Why do so many fail after transition?

Why does transition so often fail? We often lay the blame at the hands of the teachers – accepting lesser work than that produced at Primary level – and there probably is some of that to it.

However, I’ve just been revisiting Dweck’s growth mindset work, and she identifies and explains a similar phenomenon in the US transition to Junior High.

In case you don’t know, Dweck categorises thinking into two distinct ‘camps’ – fixed mindset and growth mindset. Broadly, fixed is categorised as being focused on outcomes, believing that talent and intelligence are innate and cannot be particularly improved. A growth mindset, is something akin to its opposite – enjoying the process of development and learning, irrespective of the outcome.

An implication of the growth / fixed mindset argument is that it is quite difficult to develop a growth mindset without having found – or been taught – strategies to overcome adversity and build resilience. The longer you go without finding and building these strategies, the harder it becomes to do so, as the fear of potential failure builds until it is a completely foreign concept. This is particularly dangerous if you have always found everything easy – the struggle towards achievement is a really important part of developing a growth mindset.

Dweck’s argument resonates with most readers in some way – I didn’t really encounter academic failure until I took A-level Maths  and, to be honest, had no clue what to do when it all became really difficult. I didn’t ask for help (I’d never needed to); I didn’t discuss it (I’d never had to, never learned that skill); I didn’t do anything more than consider changing courses (to ask to do so would be to admit failure) and so, in the end, I arrived in my exam with such sparse skills that I could do nothing other than fail. This is classic fixed mindset behaviour – you would rather fail through lack of effort than try and fail – at least there is an excuse and a pretence of choice.

This has implications for transition: Dweck argues that this is in some way because those students who are used to constant success and praise are suddenly embedded in a world where there is a sharp rise in difficulty and a lot less feedback and personalisation – there is an almost inevitable failure (as I found at A-level) – and a realisation of imperfection. How a student deals with this will often set the tone for the remainder of their education.

In some ways, this begins to explain what I am recognising more and more – that those mid-ability students that just work really, really hard almost invariably end up equalling or surpassing those who were academically higher-achievers at transition. The process of overcoming setbacks, and seeing the learning challenge as the important part (not the grades), differentiates those who will – ultimately – have a better time of it than those who don’t and focus just on the results.

So, what conclusions can be drawn to help our students?

  • Ensure impossibility is built into the lesson -don’t just differentiate ‘down’, but also ‘up’ – make sure there is extreme challenge for all students.
  • Ensure that students understand that learning is not finite – that there is not simply a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’.
  • Ensure that students know they can get better through hard work.
  • Praise hard work and effort, not just achievement.
  • Focus on the processes of improvement.
  • Avoid grading as much as possible.

NB: As a part of my work towards a growth mindset, I will re-publish a third draft of this entry tomorrow. Making suggested improvements.

Any (polite) suggestions to improve are welcomed.



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