I’ve Got My Mindset On You

A a child, my dream was to become a ballet dancer. This was all that I wanted to do. I had what you might call a ‘total growth mindset’ around dancing. I trained for hours each night after school. I practised my pointe work until my toes bled. At the age of sixteen I swept out of the school gates as fast as I could, and went to study at the Central School of Ballet. My teachers included the wonderful, inspirational Christopher Gable. Dance is a highly competitive field. To get to the top, it is not enough just to work hard, you need the right body as well. Some of my fellow students had beautifully arched feet, which looked perfect in pointe shoes. I did not. Some of my fellow students could do the side splits or hold an arabesque at 120 degrees or more. I could not. (Believe me, this was not for lack of trying.) In the end, injury forced my life down a different pathway. But even if it hadn’t, I would never have been Darcey Bussell or Sylvie Guillem. I was corps de ballet or cruise ship material, not soloist or prima ballerina.

I love the idea that effort is more important than attainment. However, I have some niggling concerns about the way that children and young people may interpret this message. When they hear us say ‘you’ll get better at this if you work harder’, will they hear ‘you didn’t get to the top because you didn’t try hard enough’? I’m also troubled about the messages we may send to children with SEND.  For some children, that tiny step forwards took a massive effort of will. For others, it was as natural as breathing. I was a nervous child, conscientious about my school work, desperate to do well. The idea that I’d get to the top as a dancer if only I was thinner, or worked harder, was tempting to believe. This led to some psychological problems that took a good few years post-dancing to overcome. My son said to me the other night that he didn’t want to move up to the top maths set, because he didn’t want the ‘stress and pressure of being a top set kid’. And while part of me thought ‘Don’t be so lazy!’, another part of me thought back to myself as a child, and wondered whether that wasn’t a pretty sensible attitude to take.

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5 Responses to I’ve Got My Mindset On You

  1. whatonomy says:

    You make a very interesting point about the growth mindset. In many ways it’s the psychological equivalent of meritocracy in political philosophy. And the flipside of a meritocracy is the realisation that everything that comes to you is somehow “earned” – both the good and the bad.


  2. Becca Leech says:

    I’ve been struggling with this issue in my special education classroom this year. I’ve tried to use clear “mindset” language and teach it to my class. I like the way it shifts my students’ talk away from terms of being “smart” or “dumb” and frames progress in another way, eg. “You didn’t do so well on that task, and now you have a chance to work and make it better.” But the teens I teach have well-developed crap detectors and call me on it when it I cross the line from telling them that they can always achieve on a higher level to trying to tell them that everyone can achieve at the highest level.


  3. nancy says:

    Sounds a similar sort of boy to one of mine 🙂


  4. What I really like about the growth mindset is that it does maintain high expectations but I have found that it can actually insulate children from feelings of inadequacy, rather than prompting them – it sets self-improvement as the continual end goal, rather than some ultimately achievable target (such as being prima ballerina, I guess). Not all kids can become the very top, by definition of how small this pinnacle is, but the continual pursuit of self-improvement, which is the aim and process of maintaining a growth mindset, is extremely beneficial.


  5. philiprolt says:

    I think Mindset is the most important concept in whole school development. However, I do think it has to be whole school. I wrote an article about mindset myself last week.


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