Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

This Will Improve Academic Performance – But Our Schools Are Getting It Wrong.

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An abundance of research has consistently demonstrated that a growth mindset – the belief that intelligence, ability and performance can all be improved with effort – will improve academic performance. The research is compelling.

Increasingly however, our schools are streaming students based on academic ability, a practiced steeped in the idea that ability and intelligence are fixed, and one that has been proven to undermine academic achievement.

Research has clearly demonstrated the plasticity of the brain and the capacity of students to become smarter through hard word and challenge.

The communication to students that learning comes with effort and is a process that takes time is critical in facilitating a growth mindset. Just as important is the message that neither ability nor intelligence are fixed and can be altered with time and effort.

The most successful countries in the world have growth mindset beliefs at the core of their schooling, communicating to students that learning takes time, and that effort and application will eventually improve academic performance.

The ranking of education systems is based upon international tests and education data, including the OECD’s Pisa tests and two major studies, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and Progess in International Reading Literacy Study.

In 2014 the top five education systems were (1) South Korea; (2) Japan; (3) Singapore; (4) Hong Kong; and (5) Finland. The UK was 6th, Canada 7th, with the US, Australia and New Zealand coming in at 14th, 15th and 16th respectively out of the 40 ranked.

Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Advisor of Pearson who publish The Learning Curve (an internationally respected quantitative and qualitative analysis of educational systems), writes,

‘… some conclusions from The Learning Curve can clearly be reached. One is the continuing rise of a number of Pacific Asian countries, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, which combine effective education systems with a culture that prizes effort above inherited ‘smartness.’ (The Learning Curve, 2014 Report)

Many Asian countries base their education on the idea that learning and achievement are determined by effort, as opposed to the idea that ability and intelligence are fixed. In line with this, the process of streaming students according to their academic ability is considered undesirable, even unacceptable. In Japan, the practice of streaming is seen as promoting inequality, and raises concerns that grouping students according to ability undermines children’s self-image, socialisation and academic performance.

However, schools in other countries that score lower on international tests, such as the US and Australia, base their schooling practices around ideas that ability is fixed. Despite extensive research demonstrating the plasticity of the brain, many countries persist with streaming students based on ability and achievement, communicating to students the message that their ability is fixed. The resulting fixed mindset beliefs have been consistently shown to undermine opportunities and performance.

Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University, writes, ‘In one primary school I attended in England that placed students into different groups for mathematics in Year 1, one of the students simply told me that ‘all the clever students had gone into a different class now’.

Students are very much aware of academic streaming practices at whatever age they are and the message they draw is clear – some students are clever and some are not.

Which Students Are Most At Risk?

Dweck has found that the students who are most at risk of being damaged by fixed ability beliefs are high-achieving girls.

From an early age, these students have generally been praised for their work, with attention drawn to how clever or smart they are – messages that promote a fixed mindset. The problem is that as soon as these students fail at something, the conclusion they are at risk of reaching is that they are not so smart after all.

High achieving girls with the mindset that people are either smart or not, when placed in a high academic stream group or an extension group, often suffer from the idea that they need to maintain the image of being clever. This mindset can undermine their ability to cope with failure and make them challenge aversive.

There are a number of studies which have shown that when schools move away from academic streaming to mixed or heterogeneous grouping, achievement and participation improves significantly.

A study by the University of Oxford of 14,000 children in England from years 4 through to 6 compared those taught in groups according to academic ability, with those grouped heterogeneously over the period of a year. They found that academic grouping undermined the progress of students, and that those taught in the mixed group performed significantly better on tests of mathematical reasoning.

According to Boaler the abundance of evidence internationally indicates clearly that academic streaming impedes the achievement of students in low and middle groups and does not improve the achievement of students in the higher groups.

A growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, has repeatedly been demonstrated to enhance academic performance. Currently, the subtle messages that are descending from an education system which streams according to academic ability at the time of testing, serve to reinforce a fixed idea of intelligence and ability. The undeniable effect of this is to undermine academic learning, effort and performance.

In order to ensure our children and adolescents are provided with every opportunity possible to reach their fullest potential, the message that needs to be delivered with unwavering confidence is that achievement and intelligence depend on effort, and that students have the capacity to influence the outcome and improve academic performance.  

For information on how to develop and nurture a growth mindset in children and adolescents, see here.

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