Focusing on performance is the enemy of the growth mindset

Over the past year or so I’ve been following a line of thinking which has gone something like this:

Learning and performance are not the same thing. Pupils’ performance in lessons does not correspond with learning. Learning is invisible and takes place over time. We may be able to infer something about what has been learned by examining performance, but more often than not, we won’t. Learning may follow from performance, but it may not. Performance may indicate learning, but, again, it may not. Responding to cues when something is fresh in our minds is easy. Learning is only learning if skills and knowledge are retained over the long term.

If this is true (and there’s a formidable body of research which says it is) then it follows that as teachers we must be careful to disassociate learning from performance. Many people fool themselves into believing that they can see learning taking place. This provides us with false comfort and leads to very poor decision making. It may, for instance, lead us to assume that just because our skilful use of traffic lights and exit tickets indicates that everyone has learned something in our lesson we are in a position to move on and begin covering another topic. To varying degrees, most teachers, in most schools operate on this assumption.

Counter-intuitively, it also appears to be the case that if performance is reduced in the short term, our ability to retain and transfer new knowledge and skills is increased over the longer term. If true, this is particularly worrying as schools are set up to maximise short term performance gains. We may well be actively undermining our own best efforts to get children to learn.

Now, it’s certainly true that we may be interested in pupils doing more than ‘merely’ acquiring new skills and knowledge with the domains of the subjects we teach. We may also have an interest is fostering a ‘love of learning’ and turning pupils into ‘life-long learners’. This is a laudable aim, but a lot of foolishness has been perpetrated in trying to achieve it. There’s bucket loads of research of the various desirable ‘non-cognitive’ skills, ranging from motivation to perseverance to resilience and, naturally, a lot of effort has been put into how we might go about teaching these qualities. None more so perhaps than the fabled Growth Mindset, popularised by Carol Dweck’s pop psychology classic, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential.

I thought I knew pretty much all I needed or wanted to know about Dweck’s theories until I had the good fortune to listen to Barry Hymer talk about we can create growth mindsets at a conference at which I was also speaking. In his talk, Barry drew a clear distinction between ‘mastery’ and ‘performance’ drawing on the work of Senko et al: Mastery goals focus on acquiring and developing competence, whereas performance goals are focussed on demonstrating one’s competence and outperforming others. He demonstrated how mastery goals trump performance goals every time:

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Interestingly, in the crucial ‘perform well in tests’ category mastery and performance goals have the same chance of success in Hymer’s table but I’m not sure that this can be true if what we know about the benefits of reducing performance are true. But, even if it is true, who is likely to learn best? Who is likely to retain information after it’s been used to prove competence? As Nuthall says: “Ability appears to be the consequence, not the cause of differences in what students learn from their classroom experiences.” If we continue to value increases in short-term performance, then it follows that many pupils will continue to set these goals for themselves.

Maybe if we really want students to develop a growth mindset which will equip them with grit, resourcefulness and resilience, we need to stop focusing on what they can do, and accept that the central tenets of Assessment for Learning are holed below the waterline. Any classroom practices which encourages teachers or pupils to believe that assessment proves learning must be rooted out and exposed as the harmful nonsense it often is.

Instead, teaching for mastery will not only lead to the rounded and resilient pupils we all want, but it will also lead to improved exam performance.

So, what’s stopping us?

The are two huge obstacles in our path. The first is the institutionalised nature of schools themselves. Everything about schools is set up to value performance over mastery and learning. It would be a brave school indeed that sought to unpick the fabric of classrooms and curriculums and introduce a structure that supported sustained instead of rapid progress. But why do we have schools like this?

Well, that’s the second and perhaps more overwhelming problem. We intuitively believe that increasing performance is a good thing. It feels good to perform well and it’s uncomfortable to struggle. Pupils are happier with lessons in which they perform well; teachers feel happier designing schemes of learning which allow pupils to jump from one feel good performance to the next and school leaders feel happier with a curriculum that tick boxes, covers content and, with a fair trailing wind, tons of last minute intervention and determined teaching to the test will result in predictably decent exam performance. Anything that confirms this bias is welcomed and anything that contradicts it is dismissed.

It’s all very well to tell pupils that we want them to get cleverer through taking risks and making mistakes but nothing in the way behave supports this message. We are deeply suspicious, for instance, of teachers struggling and would much prefer to cultivate competence than run the risks required for real mastery. We may say we value growth mindsets but we have a systemically fixed mindset view about what schools should be doing. If we want change, we need to stop making the same old mistakes and start making some new ones.

Related posts

What if we stopped making the same mistakes?
The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons
The problem with progress Part 2: Designing a curriculum for learning

28 Responses to Focusing on performance is the enemy of the growth mindset

  1. mrbenney says:

    Hi David. Lots of big questions here as always. Too much thinking for a Sunday afternoon. One question though: isn’t performance in class (doing/showing something you may or may not retain) different from the performance in the growth mindset (the performance goal being demonstrating the competence which you have already mastered)? Or am I barking up the wrong tree. Great blog as ever ,

    • David Didau says:

      Why do you think they’re different? I’m not sure I understand your question.

      • mrbenney says:

        If a pupil does something in class which they couldn’t do before we call it (according to Bjork) performance because we can’t call it learning because we have no way of knowing if it will be retained. My reading of the word performance in growth mindset terms is being motivated to improve only because they want to show how good they are and to outperform others. Surely the term performance has 2 different meanings here?

  2. Becca Leech says:

    This is great. My thoughts exactly. I think what stops us is a short-term mindset, which doesn’t seem to be improving. Political re-election cycles are also a factor – since politicians need to report results from the most recent policy change in time for next vote.

  3. Debaser says:

    Surely the problem is that our whole system is predicated on short term ‘performance’ over a six week period of terminal exams.

    If I understand it correctly, Hymer is drawing a distinction between the ‘acquisition’ and the ‘demonstration’ of competence. I don’t see how we can promote ‘acquisition’ and ‘development’ over ‘demonstration’ unless we abolish terminal exams and move to different mode of assessment.

    How would ‘teaching for mastery’ work in practice? Would it involve refusing to give summative grades on marked work? Would we stop using terms like ‘progress’ entirely?

  4. 4c3d says:

    My comments are a perspective on this article from my experience and current thinking. They are more in the form of a series of statements than a coherent response so please bear this in mind when reading but I felt it was important to further this discussion by making several “observations”.

    I see learning as the bridge to understanding. We can recognise understanding through actions, thoughts, and ideas that use knowledge to interpret situations, events or solve problems.

    My view is that there are two curricular on which education can be based. The first is a knowledge based curriculum and the second a learning based curriculum. They are not exclusive but one can dominate the other. The language of a knowledge based curriculum is one of performance, targets, scores, and grades.

    Having a “Growth Mindset” is an indication of understanding your learning map (the landscape of learning experiences drawn by learner as they explore learning). Further having an understanding of LQ (knowing that you can manage your learning environment to meet your learning needs see ) requires the learner to accept the concept of a Growth Mindset as a reality.

    Performance goals are competitive and not co-operative in nature and nurture. Effort and time lost in competition limits ultimate growth.

    Accepting that the learning environment in schools is toxic to mastery and difficult to unpick is why it is important to equip learners with the tools to manage their own learning environment, i.e. develop their LQ. LQ is the language and tool for life “long learning”.

    Feeling happy with a curriculum that provides a feel good factor in producing a performance and involves tick boxes and covers content are all indicators of the knowledge dominant curriculum and example of why it is so seductive. It is easy to generate information that suggests it is succeeding and reward the system that produces it.

    Making mistakes is part of learning, in fact I would argue you cannot learn without making them. In essence learning is a problem solving process and can be represented by the design cycle and our need to be creative.

    Comments always welcome


    • David Didau says:

      I’m afraid this statement: “I see learning as the bridge to understanding.” doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. ‘Understanding’ is a devilishly nebulous concept and useless without remembering. I see learning more as understanding + remembering. This being the case, I disagree with your comment on there being 2 competing curriculum models. All curriculums are ‘learning based’, most though are founded on bias, misunderstanding and intuition. Needless to say, they’re ineffective. A much better model is a ‘mastery’ curriculum in which pupils would acquire new knowledge and practise application until they were at least competent. I fundamentally and vigorously disagree with the view that “a curriculum that provides a feel good factor in producing a performance and involves tick boxes and covers content are all indicators of the knowledge dominant curriculum”. This is the exact opposite of everything I believe.

      My only real gripe with mindset theory is that it provides confirmation bias for all kinds of wrong headed thinking rather than providing a clear distinction between performance and mastery.

      Thanks for commenting, David

      • 4c3d says:

        I agree that understanding is a “devilishly nebulous concept” and so wishing to add “remembering” is understandable. However making learning a composite in this way does not prevent it being a process, a “bridge”, a way of reaching understanding and remembering.

        There has to be a way of describing how we move from acquiring knowledge (‘learning by rote’ or memorising) to understanding it (and being able to use it – thereby requiring remembering) and to me this is the process of learning. There are some verbal references that support this idea I think – “learning by doing” and “learning form mistakes” suggest to me an activity taking place, something that moves thinking on and requires engagement in the process.

        In practical terms I hold to the premise there are two distinct curriculums. Early in our lives much “learning” is passive requiring little “thinking” although questions as to “why” do emerge the learner (a passive character not one that challenges or questions – well not too often!) is encouraged to continue for some future purpose when all will become clear. This characterises much of early schooling and with the pressure to “perform” it is an seductive crutch that disguises true learning in later examination/performance focused systems where regurgitating what is has been taught is all that is required.

        If you believe that all curriculums are learning based then we must have a different view on learning. Perhaps it is the activity of “practice” to which you refer that aligns with the idea of learning being a process requiring engagement. As a teacher I can clearly see a difference in planning, delivery, and assessment of a knowledge based and learning focused curriculum. I have a problem of limiting learning to a mastery curriculum that is characterised by pupils acquiring knowledge and practice application until competent. I see this as rather limiting and perhaps rather dull! What I would refer to as a learning curriculum also including the idea of “mindful learning” where we are encouraged to make mistakes, to explore and to ask questions. I have no argument about learning for or through need (no matter how it is created or arrived at)and I would suggest such a curriculum is the more effective of any model.

        Your final statement suggests to me that you believe in creating a curriculum that is knowledge based and perpetuates the idea that a good performance is one where boxes are ticked and where the focus is on content. I obviously miss understood your earlier comment. Is this at odds with advocating a “mastery curriculum”?

        Is it is the case that with whatever theory we hold others will not fully understand it as we do and thereby wrongly apply it with the all the energy of enthusiasm for the quick fix and misinterpretation they can muster?

        Thanks for commenting, Kev

  5. cazzwebbo says:

    Liked this post. Felt like there’s a lot here I’m not familiar with and have some more learning to do myself. But, the touchstone I do have with this is on the topic of intangibles. I’m referring to it because I’ve looked into it a little bit in the past and it’s my feeling that although measuring performance based on assessment is not the way to go, somebody, somewhere will always want to measure something. Rightly or wrongly. And this of course creates the environment operated in and what people spend energy on trying to make sure is there. The imperative to measure, be accountable, evaluate effectiveness is so deep rooted in our social and economic genetic blueprint that I don’t see how we can break free from its shackles. But I do think the way to side step the issue is to re-focus on more relevant indicators that get under the skin of what is really meaningful. Start measuring new things and you will start to see different outcomes? So, if the mastery vs performance route is the way to go then it sounds like that could provide the relevant indicators under the skin of meaning that you’re looking for. And these would be the intangibles to play with.

    At the same time, in terms of a corresponding paradigm for management to ‘measure the performance’ of the whole school, or even education system (?), you’d need to shift the focus onto equally relevant indicators that would get under the skin of what was meaningful at that level, too. This would link back to the wider Ofsted driven agenda that forces schools and educational establishments to try to achieve certain goals because they know that’s what they are being measured against. It’s a bit of a ‘strategic planning’ model with a bit of TQM thrown in, very top-down, command control, without enough of the ‘learning organisation’ model or the ‘cultural school’ model to balance it out from the bottom-up. So if you found the model you needed you could play around with the indicators you chose to focus on. While mastery could work in the classroom, what would be relevant at the wider level(s)?

    Mintzberg’s ‘Strategy Safari’ is a good read, giving the basics on the different schools of strategy and the pro’s and con’s of each.

  6. Fascinating blog, David, and most thought-provoking. Could you design/describe a lesson which is optimised for learning, not performance?

  7. Harry Webb says:

    I do not disagree with any of this. However, as a nuance, I would just like to mention that some things that we may think of as ‘performance’ are clearly linked to retaining knowledge over the long term. I am talking about the testing effect or, as Karpicke would have it “retrieval base learning.”

    There is a large body of evidence that testing helps improve retention. We are not talking about formal tests here. Interestingly, one study (I have lost the link) showed that merely thinking about the answers to questions was as effective in this regard as writing the answers.

    The key is in distributing such retrieval over time. You are quite right to be suspicious of evidence such as all kids can answer a question on their mini-whiteboards in the same lesson in which they were taught the stuff. This proves little. Can they do it a week later? Or two weeks? And, in a sense, this isn’t what matters. Even if performance in these later ‘tests’ is poor – and we should expect it to be – the value is in the retrieval that the students engage in. The value is in the test as a learning experience.

    As I say, I’m not disagreeing but I just wanted to make that point.

  8. […] Over the past year or so I’ve been following a line of thinking which has gone something like this: Learning and performance are not the same thing. Pupils’ performance in lessons does not correspond with learning.  […]

  9. nmurphy2013 says:

    Hi David,

    at first glance the work of Senko et al. doesn’t appear to support Hymer’s idea that mastery goals trump performance goals every time. In the conclusion, Senko et al. state that ‘the second and more vital aim of this article, adopted in the spirit of Pintrich’s (2000b) effort to unite the two theoretical perspectives, was to spotlight areas for theory development. The first is to examine precisely why normative-based performance goals often facilitate classroom achievement and why mastery goals often do not.’

    Have you found any research that tackles that question?


  10. […] learners and not just memorizing for the test. How do those two fit together? This blog by the Learning Spy argues that they do not. Learning may follow from performance, but it also may not. I thought it was […]

  11. […] week Charlie is kicking off with a 5 minute intro to ‘Mastery’. This link provided by the ever thoughtful @learningspy will provide a quick background to Mastery. This link […]

  12. My one issue with this blog is the presumption that performance is solely an academic pursuit or about competitiveness against others. Perhaps it simply is considered this because academic results is all that is measured within many schools. We deliver upon what is measured. What if we measured the development of the non-cognitive skills? What if we developed measures for what are considered elements of the journey along the path of mastery (which is never reached)? We can then have some sense of the growth and development of an individual’s capacity in the areas that make a difference to life. If you look at the development of mastery in other areas of life you will see that they all have some way to measure or indicate that they have reached some level of mastery.

    • David Didau says:

      Hello Adrian – I wonder why you presume this presumption? That certainly isn’t either what I think or what I say. Obviously, performance is the ONLY measure of learning. But performance in a lesson is a very poor proxy of learning.

      • I presumed that presumption as you quoted Barry Hymer who distinguished the difference between Mastery and Performance, “Mastery goals focus on acquiring and developing competence, whereas performance goals are focussed on demonstrating one’s competence and outperforming others.”

        How does one measure mastery if not by the individual performing on something and demonstrating they have obtained some level of mastery? Performance does not equal learning however consistent application over time of what one has learnt is an indication that one is developing the richness of the mental model that represents the thinking required by the learning.

        When does one become an “engineer”? Obviously when you are given the degree. However, really it is when an individual is showing the behaviour of an “engineer” consistently in their actions and thoughts. And there is a difference between a beginning “engineer” and a masterful “engineer”. The more an engineer has experienced and immersed themselves in the world of engineering the more they have the opportunity to learn and develop their capacity to take the actions and have the mindset of an engineer.

  13. […] a recent article, David Didau laments that the focus on ‘rapid’ progress (in terms of grades, levels and […]

  14. Ian Lynch says:

    Really needs some clear definitions of the terms performance, mastery, learning, understanding, progress, and competence.

    Mastery could be absolute – I have mastered my tables. I can demonstrate instant recall in any circumstance. On the other hand mastery of mathematics is by degree. No-one has mastered every possible aspect of mathematics. I can demonstrate competence in mathematics needed to teach it to 10 year olds but not necessarily to undergraduates. In general terms competence and degree of mastery can be agreed through a variety of assessments. It’s the normal way of allocating jobs to people but it is still to an extent fuzzy because there are still incompetents that get through the filters and in complex jobs different degrees of competence. Understanding has similar properties. And progress in what? Through a programme of study or in conceptual understanding? Unless everyone understands these terms in the same way there is unlikely to be clarity in the discussion.

    As far as assessment is concerned, the real question is what is its purpose? No-one leaves full time education at 16 any more so the purpose of GCSE which was a school leaving exam needs to be questioned. Progress 8 measures are intended to measure progress in the best 8 subjects, but progress in what and why? Of course one purpose is to hold schools to account but if that is account for quality education, the effect on children and learning needs to be considered too.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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