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Understanding mindset, grit and resilience

5 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

In the 1880s, anthropologist Franz Boaz was travelling in Northern Canada, living with a local Inuit tribe. He noted that that they had many words to describe snow. Amongst them was ‘aqilokoq’ which describes soft snow and ‘piegnartoq’ which details ‘snow that is good for driving a sled’.

Since then, the myth that Inuit have 1000 words for snow has become almost cliché. It turns out that for the most part, snow is just snow. I was reminded of this the other day when talking to a group of teachers about the focus that their schools have at the moment. One said it was ‘all about Growth Mindset’. Another said they were focusing on ‘Resilience’ and a third said for them it was ‘Grit’.

What was most worrying, is that majority of them said their school didn’t give a clear definition and explanation of what exactly was meant by these terms. During the discussion, it quickly became apparent that everyone was talking about roughly the same thing. They all agreed that their focus could be summed up by three components:

  1. We want students to be motivated to improve
  2. We want our students to be able to deal well with setbacks
  3. We want them to learn from their mistakes

Mindset, Grit and Resilience

So how does Growth Mindset, Resilience and Grit fit into this? Perhaps, defining all three would help:

  • Growth Mindset – Sometimes referred to as ‘incremental theory’ in the research, this is the belief that your abiltiies and intelligence can be developed and improved upon. This area has been studied principally in education with a number of randomised control trials (often seen as the gold-standard of research).
  • Resilience – The Sutton Trust define this as a ‘positive adaptation despite the presence of risk’.  Resilience researchers Dr Mustafa Sarkar and Dr David Fletcher defined it as “the role of mental processes and behaviour in promoting personal assets and protecting an individual from the potential negative effect of stressors”. In layman’s term, it is the ability to use personal qualities to withstand pressure. Originally studied in young children suffering major traumatic events, it has since been researched in both sport and business as well.
  • Grit – This is defined as ‘passion and persistence’ for one topic over a long period of time. Originally studied in American military personnel and students at spelling bees, Grit has been associated with a range of successful outcomes (though interestingly enough not GCSE marks).
Our CPD workshop will help your school foster the right environment to develop gritty, resilient, self-motivated students.

Does it matter what we call it?

On one hand, if we all want 1) students to be motivated to improve, 2) deal well with setbacks and 3) learn from their mistakes, it may not matter what we call it. Maybe the general philosophy is arguably more important than semantics. However, there are some conditions where this does become an interesting issue:

Research-informed interventions

If you are going to use research papers to base your interventions and strategies on, the name matters. At the time of writing, I am unaware of a single study that takes student X and improves their ‘Grit’ score. However, several studies doing the equivalent for Growth Mindset do. So if you are taking an evidence based approach, the research papers on each would lead you down very different paths

Really focus on who you are working with

If you are working with students who have undergone seriously traumatic events, then resilience research may be more appropriate. But does research on this translate to middle class well educated students who are a bit stressed about their upcoming exams? Probably not. Likewise, does research on highly intelligent, motivated and supported students doing a spelling contest (the original Grit research) cross over well to children who are disengaged with education and from a low aspiration area? Again, it’s unlikely.

On the other side of the coin, students who have a fixed view of their ability levels (either a very high one because they have always done well, or a very low one as they have failed frequently) may be ideally suited to a growth mindset intervention as this theory targets both of these areas.

Be wary when they get lumped together

If all three separate psychological constructs of mindset, resilience and grit are lumped together, this can cause some issues. When this happens, a lack of evidence or a negative experience in one can mistakenly be used as ‘proof’ that the other constructs are somehow not worth exploring. Saying ‘X is bad so therefore Y is also’ is a shaky start and not a very scientific approach. This is one of the downsides to calling everything ‘Character Education’.

Final thoughts

Within education, there seems to be a lot more evidence behind the value of growth mindset and examples of how to develop it. Interestingly, evidence from some of these studies show that by developing a growth mindset, students want to persist for longer and are more likely to be gritty. I am not sure the reverse is true (i.e. being more resilient doesn’t neccesarily make you have a growth mindset).

As well as having a larger research base in education, with clearer strategies on how to develop it, developing a growth mindset has a range of positive consequences (that align with teacher’s desire to help students develop motivation, reaction to setbacks and learn from their mistakes). Furthermore, a recent study showed that it is possible to scale growth mindset across a whole school setting. That’s not to say that there isnt value in Resilience and Grit research – far from it.

Growth mindset isn’t a silver bullet or a quick fix. A lot more research needs to be undertaken (thankfully this is happening as we speak). But for now, we think it’s a great area and source of possibilities for how we help nurture the abilities of our students.

From a research perspective, names and labels do matter. Snow is not always snow. The more research you can read (if anyone wants any journals on any of the above topics sent to them please drop us a message on twitter at @Inner_Drive) and if you can keep a critical eye on who the participants were in the study, then you will be well placed to make a judgement call on which area is right for you and your school to focus on.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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