School walls are oozing with unhelpful growth mindset cheese….

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google search:  motivational growth mindset posters. 
If you walk around a lot of schools these days and absorb the MESSAGE that emanates from the walls, you are likely to find yourself saturated by an oozing motivational cheeze-fest. (That’s a typo but it seems appropriate to keep it.).

  • FAIL: first attempt in learning
  • Don’t give up until you are proud. 
  • I can’t do this…. YET! = Perseverance
  • Instead of ‘I messed up’ say ‘mistakes make me learn’. 
  • Hard work + Dreams + Dedication = Success. 

Get these slogans blown up and laminated and plaster your corridors and walls in them… Bingo! Go Growth Mindset.

What’s it all for?  Here’s my hunch: You could replace all of these posters and slogans with pictures of cute cats or Harry Styles and it would have the same effect: No effect.

There are a few problems that I see with all this.

  • There’s no evidence that posters lead to changed behaviours.  A good rule of thumb is ‘Live it; don’t laminate it’.  Too often all the effort goes into signposting the intention to change behaviours or a culture – and not into actually securing the change. I’m convinced that growth mindset is highly susceptible to this: the delusion that talking about mindsets is the same as changing them.
  • There’s a risk that the saturation leads to a  wallpaper effect. The cheezefest is so relentless that students are desensitised to it.  It’s just part of the blah blah blah of what teachers go on about  – without really having much effect.
  • There’s the fundamental issue that a growth mindset is not a generic, general state: it is entirely specific to situations, domains, contexts ….  General urgings to embrace failure or mistakes as part of learning don’t change behaviours unless they are located in the context of a specific challenge.

Improvement is about effort in applying a more effective strategy. (Image via pinterest) 
An example I often use is that of the process of coaching a javelin thrower.  It’s not much good to simply urge them to fail better; to dream big or to never give up.  Trying harder and not giving up might never lead to any improvement unless they do something different.  A good coach would analyse their whole motion: the run-up, the throw release, their basic speed and arm strength, the release angle – and how each step flows from one to the other.  A javelin thrower will only throw further if they apply their effort and perseverance to specific strategies that will lead to longer throws.

Unless the javelin thrower sees rewards from their efforts, then there is a significant risk that they will be demotivated by applying more effort – because ‘trying harder’ isn’t enough.  Misdirected effort can be counterproductive in terms of the task but also the athlete’s mindset; their self-belief.

I think this is very true of learning in various areas.  Vulnerable learners in maths are simply not helped by the generic cheese-fest. They need to practise specific routines that yield success with effort and persistence; it’s only by seeing that a strategy works that anyone’s mindset about possible future success will change.  This issue is explored in the excellent article on psychological interventions by Yeager et al PDK-Yeager-Walton-Cohen-2013.   Achieving an impact through psychological interventions is actually quite a precarious, sensitive process.  There are huge risks that talk of growth mindsets that is not supported by the reality of institutional culture and in-class practice is actually damaging; this is also true where interventions are implemented in the absence of the adoption of more effective learning strategies.

My feeling is that schools would do well to give the laminator a rest, to clean up the cheese and just focus on discussing effective learning strategies with students.  This is how you can better at adding fractions; this is how you can add depth to your writing; this is how you can improve your recall and understanding in science – and so on.  Work hard on this; persevere with this; keep trying by doing more of this…. it’s all got to be specific and focused.

Live it. Don’t laminate it.  Stick that on a poster.


  1. Couldn’t agree more about the posters!

    I would add however that attitude is also critical and that’s where mindset can be particularly useful – especially with vulnerable learners whose self esteem is shaky. In discussing, and wherever possible, modelling how ‘trying hard differently’ reaps rewards (success), attitudes can be developed which allow opportunities for improving self esteem (through positive self reflection) which leads to confidence and so on and so forth. I always think the biggest challenge with the most vulnerable – and where these posters can actually be harmful – is the lack of accurate self awareness in many of these young people. They are often deluded in negative self belief. This, in turn of course, impacts negatively on their attitude to learning. We need to offer them the language to describe their attributes not deficits which is the vehicle for mindset change. As Covey pointed out so simply – develop the seven habits ….. I think there’s already a few posters with that on!

    Hopefully, this conversation will, in future, be part of ITT. The earlier the lesson is learned the greater the impact on our children.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I could not agree with you more. Getting something “wrong” is not the end of the line, but an opportunity to broaden our perspective. Common objects can easily be recognised from their picture, but when the task focusses on an unusual perspective, often magnified, even the most common objects are unrecognisable.
      Not being able to comprehend something fully, draws attention to our current level of understanding; the result of a particular interpretation of what we are considering. The challenge is to adjust our perspective to the extent that we begin to see the full picture.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have seen one HT reward bad behaviour with a pupil forced to study posters. Jemima stands in front of 3, above each other, & is cycled thru (up and down) to realise that what Mum/Dad taught them is wrong


  3. Although I almost agree with everything you have said here, I think you are in danger of losing the baby and the bathwater.

    I agree with the above comment that attitude of the learner is key. I believe that growth mindset basics are true even for the autodidact. It is not for me an issue of teachers convincing students of the growth mindset mentality but providing opportunities to practice the strategies for identifying and implementing change.

    I do however believe that consistency across subject domains is important if students are to see that problem solving in the learning process is not a single silver bullet and that different domains have different strategies. I do however think it important to recognise that there are commonalities and some approaches do transfer. This as a concept is for me essential.

    While I feel therefore that we need to be more insightful into the way we approach the growth mindset issue, we still need to ensure that we are not compartmentalising the think to look like subject specific only. Many of the attitudes that the student needs are common across all learning in their life, not just in school.

    I can see no issue with placing a poster or two just to remind people, after all reminding people serves memory well. Willingham said something like residue of thought.

    The issue for me is simply placing the posters and then thinking “job done”, which is what you suggest is a major issue and with which I wholeheartedly agree. We need to be discerning with the “advertising” we place around school but we should not do away with it altogether which I believe is your suggestion.

    The issue is a complex one that requires some careful work and I don’t feel it will be solved by falling back on “there is no such thing as a transferable cognitive skill” or “critical thinking can’t be taught” or “problem solving is domain specific” as we all know that is not the case. Problem solving is trans domain and therefore mindset should also be, hence posters providing some consistency.

    A thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment. I would bet that no student has ever done better at school because of the posters – largely because the message doesn’t match their reality. Even if some skills are common across domains, mindsets vary for any given situation. There’s a risk that generic GM urgings actually reinforce fixed mindsets because, unless the strategy yields success, students conclude that trying harder or persevering is pointless. Mainly I just think it’s a big distraction.


      • I agree in my school children were being asked to persist, put in more effort etc.. until the children and staff had an understanding of mindsets and their triggers this type of language just magnified existing fixed Mindset beliefs and attitudes. Once the children became more self aware of their fixed persona which was attempting to talk them out of being persistent they were then able to develop a more growth oriented attitude. Schools also want quick fixes. I’m on a 2 year journey and am always self reflecting.


  4. Would it be OK to share a extract from this with staff through our weekly bulletin? We have been talking about (and trying to get better at) using clear and specific feedback, and the javelin thrower example sums it up perfectly.


  5. Same with everything though. It is what you do that makes the difference not what you say. Some schools are paperwork rich and action poor. The perfect example is the hours of so called CPD that staff sit through followed by paperwork filling and nothing else. Quite a common scenario I would say.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I suspect that staff would feel irritated and patronised if the staff room was full of motivational posters and quotes. So why would students differ? There are many schools with the obligatory, well intentioned quotations in large letters on bright walls. Does this make a difference to ethos? Just as plastering British Values posters around the place doesn’t make it real. Ultimately, as with many successful strategies, persistence in learning is down to great relationships within the organisation, particularly between teacher and student. Motivation is intrinsic, our job is to light the fuse.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Couldn’t agree more Tom. Reminds me of a guy who coached me for Level 1 rugby league coaching certificate. Phil Larder says that ‘perfect practise makes perfect’ not just more practise. Get your strategies right and things will improve.
    He coached the England RU forwards to World Cup victory.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great and challenging article Tom. Especially when I tell you that a large proportion of my work is as a motivational speaker in schools!

    I hate cheesey posters too.

    When asked into schools I often find that some staff want me to be real and offer true solutions like I’ve researched, while some staff tbh just want me to deliver these kind of cheesey easy solutions. And being totally honest I’ve probably lost work to other speakers who deliver the Tony Robbins “yee-ha” style of cheesey sessions. I’m all about lasting impact, not just nice sounding fluff. We should seek out more well researched ways to motivate students and these posters and a few random cheesey platitudes don’t help us do that.

    It’s good to call these things out no matter how awkward it seems. Lets not propagate myths including posters, platitudes and unproven theories including VAK – but that’s another story 🙄

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I completely agree with this. Too often than not the appearance of a solution is what is sought after rather than a proper response to the problem. Sometimes this is the fault of the teacher, sometimes that of administration. I’ve felt pressure to put “positive” messages or displays around my room and I’ve tried to keep this to a reasonable level. I’m more concerned with the atmosphere of the room than the appearance of motivational messages.

    I’ve always found that direct interaction with students does more than passively hoping students learn from postings around the room. Personal feedback related to what can improve a specific skill or type of response is more real and useful to the student.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The growth mindset includes making refinements and learning from mistakes. Too many kids quit too early because they see mistakes as failure.


    • Too many students see test scores as a rubber stamp. Test questions provide a valuable means to identify weaknesses in their understanding, but it is how they respond to this that is all-important. This is a question of attitude. Teachers need to recognise how vital their role is in helping to cultivate a positive attitude towards assessments.
      Students need to view tests as a means of filtering out the “cracks” in their understanding and as the first step towards consolidation. By revealing weaknesses, their understanding can then be tweaked to complete the objective. Tests must be pitched so that most learners are challenged; 100% test scores, in this respect, provide little information of value.


  11. At last an article that makes sense. Schools and colleges fill their walls with cheez. Why! Because OFSTED likes it. It’s a visual way of saying we are encouraging every learner. Real improvement as the article states in its analogy takes time and resources. Laminators are cheaper than smaller classes and additional teachers. RANT over.


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