Where the education system restricts the growth mindset.

Most education stakeholders want to create learning environments where pupils can develop a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. This is easier said than done. Our school system has developed into a framework that keeps kids and educators from developing a growth mindset. A growth mindset helps children and adults to confront self-imposed limitations, ideas like “I can’t do math” or “I’m just not good at that” and increases their ability to tackle fields of learning where they are lacking. This is why the time spent in the education system plays such a crucial role: If we want our children to make most of their talents and equip them with the right attitudes for life, it is important to imbue them with a growth mindset at school.

But how? How can you turn this powerful theory into practice, in spite of the many restrictions imposed upon them by the system? How do you raise students’ awareness of the importance of having the right mindset and help them to form this mindset? How can you create a framework where pupils can develop a growth mindset with as few adjustments as possible?

In this article I will try to point the reader to a few good practices. In the first part, I’ll try to explain how the educational system can restrict the growth mindset, drawing on an example from the Dutch educational system. In the second part I will try to give some practical tips on how to translate the growth mindset theory by Carol Dweck into practice and illustrate that, in this way, it is possible to create an environment where pupils can develop a better attitude towards themselves and the learning process.

The complexity of the Belgium education system

Before talking about the challenges facing the development of a growth mindset in the Belgian education system, let me outline the structure and some of the quirks of our system. When we talk about the Belgian education system, we’re actually talking about three entirely different education systems. Belgium is divided into three communities: the French speaking community, the Flemish speaking community and the German speaking community. The communities are responsible for cultural, linguistic and educational affairs. In this article I want to focus on the education system in the full-time Flemish secondary school

A 12-year-old pupil in a Flemish school starts in 1A or 1B. 1A stands for a general study with the option of learning Latin. 1B (pre-vocational track) is meant for pupils who haven’t acquired the competences taught in primary school.  After a few years the pupil has to choose a field of study (ASO, BSO, TSO or KSO) which all offer distinct qualifications. ASO, the “general secondary education”, prepares pupils for higher education programs (university or college). TSO, technical secondary education prepares pupils for practical positions in professional life or a follow-up study in higher education. Here the pupil will find a mix between general subjects, technical subjects and practical subjects. KSO, art secondary education, is an artistic education where the pupils are prepared for a position in professional life or follow-up studies in higher education. BSO, vocational secondary education gives pupils the opportunity to practise a profession immediately after obtaining their degree. If they want to, they can continue their studies. Each field of study offers a different specialization with its subjects (ex. ASO Latin, ASO Sciences-sports, TSO sciences, BSO marketing, …).

Figure: the Flemish education system (UNESCO, 2007)

How the system works against growth mindset

In this paragraph I would like to elaborate the idea that within an educational system it is difficult to create an environment where a pupil can develop a growth mindset. The first obstacle is that pupils are divided into classes. The second obstacle concerns grades and the focus some educational systems are putting on it. The last obstacle is a consequence of the Flemish education system; ‘the waterfall syndrome’.

Today’s education system tends to group pupils together according to same age, performance and/or interests. This restricts the development of a growth mindset, because we attribute certain characteristics to pupils based on factors such as class, gender, age and ethnicity. Educational systems differ widely of course, but there seems to be a consensus about the need to divide the pupils based on their performance and/or interests in most systems. The expectations that teachers have of their pupils are usually based on these narrow characteristics, which can easily turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.

The second obstacle concerns grades. In some education systems grades are important and schools are focusing on them.  Problems arise when pupils focus solely on grades as a measure of success. If things get difficult for pupils, they can quickly feel inadequate, become discouraged and lose confidence in their abilities. Grades often feel like fixed and unchanging and therefore seem to mock the idea that intellectual growth is possible in all subjects.

The Flemish educational system unfortunately creates what we call a “waterfall syndrome”. All pupils start in the most difficult form of education (ASO). If pupils fail the standards imposed on them here, they are forced to enlist in an easier, more practical study. This system is highly demoralizing for most students. Within ASO, you can choose from a variety of subjects. Studies show, that pupils who do not start with subjects considered prestigious such as Latin or Greek, they seem to feel like they are failing from the onset. Because of this feature of the education system we are creating narrow-minded pupils with a pessimistic view of their own potential by focusing too much on where the pupil stands at a given moment we lose sight of where he or she could end up.  This way pupils get the impression that their future is determined simply by their choice of study. If the pupil enlisted into a BSO study, some schools communicate to their pupils that they deem it impossible for them to pursue higher studies such as college or university.

How a teacher can create an environment for growth mindset

The Education system might pose a challenge to the development of a growth mindset, but it doesn’t mean that we as educators can’t create better learning environments where pupils can develop their potential. In this second part of the article I will try to explain how we as teachers can enable growth mindset within our students.

  • Teachers should have high expectations of all students. They should search for evidence to monitor and heighten these expectations. The goal of school is to help all students outdo themselves. As a teacher your goal should be to let the pupils know that they can do even better every time.
  • The lesson preparations should be based on justified high expectations of the results of pupils. Don’t ask your pupils to do the minimum, but always expect the best. For example, make the objectives of the day clear and come back to it at the end of the lesson.
  • The teacher should be sensitive to each pupil’s learning needs.
  • Focus on the commitment of each pupil and not on his or her abilities. If a pupil does well, praise the commitment and not their intelligence, if you focus to much         on their intelligence they will worry about how smart they are and become afraid to fail. They will likely compare themselves to others.
  • Give feedback on the pupil’s efforts or the strategies he/she has used. When a pupil fails, talk about what he did wrong and how he/she can do it differently next time. Teachers should help pupils understand that it’s the effort that counts. Too many pupils think that commitment is only necessary for pupils who do not automatically master that subject matter, while persistent commitment is the key to excellent performance on for longer time.
  • Teachers can support pupils to enjoy challenges. Teach them that doing simple tasks is a waste of time and they should be confronted with challenges so that it is fun. Have them think of strategies that they can use to master challenges. Teach them to see the value of learning and don’t let them get overly anxious over their results. Grades are important, but learning is more important.
  • Show an open mindset yourself. Teachers are the most important role model when it comes to developing a growth mindset within the classroom. If you model your own work as imperfect, you can help your students understand that everyone makes mistakes and that you have to reflect upon your work all the time, your whole life
  • Perseverance is the key. Even more so as every method in the classroom, growth mindsets needs to be developed over the long run. Don’t quit trying after two sessions where the students didn’t grasp the idea. I mean, this is what growth mindset is all about. Show them!

The best, of course. is a combination of the treats above. Show that you value learning and challenges as well as grades. But above all, show the numbers to your pupils as a representation of their performances at that moment and not of their intelligence or value. Finally, creating an environment beneficial to a growth mindset in the classical classroom is all about balance. As a teacher you should find a balance in the way you communicate about grades, study choices and expectations towards your students.


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  • Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Robinson.
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  • http://www.vubtoday.be/nl/content/watervalsysteem-middelbaar-onderwijs-blijft-dominant (consulted on 27/09/2018)
  • https://www.growthmindsets.nl/tips#wat-kunnen-leerkrachten-doen-om-leerlingen-te-helpen ( consulted on 05/10/2018)