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The power of student mindsets and direct instruction and why neither is uniformly informing the practice of NZ teachers

By Dr Nina Hood

With the new school year now started many teachers and schools are thinking about how they best can support and promote student learning. A recent report by McKinsey and Company (a global, management consultancy firm) may offer some answers.

The report analysed data from the 2015 PISA survey, which assessed half a million students across 72 countries, including New Zealand, to determine the factors that had the greatest impact on student achievement in science. Their analysis determined that student mindsets, such as motivation and self-belief, have a greater impact on student performance than any other factor, and double the effect of socioeconomic background. And that the students with the best outcomes receive teacher-directed instruction in most or all science classes, together with inquiry-based teaching in some classes

These findings have important implications for New Zealand. The high impact of socio-economic status (SES) on learning outcomes in New Zealand, and the continued over-representation of children from low SES families in the tail end of achievement are well known. The strength of the McKinsey findings suggest there could be considerable merit in addressing and supporting students’ mindset and associated learning behaviours. Similarly, the apparent impact of direct instruction on students’ achievement, particularly in comparison to inquiry learning, should give us pause for reflection given the strong focus in the NZ Curriculum on inquiry learning.

While offering valuable insight into factors supporting learning in science, what is perhaps most interesting about these findings is that neither should come as a surprise. There is a considerable existing research-base to support both findings. For example, Carol Dweck’s widely cited work has demonstrated the importance of both students and teachers holding a growth mindset. That is, the belief that intelligence is not fixed but rather can be developed and improved through perseverance, good strategies and support from others. Similarly, the work of John Hattie, and James Ko and Pamela Sammons has found that direct instruction has a larger impact on learning than discovery or inquiry learning and constructivist approaches.

If the knowledge base exists to support both practices, then why is it not uniformly finding its way into schools and informing the approaches and practice of teachers? The answer to this question is complex. However, one possible reason for New Zealand teachers’ doubts about direct instruction may result from a misunderstanding of what direct instruction is or its relationship to inquiry learning. Direct instruction does not mean that learning is passive, or that teaching is reduced to drill-and-practice. Direct instruction is a systematic approach to teaching in which the teacher is very explicit about what students are to learn. When implemented effectively it is both cognitively demanding and highly engaging. Furthermore, direct instruction doesn’t rule out constructivist approaches of learning by discovery. Instead it helps students to acquire the base level of knowledge and skills needed before they are able to successfully undertake their own inquiry-style or discovery learning.

The poor implementation and uptake of the research on mindsets most likely is the result of a different knowledge translation challenge. Many teachers appear to be familiar with the research of Carol Dweck and others on the importance of mindsets and positive learning behaviours. However, there is a difference between knowing that something is important and knowing how to actually integrate it into your teaching practice. As the Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling said, “there is a vast difference between knowing the right thing to do, and actually doing the right thing”. Indeed, this is one of the greatest challenges The Education Hub faces in addressing our mission to bridge the gap between research and practice. Providing access to high quality, trustworthy and accessible information is only ever the first step.

In an attempt to address the knowing-doing divide, The Education Hub is working with teachers and schools who are applying research in practice to capture and share – both through online resources and in-person events – what they are doing. We are always looking for teachers or schools who are engaged in evidence-informed practice to participate in our work. If this sounds like you or someone that you know, please do get in touch (


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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