Japan has one of the best education systems in the world. One aspect of their success may be down to their belief that what grade you can achieve is a matter of effort and very little to do with your genetics (Crehan, 2016).  From a very young age, this idea is drilled into them. This gives them what is known as a ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck, 2006).

‘Growth mindset’ has been a trendy topic in recent years. But what is a growth mindset?

Imagine that you are set the task of answering a difficult set of questions – ones that go beyond what you already know and that you have a reasonable chance of getting wrong. Try the question below:

Q: Why are siphonophores only found in the midnight zone of the ocean?

Unless you are an expert in marine biology you are unlikely to have even heard of a siphonophore – but you may be able to have something of a guess at the answer to this question. For the curious, the answer is at the end.

So when the inevitable happens and you do get a question wrong – how do you react? Do you see it as a personal failure? Surely if you were clever enough you could have got it right? Having this attitude is known as a ‘fixed mindset’. Or do you see it as you should do, as an opportunity to grow and to learn? Having tried to answer the question you have learnt that you did not know the answer, and you now know if you read the answer below you will learn something new. This is called a ‘growth mindset’. Having a growth mindset has been associated with all sorts of positive outcomes, including, in a meta-analysis with over 350,000 people, higher grades (Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, & Macnamara, 2018) but also better mental health (Schleider, Abel, & Weisz, 2015).

In another blog, we talked about how testing is not just a tool of assessment but a great way to learn and help you to remember. We also talked about how this is true even if you fail. Moser, Schroter, Heeter, Lee & Moran (2011) showed that students with a growth mindset had more brain activity after an error suggesting that they engaged with errors more (and therefore were probably more likely to learn from their mistakes).

Learning requires effort and can be difficult. But these are not necessarily bad things – this is your brain forming new connections between neurons. Like training your muscles to play a sport, with practice it becomes easier but it will always take effort. This effort is a sign that it is working not a sign of failure – just like when your muscles hurt a little after a strenuous workout, it is a sign that you’ve worked really hard and are getting stronger, not that you are weak!

For the curious the answer to the question ‘Why are siphonophores only found in the midnight zone of the ocean?’ is:

Siphonophores are gelatinous. They live in the high pressure of the midnight zone. If they rise up in the ocean the pressure drops. This means that they expand. If they continue to go up, they will continue to expand up until the point where they would pop.

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