Background: the ghost of Notre Dame past
2 years ago, many of us at Notre Dame were expressing frustration with how easily many of our students ‘give up’ on work in lessons. We also coined the phrase “interventions arms race” to describe the way in which we were reacting to underachievement by students (with excessive, large-scale intervention programmes). We were trying to do too much, failing to evaluate effectiveness, and in some cases overloading students with offers of support.
At the same time, we could see some of our students showing initiative, independence and resilience and we wanted to analyse the origin of these traits, and work out how to instill them in all our students. We reflected on available definitions of an Expert learner (inspired by Hattie) and Coe’s work.
A staff consultation demonstrated that this feeling was very strong throughout the school, so much so that it helped shape an aim on the school’s development plan for 2015-16: “Encourage initiative and independence amongst students in the classroom in order to avoid excessive intervention, by developing strategies to encourage resilience, autonomy and better behaviours for learning”. This led to some of us developing an interest in the work of Professor Dweck and ‘Growth Mindset’.
Initial plans: sowing the seeds
We began to seed ideas across the school in a variety of ways:
- A series of special assemblies, where we talked to students about how their brains develop during learning, and the important role of mistakes
- Posters around the school site describing Growth and Fixed mindset traits
- Form time resources, including ‘Growth mindset’ questionnaires for students
- a day of training from an external consultant for interested staff
Reflect, review, consider the evidence…. slow down
When we reviewed and reflected on our initial actions, we realised we were in danger of rushing into something that required deep cultural change throughout our school. We looked again at the research and evidence available, and found that there was actually a lack of evidence for schools successfully embedding a Growth mindset culture within the UK. We also considered the report by DEMOS suggesting it was too early to conclude that ‘Growth Mindset’ in schools had a significantly positive effect on outcomes.
And yet.. many of us felt that Dweck’s ideas, underpinned by robust evidence and research, held huge potential for schools. We decided as a school to slow down, debate the issue, and plan for longer term implementation.
Is Growth mindset ‘merely’ a collection of teaching strategies?
Subsequently, when our research group met to discuss Growth mindset, we discussed how many students’ past experiences shape their perception of being ‘good’ at some subjects and ‘bad’ at others. Many carry views such as “I’ll never get subject X”, and lack the resilience to keep trying in the face of initial failure and setbacks in these subjects.
Much of the literature argues that labelling students reinforces such views and can engender a fixed mindset. We debated whether the use of grades (current / target / forecastt / predicted), both on marked work and in reports sent home to parents, or a student becoming aware that they were’ Pupil Premium’, constituted such labelling. More difficult for some of us, we also debated whether setting students by ability engenders a fixed mindset, both in the students who found themselves in lower sets, and in the teachers who are assigned to teach those sets.
Students are assessed and graded regularly in schools, and it would be easy to become demotivated by disappointing results in the short-term, especially if you have no long-term goals which make learning relevant / purposeful. What came through very strongly from our review of available literature was that teachers commonly have a fixed mindset about themselves and the students who they teach. How many of us have started teaching a “low ability” Year 11 group, only to conclude after painful hours spent planning scaffolded, differentiated lesson activities that ‘they’ll never get it’?
The power of language, and the mindset of teachers
Much of what we have read focused on the language used by teachers when speaking to students such as the famous ‘yet’, championed by Dweck herself. But we feel it is also important to be honest, and highlight to students when tasks will be challenging and require resilience, championing mistakes as learning experiences.
However, it is also important for teachers to have a growth mindset about their teaching and their students: to believe in the potential of all students, whoever they are. Without this, what we say is not modelled by our own behaviour in the classroom.
This in turn means lead us to the conclusion that if we want resilient expert learners with Growth mindsets, then we need our teachers to have Growth mindsets, too. The logical conclusion is that everyone would need a Growth mindset for this to work, from the Headteacher downwards. In an educational system where, nationally, many teachers are leaving the profession citing workload and accountability pressures, this is no instant win.
Black Box Thinking
Our meeting then switched to a discussion about Syed’s recent writing on high performing organisations such as Team Sky. Syed claims that their success is founded on a Growth mindset culture, which leads to systematic learning from mistakes and setbacks, generating marginal gains which, together, give significant improvement.
Syed also discusses organisations such as the National Health Service, where mistakes are often dismissed or explained away as ‘unexpected complications’, leading to repeated avoidable harm to patients. In ‘closed loops’, people can filter information (or ignore it completely), such that is serves to reinforce their own values / beliefs, rather than modifying them. This cognitive dissonance means that mistakes get repeated, as opposed to being learnt from. Our group drew comparisons between the various industries Syed discusses in his books, and the Education sector where, for example, teachers can be reticent about admitting to “mistakes” in a high-stakes environment, and can be less likely to take risks, and change strategies.
A nurturing environment for staff as well as students
In summary: we agreed that a Growth mindset can be nutured in students through the right use of language and teaching strategies, but that the prerequisite for this has to be teachers working in a school where their own mindsets are nurtured by leaders (who, in turn, also model these behaviours). So we need our leaders to challenge themselves and be open about learning from their mistakes, too. Our school is now reflecting on what we might need to change, at all levels, to enable this.
‘Safe fail’ environments and Expert teachers
Assuming that a school has teachers with Growth mindsets, how can these teachers pass this on to their students?
The answer is that teachers should create ‘safe fail’ classrooms:
“Children… need to know that your classroom is a safe place to fail…. some of us will fail more than others, some of us will need to try harder than others, and still fail – and that that is OK.
Children who know that you appreciate their struggles will try hard for you. Children who trust that you won’t make them feel silly, or get cross when they fail, when they put their hand up to answer a question and something random pops out, will be prepared to keep on having a go if you make sure they know that you still value their contribution.” TES
However, we read still further into this. Linking to the principles of expert teaching, it seems to us that teachers must create an environment in which students are actually enabled to fail.
Modifying Hattie’s definition, and drawing on Syed’s work, we would reason that Expert teachers:
- create fail safe spaces within the classroom: mistakes are good;
- effectively assess prior knowledge and build scaffolding around it;
- assess well, and hence deliver differentiated learning;
- foster the growth mindset: resilience and grit;
- believe current attainment is not necessarily a predictor of the future;
- are willing to stretch and challenge students, such that practice is purposeful.
Even geniuses work hard
According to Dweck, students in top sets commonly have a fixed mindset, reluctant to be seen getting things wrong, because their social status is based on the idea that they are good at school work. This leads to documented extremes, such as students cheating on tests in order to protect this status.
We have to pitch the learning at the limits of what these students are capable of, which means that they will inevitably make mistakes. We then have to invest time in helping students learn from those mistakes, such that understand their importance and respect their role in helping them grow and progress.
Meanwhile, as outlined in the introduction to this blog, we also want our middle and bottom set students to show resilience in the face of challenging work (assuming, of course, that we persist with setting by ability). Here the message from the literature seems clear: as teachers, we need to combat the ‘talent myth’ and the stories of ‘perfection’ and ‘instant success’ commonly shared in the national press and society at large. As Dweck says, even geniuses work hard.
In his first book, Bounce, Syed says:
“If you want to bend it like Beckham or fade it like Tiger, you have to work like crazy, regardless of your genes, creed or colour”
Combating the talent myth, and delivering the evidenced message that purposeful practice is the most significant determinant to success, takes time, consistently high expectations, and careful use of language.
So, it would seem that we need to:
- celebrate resilience – through praise and rewards;
- challenge students by using desirable difficulties in learning;
- empower students – getting them to lead their learning, for example giving them control through choice, or getting them to present;
- sustain high expectations and avoid dumbing down work in the quest for a false sense of achievement, but rather scaffolding effectively instead;
- explore the behavioural traits of good role models with students;
- encourage parents to use the same language as we do with students;
- educate students on how the brain develops when learning occurs (Neuroplasticity);
- Help students maintain a sense of perspective e.g. “it’s just a test”.
Growth mindset has a ring of truth to it, but will require organisational change as well as changes to classroom practice. We don’t want Growth mindset to end up on the pile of discarded educational fads. We plan to take things slowly, look for evidence of positive impact, and work on improving our own mindsets before lamenting a lack of resilience in the students in our care.
We read many articles, from a range of viewpoints, for this meeting. They can be found here.
This post was written by RHI