In this explorative article Marcin Lewandowski looks at fostering enabling beliefs about intelligence and ability in an EFL classroom. Students often believe that the reason they can’t learn a language is because, unlike their peers, they don’t have the ‘knack’ for languages. They may therefore give up easily and not try or, as may be the case with learners who believe they have the talent, they may avoid stretching tasks that may show them up as not good enough. These learners plateau early and fossilize before reaching their potential.
The green-eyed monster
Have you ever felt envious of a friend or a colleague communicating effortlessly in another language? At this point you also may have jumped to a conclusion that they ‘obviously’ have a good ‘ear’ for languages, because how can you learn a language so well if you don’t have some kind of innate ability. Anyway, you’ve tried so you know!
Our success in accomplishing a personal, educational or professional goal such as learning a language depends, to a large extent, on our belief in our own talents and abilities; the belief that we’ve got what it takes to complete the task successfully.
What do you believe?
Carol Dweck (2006), a Stanford professor and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, describes two types of individuals. Those who believe that intelligence, talent and ability are innate and immutable (i.e. I was born with a certain amount and that’s that). And those who believe that qualities such as intelligence, talent and ability can change; they are mutable through application and adjustment. Dweck describes the former group as having a fixed mindset and the latter as having a growth mindset.
Mindset (growth or fixed), therefore, acts as a mental filter which determines your behaviours, outlooks and attitudes. Your mindset can have a limiting or enabling effect on your chances of reaching your potential.
For example, if you believe you’re bad at maths, that you have a fixed ability at maths and if everyone around you believes this to be true, you’re less likely to do well in maths. Equally, if you believe you’re bad at learning languages, you’re less likely to be successful in learning them well. All that remains is to be envious of your friend’s God given talents!
However not everyone will see it this way. In fact many of us, probably including our friend – the polyglot, would be incensed at the suggestion that our achievements are an outcome of a genetic lottery; that we somehow came to know the language without any hard work. We are more likely to believe that our abilities and talents are flexible and can be improved provided that enough effort has been put into developing them; that they have little or even nothing to do with genetic endowment.
But how will these two mindsets manifest themselves in our learners? The road to mastering a new language is long, winding and full of obstacles. The mindset that our learners hold will determine how successful they’ll be at navigating it.
We’ve all come across learners who give up at the first sign of struggle. Their fixed mindset causes them to display a helpless response (‘English is stupid!’ or ’I’m not good at it. What’s the point?’). The belief that they don’t have a talent for learning a language inhibits their progress and learning. It is also a self-fulfilling prophecy that places them on a vicious self-perpetuating circle where failure on a task or a test confirms this belief (‘see I told you I was rubbish at English!’) which leads to less effort and further failures, and so on and so forth. To make things worse some teachers may also start to view such learners as ‘slackers’ and feel disinclined to offer them the support they need. As a result these learners may end up being demotivated and disinterested.
Other learners with a fixed mindset may be less conspicuous. They may be high performing learners who attribute their successes to inherent fixed qualities such as talent or intelligence. Such learners like to look good (academically speaking), tend to view effort as evidence of a lack of ability or talent (clever people don’t have to work hard, right?) and may avoid challenging tasks for fear of being found out as not good enough (risk aversion). As a result, they may plateau early and fossilize, never realizing their full potential.
And then there’s the learner who is seemingly uninhibited, happily participating in activities, the learner who will have a go at the trickier tasks even if that means that they may make mistakes, which in their eyes will be opportunities for feedback. Learners like this believe that we can become smarter and develop new abilities if we apply ourselves and persevere. Previous research (Good et al., 2003; Blackwell et al., 2007, reported in Dockterman & Blackwell, 2014) has suggested that holding this belief enables pupils to work harder and achieve better results.
Cultivating the growth mindset
So how can we cultivate this mindset in our learners? There are many methods we can employ to challenge learners’ limiting beliefs. I’ve listed some of my favourite ones below.
1. Be a role model
- If you are/were a language learner yourself, talk about your own struggles as a language learner and what you did to overcome them. This is likely to be very inspirational to your learners who will want to aspire to your level of performance (‘if my teacher can do it, so can I!’)
- If you don’t know any other languages why not take one up. Giving your learners an update on your progress will be motivational for your learners and your own struggle with learning a language will help you better understand your learners and their difficulties.
2. Give a sense of progress
- Show students the progress they’ve made by letting them see themselves doing tasks they couldn’t do before. You could ask them to reflect on any new language (e.g. vocabulary) they’ve learnt in the last week or so. And share any such language with the class.
- Use pre-test/post-test methodology when introducing new material and let students compare their results (distance travelled): students will get used to the idea that with effort they become smarter. You could also ask them to rate themselves on effort/time spent revising (this could provide useful feedback for you especially where the effort doesn’t correlate with the results).
3. Emphasise challenge not success
- Set challenging tasks and guide students, if necessary, and get them used to challenging work.
- Portray challenges as fun and exciting, and easy tasks as boring and less useful for the brain.
- Encourage the use of different strategies when the strategy used does not work.
4. Highlight the value of mistakes in the service of learning
- Some language learners (especially teenagers) may feel inhibited in a public situation so it’s important that you create an environment where learners understand:
- that it’s impossible to tackle a challenge without making some mistakes.
- that learning requires stretching beyond your comfort zone.
- Ask students to share their ‘best’ mistake of the week with you, and what they learnt from it (and do the same yourself!). Learning from mistakes leads to deeper cognitive processing, which in turn leads to better understanding and better retention.
5. Use praise (wisely)
Praise can be a powerful motivator, but how we use it may instil either a fixed or a growth mindset. For example praising ability or talent, as in ‘You got that so quickly. You must be good at this!’ reinforces fixed mindset ideas. A learner receiving such praise may also question his ability: ‘If I don’t get things quickly the teacher will not think I’m good.’ Instead use praise to reinforce positive learning habits, i.e. praise effort, process, strategies or improvement: ‘I’m impressed with how your vocabulary has improved. Revising the words in your glossary has clearly paid off!’
Creating an environment in which learners believe that success in life and learning is not an entitlement afforded to a lucky few, but is instead an outcome of hard work, resilience and perseverance will help them reach their potential, both in English and in life.
Read Marcin’s last article on Enhancing vocabulary learning in the EFL classroom.
Dockterman D, Blackwell L. Growth Mindset in Context: Content and Culture Matter Too.; 2014.
Dweck, C. S. (1999) Self Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. Hove: Psychology Press, Taylor and Francis Group.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.