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Mind over matter

The accumulation of knowledge cannot be the sole foundation of young people’s education, let alone their wider development. Their academic success, wellbeing and mental health depends not just on what they know, but on the development of their character, social intelligence, social and emotional skills, and a range of other non-academic traits and capabilities. These factors do define not just how they progress in school, but also how they interact with their families, their communities, and the wider world. In great schools and education systems, this has always been understood.

In recent years, significant focus has returned to the need for non-academic learning. Character education has gained cross-party support, and developing the character of young people in the UK will likely remain a key objective of the Conservative government’s education policy for the duration of this parliament.

This new concern for wellbeing and character development has been driven by an increasingly robust body of research evidence, detailing not only how non-academic factors such as resilience, grit and empathy can have a profound impact on young people, but also how they can be actively developed through interventions inside and outside the classroom. One of the most promising areas of research related to the non-academic development of young people is that of mindset, based on the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.

The core idea behind mindset is simple. If we believe that our intelligence and abilities are not fixed at birth, but can be developed through effort – if we have a ‘growth mindset’ – then we are more likely to look for challenges, to see failures and setbacks as learning opportunities, and ultimately to achieve more personally and professionally. By contrast, if we have a fixed mindset, we believe that our abilities are unchanging, see setbacks as negative judgements against us, and react badly to failure. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that mindset affects diverse outcomes, from academic attainment to psychological wellbeing, from character capabilities to workplace skills.

Growth mindset can affect a wide range of behaviours, from sense of agency to self-confidence. If these interventions can help us raise academic attainment, tackle social immobility and improve the mental health of young people, then this potential needs to be explored further, with urgency and ambition.