Research on The theory, popularised by Carol Dweck, that students’ bel... More suggests that students’ beliefs about intelligence have a significant impact on their attainment. Students who believe intelligence and ability can develop are more likely to demonstrate resilience and take intellectual risks (Blackwell et al., 2007). Knowing that intelligence is dynamic can focus students on learning goals rather than performance goals, and failure is treated as information that more effort is needed, rather than something to be avoided (Dweck and Grant, 2003). Considering this, I designed a research project to encourage underachieving Year 10 students to learn about mindsets, resilience and neuroplasticity through completing a series of co-operative tasks and collaborating on a small group project. I hoped that by reducing each boy’s fear of failure, he would become more resilient, increasing his capacity to foster productive and meaningful relationships when working collaboratively.
When designing group tasks, Lotan (Lotan, 2003) advises to ensure the task itself is ‘group-worthy’, as offering a task designed for individuals to a group is more likely to create a ‘pseudo learning group’ (Johnson and Johnson, 1999). Responding to this research, I ensured the tasks were ‘open-ended…provided students with multiple entry points…[and dealt] with discipline-based, intellectually important content’ (Lotan, 2003). I used ‘jigsaw groupings’ (De Jong and Hawley, 1995), a way of providing asymmetric information to students. The final task spanned 10 weeks and required the students to prepare and deliver a 20-minute presentation to a Year 8 tutor group, summarising the ideas of neuroplasticity, growth mindset, failure and vulnerability. In accordance with BERA (BERA, 2011) guidelines, students and parents were informed about the research purpose, how it would be shared and how anonymity would be protected.
I collected data to measure the impact of the project on the students’ mindsets, their perception of their approaches to their schoolwork, specific examples of changes they had made to their study habits and their performance. The students completed questionnaires asking about these issues, then used their written responses to prompt discussion in small group semi-structured interviews. The students also completed the ‘Growth Mindset Quiz’ (Diehl, 2014) before and after the intervention. I coded the data into units by hand and categorised it into themes.
1. Normalising collaboration as a way of working
Reflecting on the final task in an interview, one boy commented ‘It was easy to work together on the presentation because we had done so much stuff together already’. Another commented ‘we’d got used to working with everyone in the class’. It is possible that delivering presentations on growth mindset encouraged the students to be more open to feedback while working in a group, allowing the students to work successfully as a group. When designing their perfect school, all groups made references to the role of peer-to-peer interactions. One group wrote that their perfect school would use ‘more grouped activities’. Another described ‘teaching lessons’, where students taught material to each other, as a key pedagogical strategy in a perfect school.
2. Building supportive relationships
Students wanted fewer incidences of competition and more collaboration opportunities in schools, including a restriction of not more than two tiers in set subjects. Asked how students with fixed and growth mindsets might respond in different scenarios, one boy wrote that a student with a growth mindset is ‘supported and inspired by friends’ whereas a student with a fixed mindset is ‘threatened by his friend’s success’. The students were also asked what they thought good collaboration looked like. Many students wrote about good communication and teamwork. Other comments included:
‘being open to suggestions’,
‘[learning about mindsets had] made us work as a team and to both try hard to help ourselves and each other’,
‘….it is important that group members……are open to try new things’.
In follow-up, one student reported that participation in the programme had given him ‘more patience with other people’.
3. Treating mistakes and failures as learning experiences
Prior to the intervention, the students’ scores on the growth mindset questionnaire (scored between 0 and 60) ranged from 28 to 41. Every student’s score went up by at least 10 points. Four of the eight students scored above 45, demonstrating a belief that intelligence and talent can grow. This change in attitudes was observed in other data. Listing situations when failing could be good, one boy wrote ‘a homework- so you can revise that topic more, in a training exercise in rugby etc. as you can improve on it, practising an instrument because you can learn from it’. In designing their perfect schools, groups wrote that ‘mistakes to be encouraged/ promoted as a learning curve’ and ‘[to] encourage people that failing isn’t bad so that if somebody fails at something hopefully people will not be mean to them about it’. This shows the relationship between building a collaborative atmosphere and promoting academic risk-taking. When asked what they had learned, all students responded in line with growth mindsets, citing changeable intelligence, the value of effort, and the idea of mindsets themselves. As one boy wrote ‘you can change how intelligent you are by putting in the effort, should always be open to improve yourself and to not just do what is ‘good enough’’. Most students were also able to identify changes in their behaviour. One said that following the sessions he had ‘taken on more feedback while playing the trumpet’. Another reported that ‘if I found something hard I would now keep on trying until I get better at it, put more time and effort into things I found hard’, or more simply from another boy ‘when I get something wrong, I think how can I not get it wrong next time?’ The idea of resilience emerged with statements like ‘never give up’ and a story about returning to an essay to improve it further.
Every boy demonstrated an understanding of concepts taught in the programme; most students gave examples of changes made as a result of what they learned. The final group projects required the students to work in their groups for three months, a long period to sustain relationships. In interviews the students identified characteristics of strong group function, indicating that the small groups collaborated well. Their presentations were performed successfully. The students also made significant progress in terms of examination results, although as they were specifically selected for underachieving in the previous year, this could be a reversion to the mean rather than a consequence of the intervention.
By appreciating the value of academic risk-taking, students were able to interact more openly with each other and collaborate effectively. As one boy said in his interview ‘We’re not as afraid to get things wrong or look stupid in front of each other.’