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Let’s move beyond mindset and aim for small successes - Rachel Arnold

29th February 2024

By Rachel Arnold, lecturer English and Teaching and Learning Coach at Solihull College & University Centre

As teachers, it often becomes second nature to provide our students with encouraging affirmations such as “you can do it”, “just picture seeing a pass grade on your certificate” or “you’re not far off, just a few more marks”. Despite these well-meaning messages of motivation, perhaps we are asking for an impossibility for some of our students, especially GCSE resit students, given the situation of perceived “failure” they find themselves in.

Adopting a positive mindset can be a difficult and daunting task and one that we shouldn’t just expect our students to be able to do automatically. Instead, we can empower our students with regular and meaningful encounters with success in the classroom, so that we can move beyond mindset and step towards success as a realistic and regular experience.

Mindset expert Carol Dweck[1] explores the difference between a fixed and growth mindset and highlights the value of learners being able to succeed where they have once failed, when developing a growth mindset. This valuable work raises the questions: what about those learners who have only ever known educational failure? How do we expect those learners to suddenly develop a whole new way of thinking and see themselves as able and successful?

What if the very nature of the resit course is what is imposing a fixed mindset upon the learners? To what extent would learners be able to adopt a growth mindset if they were not repeating the very thing they have failed at, in exactly the same way? We cannot assume all learners are able to continually learn in a new way, perceive challenges in a new light, and ultimately pass a qualification.

However, I believe what we can do is create meaningful moments where learners are succeeding in small ways, so that they are no longer strangers to success. I believe when we move beyond perceiving mindset as something to attain and, instead, focus on how we arrive at the small wins for learners in the classrooms we are facilitating true growth for the individual.

Here are two examples that have helped me in this pursuit:

  1. Discover your learners’ expertise and invite it into the classroom.

Chances are, a GCSE resit learner walks into their classroom already feeling overwhelmed by inadequacy before they even start any work. When we invite our learners’ expertise into the classroom, we are facilitating a comfortable and safe environment established by confidence and knowledge. This could be something simple like allowing students to create a starter activity for the class based on one of their interests or having one student each lesson teach a random skill for 5 minutes. When we take the time to discover what their skills are outside of the subject content and take a genuine interest by creating space for it, we are well on our way to creating a starting point of success for our learners to build from.

  1. Regularly remind learners what they can already do.

My recent research with GCSE resit learners has taught me that the vast majority of them are genuinely scared of failing again, not just when they get their results each summer but regular failure in the classroom each time they don’t know something or can’t do something. We can counteract this fear of failure by replacing it with regular reminders of where they are already successful and the ground they have already won. Each of their starting points is a place of success, representing some existing level and ability. Every student should expect to experience success in the classroom irrespective of their ability when we reframe success as growth and progression, not just a numerical grade.

By moving beyond mindset and stepping towards regular experiences with success we can normalise and celebrate the everyday successes our students encounter, facilitating their growth as learners along the way.

[1] Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. Random House.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.