Motivation and mindset anchoring


When I was at University, a running joke was how little we’d all worked on our papers, how late and last minute we’d left them, and how little effort we’d put into them. A couple of things jolted me out of this mindset. International students I knew, from China, India, Europe, Africa and South America, didn’t seem to share English students’ view that slack effort was funny and clever. And my Dad told me that what actually happened at his University was that people boasted publicly about not working, but then worked feverishly in private. The joke was on us.


Beliefs matter; mindset matters; work ethic matters. Kids’ ideas about effort stem from their mindset. The research from Carol Dweck is much acclaimed, and rightly so. If you believe in effortless intelligence, it leads to fear of effort and failure. If you believe in hard work and overcoming setbacks, this leads to success. Mindsets change the meaning of embarrassing mistakes, tough challenges, hurtful setbacks, negative criticism and long slogs into opportunities. They internalise the questions: ‘What can I learn from this? What can I do to improve for next time?’ 

So a vital ingredient in the motivation mix is the belief kids bring to lessons in their minds. Either they believe hard work leads to success, or they don’t. If they don’t, they’ll avoid challenge and give up easily when failing. If they believe their intelligence grows with practice, effort and discipline, they’ll seek challenge and persist when failing.

The promise of the growth mindset is that kids no longer see tough, challenging work as long or boring: they ‘not only seek challenge, they thrive on it’…‘Students with the growth mindset completely took charge of their learning and motivation.’


Perhaps the best way to understand this is through a scenario. What would you do in this scenario? You’ve coached a student debating team all year through practice debates. Your team is strong and aim to win the annual competition against other schools. They’ve even imagined taking the trophy home. In the event, your team starts strong but is defeated on points. They are devastated. How would you react as their coach?

  1. Tell them you thought they were best
  2. Tell them they were robbed of the trophy
  3. Tell them debating isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things
  4. Tell them they have the ability and will surely win next time
  5. Tell them they didn’t deserve to win

Now, which did you choose?

Dwek argues that choices 1-4 don’t help them improve. Instead, she recommends 5:

‘I know how you feel. It’s disappointing to do your best but not win. But you haven’t earned it yet. The other teams have practiced harder. If you really want this, it’s something you’ll have to really work for.’ 



This reveals that you choose your mindset; it’s a choice within everyone’s sphere of control.

And that brings me on to choice architecture.


In their book Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein make the case for us to think about ourselves as choice architects:

‘Choice architects have responsibility for organising the context in which people make decisions. People’s decisions are pervasively, unavoidably and greatly influenced by the design elements selected by choice architects.’

One of the most important choices we are responsible for as teachers and school leaders, is organising the context around the decision every pupil makes on every task in every lesson: ‘do I make the effort on this, or not bother?’


One of the greatest design tools a choice architect is understanding cognitive biases. A comprehensive list of fifty is available in the book, The Art of Thinking Clearly: I’ve summarised the key biases that teachers seem to fall into on posts here and here.

One of the greatest cognitive biases in pupils’ minds is status quo bias, or the default effect. Inertia is sticky: we tend to go with the status quo. Here’s how Thaler and Sunstein explain it:

‘Status quo bias is the preference for inertia. Research shows that whatever the default choice is, many people stick with it. Teachers know students tend to sit in the same seats in class, even without a seating plan.

‘The default option is perceived as the normal choice; deviating from the normal choice requires more effortful deliberation and take on more responsibility. These powerful forces guide the decisions of those otherwise unsure of what to do.

Never underestimate the power of inertia. That power can be harnessed’.


An excellent example is organ donations. There’s a shortage of organ donors: only about 40% of people opt for it. But when asked whether people wanted to actively opt-out of organ donation, the take-up increased to 80%. Opt-outs as default options are powerful. Because we have such a strong tendency to stick with the way things are, by changing the default setting, you can change a lot.


Behavioural economists and cognitive psychologists are finding how much anchoring matters. Anchoring guides and constrains our thinking. Once your mind is hooked onto the anchor, it’s much harder to stray away from it. Kahnemann in Thinking Fast and Slow gives this demonstration:

‘What if I said Gandhi was 144 when he died, then asked you, how old was Gandhi when he died?’ People’s average answer was over 100; in reality, Gandhi died at 79. The unreasonably high anchor hooked them in to a higher number than was probable.


Combined, the promise of the growth mindset with the effect of anchoring, the default option and status quo bias could be powerful for increasing pupil motivation in schools.

So how do we anchor the growth mindset on challenge, effort and setbacks as the default option?


Senior leaders

  • Teach the message that all our teachers and pupils choose a growth mindset, from the moment kids enter school onwards; that’s ‘just the way things are done around here’
  • Share mindset stories of how setbacks, failures and practice led to eventual success
  • Practise scenarios in teacher training on challenges, praise, criticism and setbacks



  • Teach the science: challenges, practice, effort, self-discipline, mistakes, setbacks and feedback are the keys to improving intelligence and successful learning
  • Model the mindset: share anecdotes of persistence, share frustrations and acknowledge mistakes, keep asking ‘what can we do to improve for next time?’
  • Contrast and correct fixed mindset mentalities and expressions with ways to think more productively about things when they get tough: ‘You’re in charge of your mind. You can help it grow strong by using it in the right way’


How would you know when a school has succeeded in growth mindset? I’d argue that when it’s become the default option for every pupil, the school is on autopilot to achievement. You’d go in to any classroom at any time and every kid would be on task on every task.

Motivation isn’t just up to school leaders and teachers, though. Over the next two weeks I’ll consider the crucial roles peer pressure and parental priming play in anchoring the growth mindset as the default option.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Motivation and mindset anchoring

  1. Andy Smart says:

    Nice post, but who copyedited the diagrams?!

  2. Nick Hart says:

    Reblogged this on Penn Wood CPD.

  3. This is definitely a whole school issue that requires all staff to set the default on a daily basis. I’ve been experimenting with a growth mindset approach at GCSE level which has definitely increased focus and attainment, but it has been hard work because the students are not being reminded of a higher default elsewhere across the school.

    Have also used stories of success that required hard work in order to set a higher default in my classroom. Micheal Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team, the work ethic of Jonny Wilkinson and I also tell the stories of past and current students who have worked extremely hard and achieved great results.

    Here’s a great talk from Daniel Coyle (author of ‘The Talent Code’) which sums it up nicely –

    • Alexis Shea says:

      Yes, definitely agree it needs to be a whole school or even whole community approach. I’ve been pushing growth mindset across my school for a couple of years now; pupils are usually quicker to accept the ideas than staff. I suppose staff and parents are more likely to have fixed mindsets through more experience of living in western society where setting and the language we use such as ‘talented’ or ‘gifted’ are concepts which aren’t questioned. Interesting that Swedish teachers who visited our school didn’t understand what setting was and were pretty horrified at the thought of it! We need to actively push growth mindset ideas because we are fighting against subtle but entrenched fixed mindset behaviours and customs.

  4. Useful. Re. the point about sharing stories about how failures, setbacks and obstacles can lead to eventual success I think we need to be careful to define what we mean by these. I remember being in school twenty years ago and seeing countless videos about young people being struck down with serious illness, disability and even paralysis. In these often true-life stories the protagonist would rise above these difficulties and become even better, and more successful, human beings than they would have been otherwise. They were meant to be inspirational but I think the effect was anything but.
    This strategy of motivating by telling stories of individuals who succeeded “against the odds” doesn’t motivate those who know that the odds, such as they are, are theoretically in their favour.

  5. As always, well thought through. However. It seems to me that the core issue here is the general understanding of the role of hard work and effort, versus innate cognitive capacity. I think it is clear that the general understanding of the word ‘intelligence’ corresponds to ‘innate cognitive capacity’ and not a movable feast as appears to be the meaning in the books referred to. Once we start to frame the issue in terms of ‘intelligence’ then we encounter this ‘meaning’ confusion.

    I think that people do have innate cognitive capacities (I don’t think it is true that you can do anything that you set your mind to). But I also think that most people haven’t encountered their boundary conditions yet, in this regard, and school students most definitely haven’t. Consequently, I think the discussion can easily be recast as: hard work and effort always leads to better outcomes. Innate cognitive capacity (or intelligence) needn’t come into it. This formulation of the issue doesn’t require a new ‘growth mindset’ ideology (and such a thing is definitely developing, in my opinion). Beware of books full of colour diagrams and tables (and, note, such books are not ‘research’, they are a digest of research: includes a section on research papers and digests thereof).

  6. Tim Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  7. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Good overview of growth versus fixed mindset in this third installment.

  8. Reblogged this on HPE&things.

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  10. Good Thought.

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