What the PISA tests tell us about growth mindset

What is PISA?

The Pisa tests are the Programme for International Student Assessment, in which the ability of 15-year-olds is tested every three years in reading, maths and science. The tests allow comparisons to be made between the education systems of different countries. They are voluntary but an increasing number of countries take part, wanting to see how their pupils compare by international standards.

The rankings are based on samples of pupils in each country – with about 600,000 pupils having taken this round of tests. The UK’s figures are based on a sample of about 14,000 pupils taking tests in almost 460 schools. Churchill took part in the Pisa tests in 2015, but we weren’t part of the sample in 2018.

This year the UK has gone up in the international rankings, particularly in maths (UK is 18th, up from 27th) and reading (UK is 14th, up from 22nd). You can read more about the PISA 2018 tests here.

The Pisa tests also ask questions designed to capture students’ attitudes and beliefs about school life and what it means to them. This year, for the first time, the Pisa tests asked students a question to understand whether or not they had a growth mindset.

What is a growth mindset?

the-growth-mindset-i-can-get-smarter-large

Growth mindset is term first coined by Professor Carol Dweck to describe the belief that your basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. It is the opposite of a fixed mindset, where you believe that you are born with a certain amount of ability and there isn’t anything you can do to change it.

The importance of a growth mindset is one of my most fundamental beliefs about education. So much so, I wrote a book about it!

What does PISA tell us about growth mindset?

In this year’s PISA tests, students from around the world were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much.” If students agreed with the statement, it showed they had a fixed mindset – that is, they believed they were born with a certain amount of intelligence and they couldn’t do much to change it. If the disagreed, it showed they had more of a growth mindset.

Answers to this question were then linked to the students’ responses to other questions in the tests to understand more about the importance of a growth mindset.

Lesson one: a growth mindset makes a difference

The PISA 2018 Report shows that students whose answers indicated that they had a growth mindset scored 32 points higher in reading than students whose answered indicated a fixed mindset. This was true even after the statistics had been adjusted to account for differences in the socio-economic backgrounds of the different countries.

The report also shows that:

“Students who believe that their abilities and intelligence can be developed over time (those with a “growth mindset”) also expressed less fear of failure than students who believe their abilities and intelligence are “fixed”. In PISA 2018, the students with a growth mindset reported greater motivation to master tasks…set more ambitious learning goals for themselves, attached greater importance to school, and were more  likely to expect to complete a university degree.”

From Pisa 2018: Insights and Interpretations by Andreas Schleicher

OECD

Lesson two: lots of students in the UK report having a growth mindset

Growth mindset PISA 2018

Out of 79 countries taking part, the UK came in the top 10 for students who believe that their abilities are not fixed and can be changed – well above the international average. This is good news! Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the OECD (which runs the PISA tests) says:

“of all the judgments people make about themselves, the most influential is how capable they think they are of completing a task successfully…research shows that the belief that we are responsible for the results of our behaviour influences motivation, such that people are more likely to invest effort if they believe it will lead to the results they are trying to achieve.”

Lesson 3: a growth mindset can be taught

Teaching students more about the brain’s capacity to learn can help students to understand that the brain can change as we learn. This means that students are less likely to attribute failure to a lack of talent, and more likely to learn from setbacks. This is central to our approach at Churchill.

The PISA report also emphasises the importance of teachers, parents and school leaders believing in the potential of all children to succeed. This means having high expectations of all our students, and not reducing the level of challenge when learners struggle:

“When students struggle and teachers respond by lowering standards, teachers may imply that low achievement is the consequence of an inherent lack of ability. Unlike effort, talent is seen as something that students have no control over, so students may be more likely to give up rather than try harder…Parents, teachers and principals need to create an environment where children are encouraged to participate, and where educators believe in students’ potential to develop their skills and provide students with the necessary support and feedback.”

Lesson 4: developing a growth mindset is hard work

The PISA report says that the highest performing countries ensure that students are all educated together in comprehensive schools, with ambitious curricula and the unswerving belief that all children can achieve:

“In many countries, it has taken time to move from a belief that only a few students can succeed to embracing the idea that all students can achieve at high levels. It takes a concerted, multifaceted programme of policy making and capacity building to attain that goal. But one of the patterns observed amongst the highest-performing countries is the gradual move from a system in which students were stratified into different types of secondary schools, with curricula demanding various levels of cognitive skills, to a system in which all students go to secondary schools with similarly demanding curricula.”

“It takes strong leadership, and thoughtful and sustained communication to bring parents along in this effort, particularly those benefiting from the more selective
tracks. In the end, education systems are unlikely to sustain high performance and equitable opportunities to learn without the premise that it is possible for all students to achieve at high levels – and that it is necessary for them to do so.”

This is hard work, but at Churchill we are committed to achieving it. The research shows that it’s worth it – and the UK is already moving in the right direction!

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