What’s the difference between success and failure? Effort, of course! As everyone now knows, all you need to ensure you’re a success is a shed-load of hard work and the belief that you can do anything you set your mind to! Yay! I want to be an astronaut!
This is mindsets-lite: the undifferentiated and naive belief that the right kind of thinking leads to wonderful things. Like most well-intentioned educational fads, there’s a kernel of truth in these sorts of claims. Hard work does make a difference; beliefs do matter. As always, though, reality is a little more complicated than that. To shed some light on the growth mindset myth, we need to look at the research of Gary McPherson and James Renwick.
In 2001 McPherson & Renwick published A Longitudinal Study of Self-regulation in Children’s Musical Practice which did exactly what the title suggests. They took 27 children learning to play a variety of musical instruments and tried to unpick how and why some children improved more than others over a period of years. All of the children practised; they all put in effort, they were all motivated and had good attitudes, but not all of them got better at the same rate. It’s tempting to think that the difference must have been innate ability, but actually the researchers concluded that it was the type of practice in which the children engaged that made the most difference.
Research counted the number of mistakes children made on first playing a piece and then compared this to the number of mistakes made on a second performance. The lowest performing student made an average of 11 mistakes a minute on her first play-through and was still making 70% of the same mistakes the second time through. The best performing student made an average of 1.4 mistakes first time round and was able to correct 8 in 10 of the these mistakes in his second rendition. The researchers decided that some students had better ‘mental representations‘ of what a good performance would sound like and were able to self-check and provide their own feedback to eliminate as many mistakes as possible.
Now, of course 27 students is a very small sample size so we should be rightly sceptical of making any generalisable claims from this research. Luckily, McPherson and Renwick’s findings are supported by a large-scale study on the development of practising strategies, also published in 2001. Instead of the time-consuming approach of videoing and analysing practice sessions undertaken by McPherson & Renwick, Hallan et al relied on self-report questionnaires to make studying a much larger sample feasible. As with earlier studies, researchers found that while the quantity of practice and attitudes to learning matter, they don’t make nearly as much difference as we might hope. It was the ability to recognise one’s mistakes and then improve independently which differentiated the most accomplished students. This depended on being able to visualise what a good performance would feel like as well as sound like.
In his new book Peak, Anders Ericsson says that this ability to create rich ‘mental representations’ is one of the distinguishing features of the kind of practice which is most likely to lead to improvements: “The relationship between skill and mental representation is a virtuous circle: the more skilled you become, the better your mental representations are, and the better your mental representations are, the more effectively you can practise to hone your skill.” (p. 80)
Hard work and a growth mindset is not enough. In fact, it seems likely that practising more without getting results will probably erode beliefs about self-efficacy. No wonder children learn that they “can’t do maths” or that “French is impossible” if they’re practising in the wrong way. If we believe that the difference between successful and unsuccessful students is their mindset we could be adding to a potentially toxic cocktail. It’s much more likely that a growth mindset follows from experiencing success. If we get good early results then our self-confidence can become invincible, but if we don’t… Well, only a fool continues to believe anything is possible in the face of increasingly contradictory evidence.
In order to help students develop healthy beliefs about effort and hard work, we need to help them improve the conditions of practice. It seems to me, although I’m not aware of any studies in this area, that we could help children create effective mental representations through effective modelling of what good looks and feels like. If children don’t ever find this out then their attempts to improve are like playing snooker in the dark with ear-defenders on: they’ll never find out if their efforts are effective.