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Matthew Syed at Queenswood – The Growth Mindset

Wednesday 27 January 2016

As a school we have been thinking about the growth mindset and the importance of resilience and resourcefulness to independent learning. We were therefore delighted to welcome Matthew Syed, journalist and bestselling author of Bounce and Black Box Thinking, to speak to a packed theatre audience of students, parents and staff on Thursday 21 January.

Talent is overrated

It is Matthew’s contention that ‘talent’ is vastly overrated as a means of explaining success, and indeed can lead to complacency and fear of failure. He is a keen advocate of the ‘10,000 hours of practice’ theory, and attributes a combination of his dedication and a series of circumstantial factors to his decade at the top of English table tennis.

Tellingly, he demonstrated that he does not possess extraordinary reaction speeds – a humbling encounter with former Wimbledon champion Michael Stich proved that his skills are not transferrable to other sports!

He described in Bounce how the belief that talent is innate shapes how institutions and individuals think. For instance, it is all too common to hear students profess that they ‘don’t have a brain for numbers’ – and to use this as an excuse for their lack of interest and success – whereas in reality we can train our brains, with purposeful practice, to become really adept at maths. In football academies, the belief that talent is innate leads to highly skilled players not reaching their full potential – ‘once you’re in, you don’t have to work’.

Learning from mistakes

The title of his latest book, Black Box Thinking, refers to the relentless quest to improve safety in the aviation industry through examination of the ‘black box recorders’ retrieved after airline crashes. What was once an extremely dangerous method of transport is now unarguably the safest – there is now just one crash for every 8.3 million takeoffs.

He contrasted the growth mindset of the aviation industry with the defensive ‘blame culture’ and belief in ‘clinical infallibility’ that leads to the fixed mindset prevalent in so much of modern medicine. In the US, 400,000 deaths a year are due to clinical mistakes. A preventable death is so often dismissed as ‘just one of those things’. He argued that surgeons and clinicians need the confidence and resilience to learn from such failures without fear of automatic recrimination.

Marginal gains

Matthew spoke about the ‘marginal gains’ that have been made in industries that have adopted a growth mindset. As an example, he referenced the sport of cycling, where small changes, from bicycle design and cyclists’ diet to better hotels and antibacterial treatments during competition, have steadily led to the dominance of Team Sky.

Girls Schools need to adopt a Growth Mindset

He also touched on the particular issues associated with girls in education – there is a negative correlation between high IQ and performance in exams and tests, and the explanation is that girls who have been put ‘on a pedestal’ because of seemingly innate talent have a fear of being seen to fail.

To conclude, he looked at the relative stagnation of Western scientific discovery from the Ancient Greeks through to the middle ages – a period of time when religion imposed a fixed mindset. As scientists gradually dared to question the orthodoxy, humanity made almost unthinkably huge technological leaps forward.

After the talk, Matthew was extremely generous with his time, answering an impressive range of questions from the floor with impeccable logic and articulacy. The trade at the bookstall after the event was extremely brisk, and everyone who attended was in agreement that this was one of the most profound and life-enhancing talks we have ever held at Queenswood. We’re already planning Matthew’s next visit to the school…watch this space!

 

 

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