, all trying to make the best of a bad deal. It needs to be safer and better all round. I don’t want longer hours for children or adults in an environment that is already unhealthy and unsafe.

    Constant change is unmanageable. The only way to stabilise the education sector is to cease using it as a political tool. Create a non-partisan organisation that can provide an effective short-term and long-term approach on how to tackle education’s problems, and agree the why, when, where, what, and how, bearing in mind always ‘for whom’.

    • mags January 6, 2015 at 6:54 pm - Reply

      Over 30 years teaching and off with work related stress. Burnt out. Ready for rust heap. Have an impeccable attendance record – first time off in 6 years. Catalyst for the stress? Senior management -inexperienced careerists.
      What makes me so sad is the irony of a caring nurturing profession that doesn’t care or nurture its own.

      • David Didau January 6, 2015 at 7:12 pm - Reply

        Well put. I worked in a school whose motto was “Cherishing staff”. Many staff felt they been well and truly cherished over!

        • sheliblackburn January 6, 2015 at 8:27 pm - Reply

          That’s terrible Mags, though I have to say that recently our SLT have recently been criticised by OfSTED for being ‘too nice’. Four member of staff have had extremely difficult things happening in their personal lives, yet they step in the door each day because they are dedicated to the school and children – and because they have our support. So they might not be teaching outstanding lessons every day and some of the lessons may be RI, but does that mean we have to jump on their backs with huge demands, knowing they might just stay at home? (Demands on top of implementing a new curriculum, changing assessment systems, teaching at least 6 different subjects each week etc etc).

  3. Matthew January 6, 2015 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    This should be compulsory reading for all school leaders, it really hits the nail on the head. We’re are in a system where never mind making big mistakes, we’re barely allowed to admit that something we’ve tried has failed. The classic case is when someone is given a TLR or other payment based on doing a particular role. That person then has to do something, anything, to show they’re doing their job and deserve the money. They’re not allowed to try things and then admit what they did failed. They have to show “impact”. So they look for evidence, any little spec of evidence, that what they did worked in some way. They cherry pick data, they do anything they can to show what they did worked, because otherwise they might have to admit they spent a whole term following up an idea that didn’t actually work. So they claim it did work, and hey presto then other teachers are expected to copy what their idea because it had an “impact”. So everyone’s workload increases because of an idea that actually has little or no reliable evidence that it works or is a good use of time.

    • David Didau January 6, 2015 at 7:13 pm - Reply

      Good points – you’re right about the frantic hunt for ‘impact’ – this mindset merely perpetuates the very worst practice.

  4. […] that there are systems in place to support those teachers that struggle. David Didau in his latest post […]

  5. morttel January 6, 2015 at 10:05 pm - Reply

    Has anyone else noticed how the very best staff in a school are often the ones who are really self critical? There’s an inbuilt awareness of, and interest in, failure, for those strong teachers. Conversely, we’ve all worked with shiny, “successful” pinstripes who zoom to the top, leaving complete chaos in their wake.

  6. andyday2000 January 6, 2015 at 11:20 pm - Reply

    Very important. Thanks. My experience yesterday was a chink of light. Please see my blog:

  7. […] The ladder of life is full of splinters, but they always prick the hardest when we’re sliding down. Samuel Clemens I spoke at a Growth Mindset conference with Olympian and sports journalist Matthew Syed today.  […]

  8. kalinski1970 January 23, 2015 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    Great blog as ever David. I think we are trying to do this here, but you are always only as strong as your weakest link. Give me until December and it would be good if we could look together at how far we have travelled

    • David Didau January 23, 2015 at 1:04 pm - Reply

      Thanks Liam, I’d be really interested in doing that!

  9. […] It’s much more difficult, but so much better to trust teachers. Do we really value the much-vaunted growth mindset? […]

  10. Try Harder | problemsinprimary February 16, 2015 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    […] Didau (@learningspy) questions whether we practise what we preach; how many school leaders allow their teachers to have a growth […]

  11. […] We’re all flawed. We all make poor and irrational decisions, and we’re all hostages to bias and assumptions. To err is human. This is as true of teachers as it is of students; we all make mistakes. This is something to which we pay easy lip service, but do we really have a growth mindset in education? […]

  12. […] in a surplus model of school improvement in which happier, more autonomous professionals who were genuinely allowed to have a growth mindset approach to […]

  13. […] Overall, this principle is based on solid seeming foundations and I agree with much of what the report recommends with the caveat that it seems much easier to undermine a growth mindset than it is to promote one. Although teachers can avoid undermining students’ beliefs and perceptions about ability, simply asking students to try hard and be more resilient is unlikely to meet with success. It’s also worth considering two other points: firstly, in our rush to make students more resilient we might be overlooking some of the positives in having a more fixed view of the world. And secondly, many teachers work in environments which actively work against them adopting a growth mindset. […]

  14. […] have one. What you actually have is a false growth mindset. This goes some way to explaining why schools are so bad at allowing teachers to behave in a way consistent with the growth mindset. And it may well explain some of the rather flimsy findings in the EEF’s recent report, […]

  15. nappits June 20, 2015 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    Brilliant as always David. What grates me as much as anything in teaching is this notion that the results that ‘my’ group achieve are ‘my results’. I believe that ‘my group’ succeeds because the group across the corridor (‘his/her group’) fail (or succeed less). In other words, these kids in this year group are ‘our’ kids. To pin a percentage pass rate on me or my colleagues, individually, is wrong. They’re ours; we all contributed to their results; we all take responsibility for their achievements/failings.

  16. […] allow teachers take risks, accountability falls, with a leaden clang, on the headteacher. We have created a system in which there are inexorable institutional pressures to blame, seek excuses, conceal mistakes and pass the buck. No one can thrive in a system like […]

  17. […] It’s that easy to destroy a teacher. It’s much more difficult, but so much better to trust and genuinely support teachers. When push comes to shove, do we really value the much-vaunted growth mindset? […]

  18. […] often actively undermine the growth mindset and we would do well to consider what we can learn from the aviation […]

  19. […] students trust their teachers, then justice becomes possible. If teachers trust their leaders then we might actually get the growth mindset so many say they want to instil in their schools and […]

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