Mindset is probably the most important factor in how well you succeed in learning English, or achieving whatever it is that you want, and yet it’s rarely discussed in teacher training programmes.
Below is an article I published originally in November 2009 on Engage.cz, before I moved over most of the content to Get Into English. Today, I saw it was in my drafts and thought why not re-publish it.
Level: It’s most suitable for those who are upper intermediate (B2) or higher:
Today I wanted to raise something which we discuss quite a bit on a self-development forum where I work as a moderator: MINDSET. It’s probably not yet in your vocabulary, but it will be.
A range of definitions are available online. For example:
A fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations. (Stedman’s Medical Dictionary)
habits of mind formed by previous experience (1934, from mind (n.) + set (v.).
Online Etymology Dictionary)
a set of assumptions, methods or notations (wikipedia has a longer description in fact)
Well, as I see it, mindset is about you: the attitudes, internal beliefs and assumptions you make about the world which affects how you think and how you behave. As we say on our forum, mindset is everything.
Let’s take a few examples. Author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success“, Carol Dweck, describes two main mindsets we can have. One is fixed, and the other is growth. A person with a fixed mindset is more focussed on a goal, towards achieving some kind of outcome. ie a results-orientated person has a more fixed mindset.
The growth-orientated person is more concerned, not about the destination, but about the journey: focussed more on growing and LEARNING.
What does this have to do with learning English or indeed teaching English?
‘Mistakes are bad’ v. ‘mistakes are good’
For example, consider the Czech attitude towards mistakes, which probably comes from a different kind of teaching at secondary school from what I had in Melbourne. From my ten years of teaching in Prague, I can see A LOT of students were brought up on the idea that mistakes are ‘bad’. When my students make a mistake they sometimes say ‘sakra’ or ‘jsem debil’ or any other phrase to put themselves down. I know one student of mine right now writes in simple sentences perhaps as a way to avoid making mistakes and to avoid being seen as ‘stupid’. I think compared to Australians, people here are more concerned with giving others the impression they are ‘smart’. So my observation is that many students see making mistakes as a loss of face.
Does this fixed mindset really help you get better at English?
In a nutshell, you will still make progress, but perhaps not maximise or optimise your learning.
If you try to develop a growth mindset, you will be less worried about the mistakes you are making, and instead welcome the mistakes you are making as a SIGN that you are in fact ‘growing’ or LEARNING.
I’ll give you another example. A few months ago I wanted to give one of my students a test. The idea behind this was to give her a writing task (eg a story or a formal letter) and use the test as a way of evaluating how much progress she has made, and which ‘sticking points’ we can take from it to help plan future lessons. Maybe *my* mistake was to call it a test: she said she was busy, and that she wouldn’t have time to study. Even though this was a one-to-one class, she didn’t want the ‘test’. A test to her was something you study for, and then either pass or FAIL. She was worried about ‘failing’ while I was concerned about seeing it as a chance to evaluate ‘where are we?’. In the end, she didn’t get the test, and it’s a pity, as it could have helped the learning process.
A growth-orientated approach would be to have the test or do the task, and to have the attitude: “this will be a great chance for me to see what I can do, how well I can do it, and where I can still improve.”
These ideas about mindset are applicable in all areas of your life. For example, if you have a partner who has some faults you don’t really like, how do you react? A person with a fixed mindset may end the relationship, as “people can’t change”. A person with a growth mindset may encourage their partner to develop, or believe that they are also on a journey and will grow and develop as a person.
Fixed v. growth mindset in teachers
Do you have a teacher who is more fixed-mindset oriented or more oriented towards a growth mindset? A teacher with a fixed mindset regarding the learning process may in fact de-motivate their learners. To my mind, a growth mindset in a teacher is therefore a must to encourage learning and providing a less stressful, more supportive learning process.
These ideas about mindset don’t seem to be discussed in Prague, at least among the students I’ve seen recently. For instance, last week I covered a class at a company. Their teacher was sick, so I was just filling in. At one point we got talking about attitudes and learning a language. One of the students said: “The most important thing you need to learn a language is to have a very good teacher, someone who can motivate you.”
As I hint above, I agree it’s important for you to find ‘a good teacher’ (which is subjective, actually, something totally up to you to decide). But there’s one thing which is even more important for a learner:
It wasn’t my class so I didn’t express my opinion as directly as I am here with you. Instead, I politely asked her: “And what about the student? Isn’t the motivation and mindset of the student more important?”
This is not entirely a black and white thing. It may be common for people to show attributes of both mindsets at different times or in different domains.
I’ve taught a great variety of people in the Czech Republic. The ones who made the most progress were the ones who wanted to learn, who looked at the bigger picture of learning, and who had the mindset that ultimately they – the student – is responsible for their own learning and motivation.
In the coming weeks try to see your mistakes as a positive way for you to learn. I encourage you to consider focussing more on the process of learning, and I am sure you will feel better about yourself as a result, as well as making more progress towards improving your skills in English.
Published on: Nov 5, 2009 @ 18:07