In asserting that it is the aim of all educational systems around the world to maximise the learning of every individual, I am probably not much wrong. In the UK, many schools articulate their commitment to developing every individual through making mission statements that promise to “fulfil every individual’s potential”. But how do we know what is this “individual potential” and how can we measure if, indeed, it has been fulfilled? Does “fulfilling potential” equate to an assumption that ‘potential’ is a finite phenomenon which is fixed or predetermined? By making such statements, do we, unintentionally, put a ceiling to learning and achievement?
I have a great deal of admiration for Carol Dweck’s important research findings regarding motivation to learn and her thinking relating to the effects of person-praise on future learning, and her idea of “fixed”[i] and “growth”[ii] mindsets. However, when following the ‘growth mindset’ theory, which undoubtedly explains why some students are more successful in learning than others, I struggle to reconcile the references to “fulfilling potential”, as in the title of C. Dweck’s book: Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, and can only assume that the notion of “potential” in this context is only used anecdotally.
My thinking is that there is no ceiling to learning (growth mindset) because there is always that next step to aim for on any learning ladder. When working with students, I like to concentrate on building their learning capacity for life, rather than thinking about ‘fulfilling their potential’ – a notion that can sound like a cliché and, more importantly, can seem more like a ‘fixed mindset’, where the fulfilment of one’s potential is projected as something that can be ‘arrived at’ in the sense of a final destination. And to my mind, this is not how we should see learning because there is no final destination regarding learning and achievement, where attitude to learning (growth mindset) is a key ingredient to success.
In developing new framework for the national curriculum, it has been reported that ranking of 11-year old pupils in ability bands may be one way of reporting and monitoring progress. This is not a novel idea; schools already have their pupils’ baseline data, which puts them into different ability bands thus giving schools valuable information regarding their pupils’ different starting points. There is nothing wrong with that, to the contrary, this provides a springboard for monitoring personal improvement or setbacks, and is a useful tool for informing intervention where needed. As with any assessment data, it is the purpose for which it is used that is crucial, not its existence, or the fact that pupils are categorised in ‘bands’ according to their ability levels as informed by standardised assessments. Indeed, University of Durham (CEM) assessments can assess attitudes to learning – a key piece of information regarding whether a student’s mind tends to be of a ‘fixed’ or ‘growth’ persuasion.
Where educational systems in some countries put greater emphases on effort rather than on ability, for example Singapore, China, Korea, Honk Kong, this works in synergy with the idea of a ‘growth mindset’, where individuals (learners and employees) believe that effort can bring the desired results, and this belief motivates them to succeed in problem solving and building learning capacity for life. However, the British system has always been driven by the notion of ‘ability’ rather than ‘effort’ and this, based on Dweck’s research, I would argue can lead to a ‘fixed’ mindset, which is not in tune with effective personal development or conducive to developing learning sustainability.
As the debate about the new national curriculum framework continues, we have heard much about the content and little in terms of aims, purpose and assessment – an integral element of learning – that in the long run, I believe, will determine the success of the new curriculum in terms of improving standards and building students’ learning capacity for life. Research-informed, I contend that, ultimately, success is determined by effective teaching, whatever the content, and therefore effective classroom practices focused on involving learners in their learning processes through, for example, sharing explicit learning intentions and success criteria, peer and self-assessment, are absolutely crucial for developing growth mindsets and self-regulated, autonomous learners with learning capability for life.
As the curriculum debate dominates educational news, making comparisons with educational systems abroad, and there are cultural differences, for example regarding preferences for learning, where in some cultures students learn best individually and in others co-operatively (team-work is valued), it is worth considering the impact of these differences on particular educational achievement and how it manifests itself. Some of the successful educational systems are characterized by high degree of autonomy and independence regarding decision making, for example in Finland, New Zealand, Hong Kong or Singapore; there are also differences in teacher training and selection as well as the value placed on educational achievement by different societies. Therefore making direct comparisons can be difficult and it can be flowed, unless numerous variables are explored. We should also remember that ‘curriculum’ is not suspended in a vacuum as it is a part of a bigger picture, which could be best described as ‘learning and teaching’ in any setting. Therefore the success in raising standards of learning of any proposed new curriculum will be unpacked in practice, however, we should be concerned with the proposed programmes of learning and how they are informed and supported by effective assessment for moving learning forward. Ultimately, the evidence of progress will be reflected in assessment outcomes and this is why there is now a great opportunity to develop an effective assessment system for feeding forward that would blend high-stake testing with classroom (formative) assessment for improved progress.
Thus whether we talk anecdotally about ‘fulfilling one’s potential’ or as I prefer, we refer to ‘building learning capacity for life’, we are all concerned with learning, and learning is exactly what we should be concerned with because it signifies growth, advancement, improvement and development in every sense. We should also be concerned with developing ‘growth mindsets’ for future success
 Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Learning Potential. London: Constable & Robinson ltd.
[i] Fixed mindset is defined as a strong belief in one’s ability (intelligence) as basis for success, rather than effort, where individuals tend to hide their mistakes and deficiencies, and react negatively to setbacks.
[ii] Growth mindset is based on effort and is focused on learning and achievement.