The Theory

At the very centre of the coaching programme is the concept of the Growth Mind-set developed by Prof Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Stamford University.

    fixed mindset          growth mindset

A ‘Fixed’ mind-set believes in a fixed level of intelligence and therefore someone’s ability to succeed when facing a challenge is fixed. The opposite of this fixed mind-set is a ‘Growth’ mind-set. A growth mind-set sees intelligence as something that can be developed -or ‘grown’.

Watch this animation of Dweck explaining the potential of Mindset theory on improving the learning potential of students in school to ind out more…

For more information about how Carol Dweck’s work and how growth mind sets are being developed in other schools in the UK follow this link to the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Mindchangers’.

The coaching programme is aimed at supporting identified pupils to develop a growth mind-set so that they face educational challenges with greater resilience, become more intrinsically motivated and therefore achieve much better.

The research and evidence base

So where is the evidence for this is extraordinary claim that such a simple concept as transforming fixed mind-sets into growth mind-sets is the answer to it all and will unlock the potential of our pupils to take full advantage of what our school has to offer?

Where does the idea that intelligence is fixed come from?

Fixed mind-sets originate from the idea that intelligence is ‘fixed’. This idea itself is deeply embedded in or cultural image of intelligence and its roots originate in the IQ test originally developed by French Psychologist Alfred Binet at the very start of the last century. The IQ test is a test that produces a scaled measure of a logical intelligence.

Ironically Binet’s principal goal was to identify students whom scored low on this scale and therefore who needed special help in coping with the school curriculum. Binet himself protested at the time of the idea that intelligence is fixed:



“Some recent philosophers seem to have given their moral approval to these deplorable verdicts that affirm that the intelligence of an individual is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be augmented. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we will try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing.”

Alfred Binet

Les idées modernes sur les enfants (1909)


However his scale has become established in our culture as determining an individual intelligence and their fixed ability. This has led our culture to believe that where ever you are on this scale determines your future success.

Recent and significant technological and scientific advancements, such as neurological MI scanning, have dramatically changed our understanding of the true nature of intelligence and how we learn. In fact it has been completely turned on its head. Now established scientific theory of intelligence and learning agrees that intelligence is far from fixed, it can be increased, and in addition to this, the definition of intelligence is now much broader and recognises a far wider range of intelligence that includes creativity, kinesthetic, emotional etc (to name just a few); whereas Binet’s IQ test was limited to measuring only a narrow band of logical intelligence. This new understanding of intelligence and how we learn is leading educational practice around the globe to the edge of a renaissance.

For more on this subject I recommend the following books by Sir Ken Robinson; The Element, Out of Our Minds, Creative Schools.

Sir Ken Robinson – How Are You Intelligent? from The Inspiration Journey on Vimeo.


Learning without Limits

Expectations (pupils own and teachers of them) –Prof John Hattie

The rub is that this idea of fixed intelligence is still so deeply ingrained in our culture that it exists both in our cultural subconscious and in our individual subconscious. It is in this subconscious domain that that battle should be fought.

If we hold, albeit subconsciously, the belief that intelligence is fixed then we are going to have a fixed expectation of ourselves and of our own abilities and also of the pupils that we teach. However we now have a new weapon in our armoury to tackle this.

Prof John Hattie of Auckland University has conducted the largest ever body of research relating to student achievement. His research comprised of a meta-analysis (analysis of other collected research) involving over 55,000 pieces of research, covering 63 countries and nearly ¼ of a billion students in total and took 15 years to complete. He named this huge body of evidence ‘Visible Learning’. What makes this particular body of evidence so powerful is its scale. Data can be misleading if either unreliable or interpreted incorrectly. However the larger the data set the less this is an issue and the more reliable the data becomes. In terms of scale his works dwarfs all other work prior and since. Making it very important tool in the development of the future of education both national and globally.

He describes a list of 150 different effects relating to students achievement that are ranked according to a clear and objective measure of their impact. ‘Self-efficacy’ – the confidence/strength/belief that we can make our own learning happen features very prominently in the very top effects out of the rank order of the total 150.  This demonstrates that working to improve this ‘Self-efficacy’ is the key to significant impacting on pupils outcomes. Low expectations pupils place on themselves, and those that teachers place on them, are the single most significant barrier to learning. See Visible Learning For Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning –John Hattie (Routledge 2012).

Carol Dweck’s work has explored this idea and has resulted in the building of a new understanding of the nature of mind-sets, and more importantly, how these can be influenced to change from a fixed mind-set to become a growth mind-set.

Silver bullet?

This all may seem a little pie in the sky. At first glance it does seem, at best, built on shaky ground and at worst a bit implausible. This is no silver bullet nor on its own is it the answer. Only within the well-constructed curriculum delivered by well trained and capable professionals that exists here at QE will it work.

The following excerpts from the peer reviewed Psychology paper: Social-Psychological Interventions in Education : They’re Not Magic D S. Yeager & Gregory M. Walton (2011) provides some observed evidence to underpin the theory behind the Coaching programme and explains how such simple psychological theory applied in short term bouts of intervention lead to significant and snowballing effect months and years afterwards.

Consider a passenger jet that speeds down the runway and lifts into the air. It can seem surprising even to an experienced flier how an object that weighs many tons can fly. This is because the miracle of flight relies on numerous interrelated forces, some more obvious than others. It is not hard to see that a plane needs an engine, wings, and a pilot to fly. Similarly, a student needs content to learn, a teacher to teach, and a place or community to support that learning. These factors shape the objective school environment and create essential capacities for success. But less obvious features of airplanes and of education systems are also critical to their success. One reason planes fly is because their wings are sculpted to create an aerodynamic force (“lift”) that elevates the plane. It is natural to wonder how a small change in the shape of a wing could make a heavy object fly. Basic laboratory research helps explain the principles of air-flow and shows that the shape and position of wings cause air to flow faster below them than above them, lifting a plane beyond what might seem possible. In a similar way, hidden yet powerful psychological forces, also investigated through basic science, can raise student achievement. An engineer uses theories of fluid dynamics to fine-tune a wing, which, in the context of other factors, makes a plane fly. Analogously, a social-psychological perspective uses basic theory and research to identify educationally-important psychological processes and then subtly alters these processes in a complex academic environment to raise performance….

….effects of brief psychological interventions may be non-intuitive for at least three reasons. First, it is often difficult to see the forces on which these interventions operate. We do not see air flowing over a wing; nor do we easily see how subtle psychological factors like the influence of negative intellectual stereotypes or of beliefs about the nature of intelligence affect students’ performance. Indeed, we may see the power of such processes only when they are altered.

(Page 274)

Withdrawing the barriers to learning

Dweck and colleagues have investigated how students’ implicit theories of intelligence shape their interpretation of and response to academic setbacks. In laboratory research, Dweck found that students who believe that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable (an entity theory of intelligence) are more likely to attribute academic setbacks to a lack of ability than students who believe that intelligence is malleable and improvable with hard work and effort (an incremental theory of intelligence). Students with the incremental theory instead see setbacks as due to insufficient effort or a poor strategy. In turn, such attributions shape whether students respond to setbacks helplessly (withdrawing effort) or resiliently (redoubling effort, seeking help, using a better strategy, etc.)

(Page 277)

Little idea – big impact

What can seem especially mysterious is how a time-limited or one-shot social-psychological intervention can generate effects that persist far ahead in time. For instance, people may assume that an intervention has to remain in mind to continue to be effective. But like any experience, a psychological intervention will become less focal as it recedes in time. As we suggest below, a key to understanding the long-lasting effects of social-psychological interventions is to understand how they interact with recursive processes already present in schools, such as the quality of students’ developing relationships with peers and teachers, their beliefs about their ability, and their acquisition of academic knowledge. It is by affecting self-reinforcing recursive processes that psychological interventions can cause lasting improvements in motivation and achievement even when the original treatment message has faded in salience.

(Page 275)

If we can really inspire students to believe that they have the ability to develop their own intelligence themselves, and that the fastest and best way to do this is to throw themselves into challenges, then we will truly lift the ceiling on what they are capable of and create an environment of learning without limits.

This idea of supporting pupils to take control is most eloquently communicated in the last 4 lines of William Ernest Henley 1888 poem ‘Invictus’.  Nelson Mandela drew strength from this poem during his long isolated incarceration on Robben Island.


It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.