How to raise the bar on student performance

At one point or another, everyone experiences growth like this:

We start learning something new. The early stages of learning are easy. We quickly master the basics and we experience relatively rapid growth and progress. But after a while, learning becomes difficult. Progress slows. Eventually, it stops and we reach our “limit”.

This is what Anders Ericsson calls a Performance Plateau. Looking back, our progress looks like this:

Why do some people have higher standards?

 Interestingly, not everyone plateaus at the same point. What one person finds difficult another will find easy – even if what they are learning is new to both people.

And some people seem to be able to continue to grow. While they might hit a plateau from time to time, eventually they break through.

Why do some people get stuck at one level of performance and others continue to raise the bar? Importantly, how can we help students raise the bar to reach new, higher levels of performance?

The truth is that in the early stages of learning, we are simply learning more. Because we can draw on our existing abilities, we only need to focus on what we are learning. We are in our comfort zone. We could describe this as learning “easy things we haven’t done yet”.

Learning becomes difficult when our existing abilities are no longer sufficient. At this stage, we are out of our comfort zone and in our Learning Zone.

The level of challenge we face in our Learning Zone outstrips our current abilities. What we are learning is no longer simply more and no longer easy. It’s difficult.

At this point, we need to shift our focus from what we are learning to how we are learning. Rather than doing more, we must ask ourselves how we can raise the bar to do better.

Raising the bar – learning to be smarter

The Performance Plateau represents your current maximum level of ability. You simply aren’t smart enough to do any better. If you were, your progress wouldn’t have stopped.

For someone with a Fixed Mindset, the Performance Plateau marks the limit of their abilities – a fixed point.

However, for someone with a Growth Mindset, the plateau marks the limit of their current abilities. This is the point where they need to start developing new talents and abilities to literally become more intelligent.

Someone with a Growth Mindset understands that learning to be smarter makes hard things easier.


Becoming smarter – developing your Habits of Mind

Breaking through the Learning Plateau requires more than simply working on harder things. You need to learn how to be smart – and this is where the Habits of Mind step in. Learning to be smarter means developing your Habits of Mind.

The Habits of Mind, as described by Art Costa and Bena Kallick, are the dispositions that are skilfully and mindfully employed by characteristically successful people when working on problems in their Learning Zone. In short, they are the behaviours students need to develop to succeed when a task becomes difficult.

To teach students to break through the Learning Plateau, to succeed at increasingly difficult tasks and raise the bar for learning, we need to help them develop their Habits of Mind.

This is exactly what my new workshop, Succeeding with Habits of Mind in Your Classroom, is all about. I want to share with you what 20 years of experience have taught me about how to make the Habits of Mind work in your classroom. You’ll learn how to make the important shift from using the Habits of Mind to improving them. I’ll also show you the pitfalls to avoid and how to make an enduring difference with the Habits of Mind in your classroom.

Find out more about this powerful new workshop by watching the video below or clicking on the link to your nearest workshop.



James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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