The growth mindset in key stage 2: Part 1

Written by: Ross McWilliam | Published:
Image: iStock

In the first of a four-part series, Ross McWilliam looks at the growth mindset theory in action at key stage 2 and discusses implementing ‘starter’ growth mindset approaches

By now, most schools will be aware of the concept of growth mindset. Equally, you may well have implemented aspects of growth mindset either across classroom teaching or via school-specific cross-curricular methods. Some may well have a whole-school approach that involves parents and outside agencies. Wherever you are on the awareness and implementation of growth mindset, here are some thoughts that may help you along the way.

Within this four-part series, I will detail the key considerations of implementing a growth mindset policy, with some practical tips about what schools can do at pupil level, classroom/cross-curricular level, and for a whole-school approach. A successful growth mindset strategy will actively involve all stakeholders: outside agencies, partners, parents and staff. It will also allow for regular “tweaks” in the performance and review of the strategy.

Specifically, this four-part series will focus on:

  1. Part 1: A combination of concepts and ideas to allow pupils to find their own definitions, what growth mindset means to them, and how they can identify and improve it.
  2. Part 2: The value of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, along with specific praise and feedback language to be used. Identification of measures to record progress in terms of attendance, rewards and sanctions, grades, school/class attitude.
  3. Part 3: A whole-school strategy that caters for key stakeholders of parents and staff, and how to monitor progress at school and at home.
  4. Part 4: Consideration must also be given to those pupils who may have difficulty initially accessing growth mindset and those who might need more support as they encounter barriers to learning

Introducing growth mindset

Resistance can often be met when anything new is put on the agenda. There may be preconceptions of what growth mindset means and assumptions that it takes more effort, time, resources in an already busy school schedule. One of the secrets to implementing a successful growth mindset programme is to not only clearly define what it means, but to demonstrate how it could positively affect all aspects of school life and beyond, for all the key stakeholders of pupils, parents and staff.

The concept was engineered by Professor Carol Dweck via her decades of research on achievement and success. Her research was able to prove that the way we think, and so behave, has a massive impact on learning and attitude. She classified mindset into either Growth or Fixed.

In a fixed mindset people believe their intelligence and talents are fixed traits, set at birth and there is little you can do to improve these qualities. In a growth mindset, people believe they can improve their intelligence and talents through purposeful effort, accepting guidance and support, and dedication to improvement without comparison to others. Growth mindset people believe that anything is possible over time. Prof Dweck also stated that there were some people (15 per cent) who have both fixed and growth mindset qualities.

Crucially, those who possess a growth mindset have a happier and more successful life (there is actually evidence to support this claim).

So a useful first step for pupils would be to talk about the development of the qualities of intelligence and talent. Personally, I would start this off with a predefinition of these terms.

“Intelligence” and “talent” are polarised, loaded words. Children and adults when asked “Are you intelligent?” often immediately answer yes or no. Perhaps this has been inculcated into their lives by various people complimenting them (or not). As we will find out in Part 2, praise and feedback, even if well-intentioned, can have covert and overt negative effects on personal development.

What we need to develop is our meaning of intelligence and talent – i.e. that these can mean many things beyond being able to pass exams, (which is simply a “snapshot” in time using a particular form of measurement). Any definitions should incorporate the five growth mindset components of:

  1. No negative self-bias in working out challenging situations (I can’t do maths, I am rubbish at school).
  2. Taking a risk with learning using a trial and error approach (with teacher support to create a positive learning environment where learning is the whole-class priority and nobody is belittled for a silly question or wrong answer).
  3. Getting support, guidance and feedback from others.
  4. Using purposeful effort and perseverance/resilience to find a solution.
  5. Not comparing to others or a fear of being judged.

Prof Dweck uses the term “not yet” to describe someone who does not quite reach a required measured standard. So rather than seeing a fail at a test in maths, it should rather be seen as not passing yet. All it needs is the key growth mindset components applied over time.

Putting it even more simply for key stage 2 children: “If you don’t give up, it can’t be failure, it’s just ‘success-not-yet’.”

The method of reinforcing this message can take many formats. First, I would use current news media stories to identify where growth mindset has been demonstrated using the five points above. The recent 2016 Rio Olympics might be a useful starting point for talent examples.

For example, ask pupils to find stories of athletes who have developed their growth mindset to either be successful in medalling, or simply by just being at the Olympics. Using the 2016 Rio Paralympics may very well allow pupils to uncover some additional astonishing stories.

In terms of Paralympic, or simple wins over adversity examples, there are numerous instances where a growth mindset attitude has triumphed. Cases such as Ellie Simmonds, Jonnie Peacock, Alvin Law, Rick Hansen et al can be found on the internet and even used as starter projects to identify what growth mindset talent development really means.

Further examples of talent growth mindset include:

  • The Beatles approached the Decca recording company and were refused a contract (“we don’t like their sound and guitar music is on the way out”).
  • Author JK Rowling whose Harry Potter books were rejected by more than 30 publishers.
  • Nobel prize-winner Albert Einstein who wasn’t able to speak until he was aged four. His teachers told him he would never amount to much.
  • Lightbulb inventor Thomas Edison was told he was too stupid to learn anything and should go into something that his pleasant personality might be better suited to.
  • Entrepreneur Richard Branson lost his entire savings four times before his innovative ideas and actions helped him become a billionaire.
  • Norman Larsen the creator of WD40 (named after the 40th attempt to perfect the product).

There are countless more examples of both talent and intelligence growth mindset stories, many of which are documented in the references to this article along with some short videos.

The real secret is to use examples or role-models not only specific to the needs/inspiration of the child (talent or academic), but specific to their contemporary world – i.e. with real-world relevance.

This could mean using less orthodox examples such as the struggles and success of Eminem, Demi Lovato, Lionel Messi or Lizzy Yarnold. At the younger end of key stage 2, the role-models may even come from cartoons depicting the struggles and success of characters such as Elsa from Frozen or Carl and Ellie from Up.

Creating their own definitions

Once the concept of growth mindset is better understood, the next step would be to ask pupils to create their own definition of what growth mindset means to them. Once this ownership of growth mindset is accomplished the task now is to identify model growth mindset behaviours/statements and non-model fixed mindset behaviours/statements. Younger children often learn what the right response is by comparing to the wrong opposite response, i.e. the non-model approach.

The following model/non-model exercise can be done with many pupils at the higher end of key stage 2, but may need to be simplified for the lower end. Alternatively, lower end could focus on feedback, praise and a simple set of growth mindset definitions (which I will discuss in part 2 of this series).

The exercise changes the five growth mindset concepts into: Challenge, Effort, Practice, Feedback, Resilience. From a teacher’s viewpoint, it is important to keep it simple, but not simplistic. Therefore, by all means let pupils think in these simple terms, but use your skills to reference and demonstrate negative self-bias, fear of being judged, extra effort is a good thing, etc. Just refer back to the full five growth mindset concepts.

Another common error in implementing the five concepts is to simply tell pupils to “work harder” – i.e. more effort. Sometimes when pupils are met with this one-dimensional response it can be a trigger to “go back into their shell”, get distracted or even keep plodding on until all motivation is used up. This is where specific guidance or feedback is needed either by the teacher, peers, self or a combination of sources.

The table below is adapted from a book by Barry Hymer and Mike Gershon (2014) which looks at effort feedback. I use this adapted table to help self and peer-assessment in terms of effort. A fun way is for paired pupils to self-assess first and then ask a peer to assess them. Again, for lower end key stage 2 you may wish to simplify words based on your knowledge of your pupils.

Finally, using the same principles outlined by Hymer and Gershon, there are excellent examples of how to use metacognition feedback (thinking about thinking) which are ideal for higher end key stage 2 in terms of getting pupils to use prompt thinking boxes to obtain better outcomes.

In essence growth mindset is all about uncovering potential to discover talent. We can now start this process by using the guidance above.

  • Ross McWilliam is a freelance speaker and author. Some ideas in this article have been taken from his new book The Amazing Journey Of CUPPA – His Quest to Find the Five Secrets of the Confident Mindset which is due out this autumn. It features several role models for talent and intelligence role models with embedded video links. Visit

Growth mindset

Part two of this four-part series will publish in Headteacher Update’s November 2016 edition, due out on November 10, 2016.


  • Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, Professor Carol Dweck (2012), Robinson Publishers.
  • Growth Mindset Pocketbook, Hymer and Gershon (2014), Teachers’ Pocketbook Publishers
  • Mindsets in the Classroom, MC Ricci (2013), Prufrock Press
  • Presentation by Prof Dweck in October 2014:

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