source: brilliant.org

4 mindsets to improve learning for your children (or you!)

Jesse Whelan
Sep 21 · 8 min read

I gave a talk recently at Woollahra Library titled How to transition your child into high school. As part of that talk I spoke about 4 different mindsets that students should hold to improve their success during school.

While the event was aimed at teenagers, I believe the ideas are relevant for all traditional students as well as adult life-long learners. If you are reading this post for yourself just replace the parental tips for activities you should do for yourself :)

1. Ownership mindset

The belief that you as the student (not your parents or teachers) are responsible for your actions, behaviours and learning.

People with an Ownership Mindset

  • Are dependable
  • Are accountable
  • Accept credit when due and acknowledge mistakes

We serve a broad range of families at Sandbox Learning Australia. Something that we find that differentiates the stronger performers is a recognition that they need to be accountable for their learning.

This is especially important as students make the transition from primary school to high school. In primary school students often have the one classroom and teacher. Life is simpler. In high school though students move from classroom to classroom and need to be organised.

We have some students that routinely forget their books and materials at home. After dropping them at tutoring their parents will then go back to home or school, pick up the books and then drop them back off. On the surface this sounds like the act of supportive parents. However think about what this is teaching your children. Doing so sends the message that ‘I don’t need to worry about my actions because if I stuff up Mum or Dad will bail me out”.

How you can encourage an Ownership Mindset

  • Allow children to ‘practice’ taking responsibility
    Taking responsibility is a skill. Like all other skills it only gets better with practice. If we constantly make decisions on behalf of our children we rob them of an opportunity to learn for themselves.
  • Set and follow through with consequences
    Habits are very powerful. When you are trying to get someone to change behaviour it is important to be clear about expectations and consequences. For example if a student forgets to bring an excursion form to school, they shouldn’t go on the excursion.
  • Avoiding bailing children out
    An inevitable part of allowing children to take responsibility is having them fail, and that’s ok. It can be hard to watch our children fail or feel discomfort and so there is a natural temptation to step in and solve their problems. Yet children need to also accept the consequences for their actions. (More on this to come)

2. Entrepreneurship mindset

The belief that all decisions in life come with some level of risk and that failure is a necessary part of trying and getting better.

Successful entrepreneurs have many traits such as big visions and passion. Often forgotten is that they are often great managers of risk. They do not remove all risk, nor do they take reckless risks. They challenge themselves but also put in place systems and processes to handle the risk that they take on.

For example they might work on their startup as a side-job at night and on weekends while collecting a steady paycheck. Rather than assuming they know everything entrepreneurs will test their assumptions as per lean startup principles. Most importantly when things don’t work they try to understand why and use that data when trying next time.

In learning students need to also challenge themselves (take on risk) but manage the downsides. You’ll never get better if you keep doing the same easy things. Try those difficult problem sets but make sure you understand the basics first before diving in.

How you can encourage an Entrepreneurship Mindset

  • Be comfortable with your children failing (in a safe way)
    As parents we want the best for our children and want to make sure they are safe and happy. Yet if we cotton-wool our children and solve all their problems we are teaching them that failure is not acceptable. Logically, if they can’t fail a test in year 5 then they can’t fail a year 6 test (as it must be more important), and so on.

In the end what’s more important: getting good marks on some a particular test or having children develop drive and resilience?

  • Encourage your children to move outside their comfort zones
    Rarely are easy things worth doing and are worthy things easy. Encourage your children to set stretch goals — ones that are achievable but slightly out of reach. Run a little further each day; Play a more difficult song; Attempt the challenge textbook exercises. An exercise students do at Sandbox is to write creatively for 5 minutes without editing — just put pen to paper!
  • Praise children for trying, especially when they fail
    When we try things that are new and difficult failure is inevitable. There is a quote ascribed to the famous inventor and businessman Thomas Edison when he was trying to develop the incandescent light-bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Each attempt gives valuable information about what does and doesn’t work that can be used for the next attempt.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas Edison

3. Mastery mindset

The belief that you should work until you achieve certain outcomes or goals rather than working for a fixed time.

The Mastery Mindset comes from the work of Benjamin Bloom and is the basis of Sandbox Learning Australia’s principle of Mastery Learning.

Mastery Learning is the opposite of traditional time-based learning. Traditionally students are given a fixed amount of time to learn a certain set of content, e.g. 2 weeks to learn a set of grammar rules. At the end of that time the class is often given a test, yet regardless of whether the class knows it well or not at all the class must move on!

Sal Khan of Khan Academy puts this well in his famous TED Talk using an analogy to building a home.

We were told we have two weeks to build a foundation. Do what you can. So they do what they can. Maybe it rains. Maybe some of the supplies don’t show up. And two weeks later, the inspector comes, looks around, says, “OK, the concrete is still wet right over there, that part’s not quite up to code … I’ll give it an 80 percent.”
You say, “Great! That’s a C. Let’s build the first floor.” Same thing. We have two weeks, do what you can, inspector shows up, it’s a 75 percent. Great, that’s a D-plus. Second floor, third floor, and all of a sudden, while you’re building the third floor, the whole structure collapses.

In contrast, Mastery Learning only allows students to move on when they can demonstrate understanding to a certain satisfactory level. Through this approach students first build strong foundations before moving onto more advanced concepts.

How you can encourage a Mastery Mindset

  • Set appropriately high expectations
    People often rise to what is expected of them. You want to encourage students to set goals that are a small stretch yet achievable.
  • Focus on outcomes rather than time spent
    Stop talking about how long things will take or how much time to set aside for study. Instead help your children focus on what they want to get done. This doesn’t mean that time estimates are useless. Just remember they that are estimates of how long something will take, not the end goal.
  • Use tests as indicators that you/they are ready to move on
    Many students get stressed out by test results because they are often used to judge students. Rather than treating test scores as a measure of a child’s ability, use them to understand where the gaps are and when further study is needed. Just because the school needs to move on doesn’t mean that you can’t work on it at home.

4. Growth mindset

The belief that people aren’t born with innate knowledge or skills, and instead pick them up through effort.

Growth Mindsets have become quite popular throughout Australian primary schools in the last 5 years. The term comes from the work of Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University.

Dweck noticed that way that students responded to a setback was often aligned to the mindset they held to learning.

  • Students with a fixed mindset believe that we are all born smart or dumb.
  • In contrast students with a growth mindset believe that abilities and understanding can be developed over time through effort.

Studies have shown that students with a growth mindset work harder when they experience a setback and perform better on tests.

I should note that Dweck’s research is controversial today. Dweck for her part says that her research has been oversimplified and misused in many cases particularly by teachers who just praise effort.

“A growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches — not just sheer effort — to learn and improve.”

How you can encourage a Growth Mindset

  • Avoid labeling students
    It is generally understood that calling students ‘slow’ or ‘dumb’ is not helpful. Less intuitive is the downside of calling students ‘bright’ or ‘clever’. When you label students in this way it is easy for the students to define themselves as the ‘bright’ student. Over time what happens is that these students will avoid situations that challenge their status as ‘bright’. If they aren’t very sure they will be correct, they stop trying, out of fear of not longer being the ‘bright’ kid.
  • Praise effort combined with achievement
    A common misunderstanding about growth mindsets is that it is all about praising effort. This has led to situations where ‘everyone gets a prize’ or a belief that effort not achievement matters. In fact a growth mindset is very much about about achievement.
  • Portray constructive feedback as positive
    In a growth mindset, one understands that improvement is made through effort. Feedback is an important part of this since without understanding gaps, you are at risk of going off in the wrong direction. When your child gets some negative feedback, reinforce that this is actually a great opportunity to improve.

Putting it all together

These 4 mindsets all work together for school.

  1. An Ownership Mindset gets children to take responsibility for their learning;
  2. An Entrepreneurship Mindset gets children to set stretch goals and be comfortable with risk and failure;
  3. A Mastery Mindset gets children to work until they achieve their goals;
  4. A Growth Mindset gets children to push through setbacks as they arise on the path to achieving those goals.

I hope you found this article helpful. If this is the case please give us a clap — it helps spread our message.

Interested in other tips to improve study habits? Check out our other articles on the Leitner Method or tips to boost learning.


Jesse Whelan is the Founder and Director of Learning at Sandbox Learning Australia. He is passionate about helping children maximise learning by using effective long term strategies.

Do you, your child or someone you know need maths help? At Sandbox Learning Australia we use the science of learning to help students gain confidence, improve learning and drive academic success.

If you are in Sydney please contact us to arrange a free baseline assessment of your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Thanks to Elizabeth Nugent

Jesse Whelan

Written by

EdTech entrepreneur, passionate about improving education impact through tech and research-driving practice. Former consultant and engineer. Harvard MBA.

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