GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Comhairle Choitcheann Teagaisg na h-Alba

Learning from mistakes

How one primary school is helping to transforms its pupils’ perceptions of failure through implementing a growth mindset

Most children find the idea of failure a difficult concept to process. From an early age, they want to win the game of Kerplunk, score the most goals, cross the finishing line first.

This in-built desire to always be successful means that a lot of children find it impossible to deal with failing or making mistakes, and this attitude can continue with them throughout their school days, resulting in a negative impact on their learning.

It's down to society and the way we have been brought up to think that mistakes are bad.

At Canal View Primary in Edinburgh, the teaching staff wanted to challenge the perception that failure was always a bad thing, and turned to the practice of growth mindset to engage, inspire and transform attitudes.

The concept of growth mindset was developed more than three decades ago when Dr Carol Dweck and her colleagues became interested in students' attitudes about failure. They found that some students rebounded, while others were devastated by even the slightest setbacks.

Headteacher Ann Moore, who led the whole-school practitioner enquiry, said: "Growth mindset is about looking at children's attitudes and how they contribute to how they learn. It's about the learning culture of a school and looking at ways children and staff view how they make mistakes.

"It's down to society and the way we have been brought up to think that mistakes are bad.

"We decided to undertake this because a lot of our children had very fixed mindsets. They thought intelligence was static and there was nothing they could do about it. They thought you were either born smart or you weren't, and there was nothing they could do to change it."

The school undertook a programme of development and enlisted the help of educational research company Osiris to provide training for teachers. They carried out an initial survey with pupils, parents and staff, asking them to agree or disagree with a series of statements including things like 'I have a certain amount of intelligence' and 'I can change intelligence'.

The results were taken away and analysed , while a whole series of projects got underway in school.

A research team consisting of around 15 members of staff was created, and groups came up with various areas to be looked at in school which all centred on growth mindset.

"One group looked at language and how language is really powerful," said Ann. "We looked at how we report to parents and give feedback, and how fixed mindset language was used. As a result we are completely revamping the way we do our reporting.

"We set up teams that worked with targeted children particularly and identified children that the first survey showed had a very fixed mindset.

"We repeated the survey and I have had a look and early indications show that all the children I have looked at have improved their rating on growth mindset.

"We haven't got the data back officially yet but anecdotally, there has been a big change."

Ann added: "It's one of many things that we have been doing in school but we were able to do it as part of the Scottish Attainment Challenge funded by the government. What it has shown is that our attainment has dramatically improved. It's hard to say that it was all down to growth mindset but it had such a big impact.

"It's really helped our children think about themselves as learners in a much deeper way."

One of the tools used to help children take control of their own learning is the 'learning pit'. It is designed to help children identify the position they are in within the 'pit' and come up with strategies to get to where they want to be. For example, if they are positioned at the bottom, it may be overwhelming for them to look up and wonder how they can get out, but they can learn strategies which can give them the help they need to climb their way to the top.

Ann said: "The work we've been doing helps children be much more confident about making a mistake and to realise that they can learn from that mistake. It's also about making sure that parents are ok with their child making mistakes.

"We have had a year of the project, and we are still on the journey.

"What it has done is given our most vulnerable children the chance to achieve something and it's not a case of you're either bright or you're not," explained Ann.

"Children are now more aware of the fact that it's ok to make mistakes and you can make improvements if you know the right strategies. It's about the power of "yet", and going from "I can't do it" to "I can't do it yet". The children are not giving up as much as they did and are more willing to give things a go."