Independent Learning week 5: Mindset and Motivation

A key determinant in student success is the inherent beliefs they have about themselves in terms of their ability and how they learn. The two major areas to consider here are Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset and Angela Duckworth’s on Grit. However we might also pause to consider the broader areas of engagement and motivation and whether they are even a good proxy indicator of learning at all, and whether these approaches can be taught explicitly or whether they should be seen more as a overarching philosophy as opposed to an intervention.

Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work over many decades claims that some students have an ‘entity theory’ of intelligence, more commonly known as a ‘fixed mindset’ which means they believe ability to be set and that no matter how hard they work they are simply stuck with their level of intelligence. Other students have an ‘incremental theory’ of intelligence, known as a ‘growth mindset’ which means they believe intelligence to be malleable. As Dylan William notes, “smart is not something you are, smart is something you get.”

We were lucky enough to have Carol Dweck speak at the Festival last year and she kindly gave an interview to some of our student research council which you can listen to here:



Angela Duckworth’s work over the last decade on ‘grit,’ which she defines as “passion and perseverance towards long term goals” seeks to ask an important question, namely why do some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods despite negative experiences with failure and adversity. One of the interesting assertions by Duckworth is that this facility of grit is more predictive of long term success than intelligence. While there are some issues with the very definition of this trait, it does raise the question of how we might affect that disposition in students.

Two years ago we worked with researchers from Harvard graduate school of education to explore the extent to which students at Wellington had ‘grit’ and to what extent they felt they were able to persevere towards long term goals.  You can read the published working paper on that study here.

Working with the student research team and Harvard yielded some unique perspectives, not least how both growth mindset and grit can work synergistically to great effect and also how students can ‘switch off’ to direct attempts to try to motivate them. If students are taught explicitly about the value of Growth Mindset, Grit and the notion that ability is not ‘fixed’, does that cause a cognitive dissonance in the face of a culture of fixed target grades and league tables? As one student wrote:

If the students are aware that their perception of their own ability is being directly “targeted”, the majority will refuse to accept the concept in any quantity. A particularly significant idea that arose from our research demonstrated that many students achieve very high levels of academic success, but possess fixed mindsets. Since such pupils achieve consistently good grades, they feel comfortable with the manner in which they are working, and deem it appropriate. Education has been one of the only ‘constants’ in the lives of students, so to admit that one has not been learning as well as they potentially could have for a number of years will be unlikely to yield an effective response. The very patient nature of what growth mindsets appear to be may, in some cases, cause a student to lose focus as their final aim does not seem instantly achievable. This is where the idea of ‘grit’ becomes a necessity. Perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity combined with a positive attitude towards learning (as demonstrated by the Growth Mindset) will bear for greater individual performance, and thus also higher levels of personal satisfaction and feelings of achievement. This is likely to be one of the most encouraging factors in the development of a student, both academically and emotionally.

The problem with ‘engagement’

So how might we gauge whether students are indeed motivated and persevering towards long term goals? One of the most common signs of motivation and learning is seeing that students are ‘engaged’, however there are some real problems with this as a proxy indicator. As Rob Coe points out, engagement is one of the most misleading indicators of learning.




Now these all seem like key elements of a successful classroom, so what’s the problem? and more specifically, why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning?

This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007) in which he writes:

“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.” p.24

Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. A good example of this as Alex Quigley has pointed out is that engagement in the form of the seemingly visible activity of highlighting is often “little more than colouring in.”

The other difficulty is the now constant exhortation for students to be ‘motivated’ (often at the expense of subject knowledge and depth) but motivation in itself is not enough. Nuthall writes that:

“Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning.”p.35

Motivation and engagement are vital elements in learning but it seems to be what they are used in conjunction with that determines impact. It is right to be motivating students but motivated to do what? If they are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge then the whole enterprise may be a waste of time.

Learning is in many cases, invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds us, ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’ but unfortunately there is no easy way of measuring this, so what does he suggest is effective in terms of evidencing quality?

Ultimately he argues that it comes down to a more nuanced set of practitioner/student skills, habits and conditions that are very difficult to observe, never mind measure. Things like “selecting, integrating, orchestrating, adapting, monitoring, responding” and which are contingent on context, history, personalities, relationships” and which all work together to create impact and initiate effective learning. So while engagement and motivation are important elements in learning they should be seen as part of a far more complex grouping of factors.

A key question to consider then is whether students can be taught to have a growth mindset or grit by teaching those concepts explicitly and whether students are motivated at all if they are merely doing ‘busywork’ that they already know how to do, or the kinds of activities that learn to superficial understanding. Are students engaging in the kinds of ‘desirable difficulties’ such as spacing, interleaving, self quizzing and the broader aspiration of intellectual curiosity that might be more difficult in the short term, but lead to greater mastery and motivation in the long term? The paradox of this field is that mastering a difficult concept through hard work, failure and eventual success may well motivate a student far more effectively than ‘motivation’ itself.

Final advice:


  1. Encourage students to see mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than as a lack of ability.
  2. Praise effort rather than ‘cleverness.’
  3. Encourage them to view intelligence as something that can be affected by hard work not as a fixed entity.
  4. Emphasise current progress rather than past performance.
  5. Encourage students to view grades as temporary performance indicators not measures of fixed intelligence.
  6. Discuss student’s long term goals as intrinsic rather than extrinsic.



Growth mindset: It’s not magic

This much I know about…developing a Dweck-inspired Growth Mindset culture

Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals

To Grit or not to Grit: That is the Question