It’s All in the Head

After reading Bounce by Matthew Syed last summer, one section in particular has transformed my teachi41Qzhk6f1QLng approach this academic year.

The Theory

The particular section described psychologist Professor Carol Dweck´s theory on mindset. Dweck argues that a person´s attitude can be described as a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. It´s more than a label; the repercussions are reflected in all areas of life.


  • Positive attitude
  • Learns from failure
  • Takes risks
  • Believes they can learn anything
  • Fostered by praising effort and process: “I can tell you´ve been studying”.


  • Believes talent is innate
  • Unwilling to take risks
  • Gives up easily
  • Encouraged by praise which promotes the idea of innate intelligence:  “You´re amazing at English”.

In Practice in the Classroom

The prize is huge: developing self-motivated students who label failure as nothing more than a stepping stone to success.

From my experience, the Spanish education system seems to prioritise marks over learning from a young age (I´ve seen many a 7-year-old with exam anxiety on the eve of an ´important´ test). This encourages a fixed mindset: an obsession with marks, a fear of failure, and a reluctance to engage with challenging new material (which is the real reason they come to Nessie after all!). They were used to being rewarded with 100% and praised accordingly; why struggle through something unfamiliar and only get 50%? Why try harder if talent is fixed?

So what have I done to try to plant the seed of a growth mindset among my students? I´ve made an effort to avoid generic, lazy praise like “Well done”. Instead, I´ve been more specific with praise, for example praising the strategy e.g. ”The clear plan you did helped your structure”; and especially effort e.g. “I think you studied a lot more this weekend than last weekend. Am I right?”. Also, I´ve focused more on what they have left to improve, rather than what they´ve already mastered.

Moreover, as Professor Dweck recommends, I´ve tried to use the word yet” as much as possible in feedback, because as she explains, when receiving a “yet”, ´you understand that you´re on a learning curve; it gives you a path into the future´.

The Results

It´s still early days; mindset is developed over long periods of time. Nevertheless, after initial shock/disappointment among many students that I wasn´t just going to tell them how clever they were, I´ve started to see some very positive changes.

Mindset-photo-2.jpeStudents´ general attitude and resilience to failure is now healthier: instead of beating themselves up over a low grade, many now see that it´s part of a process of gaining better knowledge and higher marks in the future. Furthermore, fewer hide from challenges; they seek them, and are motivated to better their English level.

In summary, transforming mindsets can make a huge difference. For me, at least, it´s a work in progress!

14 thoughts on “It’s All in the Head

  1. Thank you James for reminding us of the importance of praising effort and process in specific ways, rather than mindless global praise.
    As a counsellor and grandparent, this is as relevant as to a teacher or parent.
    Surely all of us need to be encouraged in honest ways that are specific to the task in question.


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