How do you explain a concept like Growth Mindset?

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I have written before about my thoughts around Growth Mindset. Whilst I appreciate the valid concerns expressed by others about the dangers of overstatement and the need for coherent informed implementation, I very much believe that Dweck’s theories about learning and growth have an important role to play in educating young people – for now and for the future – and that her ideas can really help the students in our school to go from strength to strength.

After spending a considerable amount of time over the past few months with our staff thinking through the meaning and implication of Growth Mindset, I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of the adults in the building subscribe to the view that intelligence can be improved through a combination of hard work, clear feedback and spending time on the right kind of targeted activities. There is a recognition that genes play a part in bestowing certain advantages and dispositions and an appreciation that a range of other factors, such as opportunity and luck, also contribute to success. Yet there remains a clear commitment amongst staff to see intelligence as malleable and, to a certain extent, largely under our control. During the past few months it has been inspiring to see everyone from office staff to canteen staff engaging with Growth Mindset, and hearing about how they are think they can apply the thinking in a way that complements the whole school focus.

Sharing the same subtle messages with students, however, was always going to be a different proposition. Whilst our students are great, they tend to work hard only when they think it really matters, and they often leave hard work to the last possible minute. Many are masters of exam cramming, a tactic which often yields good results, but sometimes leads to superficial learning and a struggle at the next stage of learning. Our students are often reluctant to make mistakes and don’t tend to see the process of getting things wrong as a valuable learning experience. A bit of a culture of dependency has built up, which, perhaps on reflection, has come as a result of some the actions we have taken to raise the level of attainment.

Creating a Growth Mindset Culture

All this is essentially a lengthy prelude to detailing how we are going to approach the task of explaining Growth Mindset to students, along with its myriad of associations and implications. We want to make sure that we get this right and that the principles of Dweck’s research are not misinterpreted or simply seen by our students (and staff) as some kind of fad that is launched to a great fanfare and then duly forgotten. We see the central tenants of hard, effortful learning, risk taking and a determination to learn from mistakes as underpinning our culture and ethos for many years to come. If we get this right, Growth Mindset can be a prism through which we reflect upon every aspect of the way school is run, from designing the right kind of curriculum, to creating an environment and ethos that supports, not stifles, exponential growth.

Like others, we will turn to school assemblies as the first and most overt means of communicating our message. However, perhaps unlike others, we have designed a programme of themed assemblies spread over several months that slowly unpick the Growth Mindset philosophy in more depth. For example, after a longer first assembly to discuss the overarching ideas, there will be specific assembles around ideas of deliberate practice, the science of learning, the importance of learning from failure and even a session on desirable difficulties and reinforcing how and why learning is hard. Though by no means ‘the answer’, we feel that this approach, where we carefully explain the underlying thinking, is more likely to lead students to start thinking and acting differently in the classroom and at home.

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As part of our desire to make the abstract as concrete and real as possible, we have produced a short explanatory animation. We think that this film, which you can see here, succinctly delineates the central themes of Growth Mindset – as we intend to interpret them – in a clear and engaging manner. It will also provide us with a valuable means to explain the future direction of the school to all our stakeholders, such as prospective parents and colleagues. The artwork generated may provide a useful and visually stimulating resource for reiterating the importance of the core messages, though this is another area we want to plan carefulluy before we end up creating something we may later regret.

Perhaps the most powerful means we have of making the principles of Growth Mindset as real to our students as possible comes from a project we carried out at the tail end of last term. Our Head of School, Nick House, came up with the idea of asking several of our outgoing year 11 students, as well a member of our support staff, to take part in a bit of an experiment with our Head of Art, Alex Paisley. We wanted to see the extent to which the principles of hard work, dedicated practice and informed feedback combined with extensive redrafting, à la Ron Berger, would work with our students in our school context. So over four days in a sealed off art room a group of individuals with next to no artistic ability were taught the art of portraiture. The group worked all day and were exposed to some of the ideas developed by Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, who Dweck herself writes about in Mindset.

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This video, produced by one of our sixth form media students, gives a flavour of the way the week panned out and contains a brilliant quote from one of the participants, Chris. In a short interview to camera he describes how you should ‘Never give up on what you’re doing. If you can’t do it get help and re-try again & again.’ Despite its rawness, Chris’s comment in many respects perfectly captures the message we are trying to foster as a school and instil amongst our staff and students: that learning is hard and those that persevere when the going gets tough are more likely to learn more deeply and make greater amounts of progress.

As you can see from the sample below, the results of our experiment were astonishing. There are four before and after self-portraits, all of which show remarkable progress over the four days. Two portraits are worth commenting on in more detail. The first is from Francois (image one), who was the only participant with any real prior artistic experience. His first attempt is clearly unfinished, a sign of how his desire to achieve perfection got in the way of his being able to complete the drawing. His second piece is bolder, much more competent and fully formed. Along the way, Francois struggled with the approach taken, which forced him to draw differently and initially the standard of his drawing deteriorated. However, he persevered and by the end of the project he flourished. The other notable drawing was the one completed by a member of our support staff (image four). What her drawing shows, and in turn what it will hopefully demonstrate to our students, is that adults can also transform their ability in a short space of time given the right circumstances and attitude.

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Don’t get me wrong, we are not saying that anyone can do anything or that hard work always pay off. That would be naïve. The experiment we conducted might have worked out differently, in which case we probably wouldn’t have showed it to our staff and I probably wouldn’t have written this post about it. But it did work and it suggested to us that we are on the right lines with our work around developing a Growth Mindset. It is certainly not the answer – there is no answer – but it will go a long way to helping our students get better. I’ll admit, certain aspects of Growth Mindset are simply common sense and what good schools should be doing anyway, but it seems to me that a lot of what is common sense has been kicked out of schools over the years of high stakes accountability and ever increasing demands to meet standards. If Growth Mindset is the means through which to claim back some of these lost values, then I think it is an idea very much worth pursuing.

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CPD and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

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‘Time is the school in which we learn, / Time is the fire in which we burn.’

Delmore Schwartz

CPD and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics is the study of heat and energy. Its laws describe how energy moves around within a system. The first law describes how energy can never be created or destroyed, only transformed from one form to another. The second law concerns inefficiency, degeneration and decay, and it expresses the idea that without external energy closed systems naturally progress from order to disorder or entropy.

Schools are complex systems, with interacting or interdependent components that come together to form an integrated whole. As with all other systems, schools need external energies sources to help them thrive and to prevent the steady onset of entropy. This post outlines how we are hoping to keep our school system vibrant by harnessing the external energies of educational research and enquiry. We think it will enliven our professional development programme and complement the excellent training that already takes place within our school.

Professional Capital

We want an environment where teachers and classroom support staff think about, discuss and reflect on student learning in an informed way. Whilst I favour a stronger evidence-base as a means of establishing this kind of ethos, I realise it is unrealistic (and probably undesirable) to expect all staff to be actively engaged in undertaking research. John Tomsett and Alex Quigley at Huntington, pioneers in the use of evidence in schools, are clear about this point. John Tomsett refers to the fictional figure of Masie Tubbs, a full time teacher and parent who consistently achieves outstanding outcomes but does not really have the time to read articles, engage in action research or use social media for professional development.

For teachers like Masie, there are a number of different ways to arrive at a better understanding of ‘what works’. We are therefore building a programme of professional development (or Professional Growth as we will be calling it) that draws upon a range of different sources, and aims to be as relevant to every individual teacher’s needs and circumstances as possible. There are options to be engaged in professional growth activities at different levels of enquiry. From the more research-led participation of Lesson Study through our membership of the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN), to looking at the research findings of others via the support of our recently appointed Lead Learners (see below). The good practice that already exists within the school will be spread through Master Class seminars organised by our Teacher Coaches, and other sessions run by teachers with specialist knowledge and experience.

Our Professional Growth model thus combines the best of what already exists within the building with the latest impetus and thinking from elsewhere, albeit largely distilled research at this stage. The internal energy supply is our existing teachers (teachers like Masie), whose insights and observations have demonstrably led students to successful outcomes year in and year out. At present the incoming external energy source will largely be orientated around the consumption of educational research and theory, but as we build a culture of deeper enquiry and reflection, this will hopefully lead to greater knowledge creation. In this sense the structure of our Professional Growth look inwards and outwards: it builds upon what we already do well, but it also seeks to learn from outside what we can do to be even better.

Professional Growth Wednesdays

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Professional Development that is structured into blocks does not really work. Whilst there are occasions when whole a whole school INSET might be beneficial or necessary, such as for the coming together of staff around a core theme or message, ideally PD should be embedded within the fabric of the working week. Professional development cannot be seen as a bolt on to the ‘real work’, with extra activities that people do and or have done to them long forgotten or discarded once the day is over. After several years flirting with different modes of delivering staff training – twilight sessions, action research and day workshops – it has become abundantly clear that for meaningful personal growth to occur our teachers must have the time, resource and support necessary to enable them to engage, refine and critique their practice on a regular basis.

From September we are therefore collapsing our meeting cycle and making every Wednesday afternoon a time for some form of Professional Growth. We operate a two-week timetable and each week will alternate between department INSET time (to be designed by departments to work on areas such as subject knowledge, joint planning etc.) and a personal choice from a menu of Professional Growth activities (sessions run by teachers for teachers). In the first half term back every member of staff will plan their own training diet, which will include some time for independent reading and reflection. Whilst this is still not enough time, it is a step in the right direction.

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Teacher Coaches and Lead Learners

 

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For a while now I have been wrestling with the extent to which I think our profession can and should be guided by evidence. I am personally convinced that the new dawn of educational research we appear to be entering into is the best thing to happen to education since I have been a teacher. It feels exciting and the right way for our profession to bring about sustained improvement. Yet, I am also aware that in many respects we just don’t know the true impact that a research-led approach to school improvement will have on student outcomes and that properly scrutinising first hand findings is an acquired skill that many teachers do not currently possess. Studies likes that being conducted by Huntington School and the EEF should hopefully provide us with both some of the answers as well as the tools to deliver them effectively, but in the meantime it seems we just don’t know. My intuition (which is increasingly becoming a dirty word) tells me that we should be aiming to be a more informed profession, but regardless of what studies reveal, I would think that given the complexity and range of variation within our profession there will always be a place for listening to experience and heeding to common sense.

This all means that I think there are a number of judgements, particularly on the behaviours of teachers in classrooms, which can and should continue to be made for the benefit of others. A study is not necessary for me to make a case for using a seating plan, or to advise an NQT against talking over their students. Get a group of experienced teachers in a room and I think they would all pretty much agree on the same or similar methods to create an environment conducive to learning. Now whether this then leads to learning is perhaps an entirely different matter, which is why I think it is helpful, at least as a starting point, to think of behaviours for learning and behaviours of learning: in the former the focus is on the actions and behaviours of the teachers, whilst in the latter the attention turns more to the learner. For the past few years our Teacher Coaches have worked very successfully with colleagues on enhancing key aspects of how they manage their classrooms better and create the conditions in which learning is more likely to occur, such as organising space, time, positioning and the use of resources. Going forward, our Coaches will continue to share insights like these, either on a one to one basis with those who request it, or through Master Class seminars that form part of our Professional Growth menu. There may be scope here in the future for the kind of practice sessions advocated by Doug Lemov in his taxonomy of teaching techniques Teach Like a Champion.

Lead Learners are somewhat different to Teacher Coaches. Whereas Coaches focus more on the behaviours of the teacher and deal more with the ‘certainties’ of classroom management and instruction, Lead Learners will focus more on the behaviours of the students and to the messier, harder to discern (and even harder to evaluate) process of learning. As with the Coaching model, the different insights into learning will be arranged into a common framework, which will be used to direct the work of the Lead Learners and give structure and coherence to their research activities. These areas can be seen as different lines of enquiry that each Lead Learner pursues in an effort to build up levels of expertise. I will blog about these frameworks in due course.

The insights into learning that each Lead Learner gleans – from a combination of wider reading and active enquiry via Lesson Study – will also be shared with staff as part of the Professional Growth programme. Through a variety of digestible formats, such as presentations, short distilled research overviews or shorts and one-to-one support, our staff will be able to benefit from the insights and findings of others. These formats will act as an ever-involving resource for teachers to enable them to better understand the impact of their teaching on their students’ learning, and to make informed adjustments to their teaching.

Working Minds

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The core objective of ensuring quality ongoing professional development is more likely to be met if teachers themselves are responsible for leading and shaping the majority of the training. The division of teacher support and training into Teacher Coaches (behaviours for learning) and Lead Learners (behaviours of learning) is a significant step towards establishing a CPD programme designed by teachers for teachers. This bottom up impetus will be further enhanced by the development of a Working Minds Group – a kind of think tank or executive body that meets each term to share experiences on the ground and to work collaboratively to plan and deliver training that meets the needs of both teachers and support staff.

The Working Minds Group will comprise the Teacher Coaches and Lead Learners, as well as the SLT member responsible for Teaching and Learning. In addition, the Group will include a number of enthusiastic volunteers keen to make a significant contribution to the development of staff training and, in turn, the school itself. I think it is important that there is at least one non-teacher as part of this group. As well as having significant responsibility for shaping the school’s Professional Growth programme, the Group will also have a considerable voice on the implementation of Growth Mindset principles. Such an approach will hopefully ensure that a culture of learning will gain a bigger and more sustainable buy-in from staff and that Growth Mindset will not become yet another fad, but an intrinsic part of the way that members of our school system approach their learning, whether as a pupil, a member of the site staff, school office or a classroom teacher. At least, that is the hope!

Time is a fire

The second law of thermodynamics is ultimately an expression of a sad, painful truth: that since our universe (indeed all universes) is in itself a closed system, there will come a time – millions and millions of years from now – when it too will run out of energy. This law gives us a lens through which to understand the fragility of time, an understanding so beautifully captured in the Delmore Schwartz’s couplet I used as a preface to this post. And so, if time really is ‘the fire in which we burn’, we need to make sure that the precious time we have available to us at home and at work really is ‘the school in which we learn’.

What does Growth Mindset mean to me?

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Today saw the launch of our school commitment to Growth Mindset, featuring a wonderful keynote speech from Matthew Syed followed by a selection of workshops run by some talented teachers based around the theme of continual improvement. I will blog about the day and our ongoing experience of developing Growth Mindset over the coming weeks and months.

The following is a transcript of my address to the staff at the beginning of the day, which explores what a Growth Mindset means to me.

This is a fantastic school. You are truly fantastic body of staff.

But each and every day at school all of us fail. I fail in every lesson that I teach. You fail in every lesson that you teach and every lesson that you support. We all fail.

If you doubt this, just take a look at a set of books after a lesson you have just taught, or ask students to recall the details from a lesson the previous week. As Dylan Wiliam says, ‘If you are not failing you are just not paying attention. Because we fail all the time.’

Teaching, it seems to me, will always be inevitably bound up in failure. Our job as teachers is to get better at recognising our failures and develop the ability to learn from them for the future.

I have failed a great deal in my teaching career. There are a myriad of things that I used to do in and believe in, but have subsequently rejected.

  • The belief that thesauruses are valid aids to learning in my subject.
  • The belief that we should teach books that appeal to the students.
  • The belief that English is a skills-based subject and should be taught accordingly.
  • The belief that skills generally can be developed in an abstract way outside of individual subject domains.
  • The belief that a carefully worded explanation will stick in a student’s mind.
  • The belief that there is no value in repeating something once it is mastered.
  • The belief that a correct answer in a lesson means that a concept or skill has been understood.
  • The belief that organising the curriculum into half term units building up to one single assessment is a good thing.
  • The belief that more of something always equates to better.

Yet, for all the frustration of repeatedly going down the wrong path, I embrace every one of my many failures. I embrace them because they have helped me to reach a better understanding of how students learn and how to try and make that learning stick. I am therefore of my use to my students.

Seeing failure as a necessary path to betterment is I think something that many of our students are not very good at. It is a notion that lies at the heart of Growth Mindset – the focus of our work here today and for the months and years to come.

Our students do not embrace failure. They wont take risks. And this manifests itself in many ways – giving up too easily, misbehaving as a form of distraction and playing it safe rather than taking a chance. It is a problem for our brightest and our weakest. Who has had the disheartening experience of seeing students’ heads on desks in exams when there is still plenty of time left?

Now, maybe we don’t provide enough opportunities for our students to get things wrong. There is an argument that with so much high stakes assessment in the education world today, students are simply not allowed to fail. There is an important discussion to be had here, but that is for another day.

So what is Growth Mindset?

In a few minutes our guest speaker, Matthew Syed, will explore in much greater detail and more eloquently than I can the idea of Growth Mindset – what it means and how we can begin to foster it amongst ourselves and our students.

For me, Growth Mindset is about recognising (or rather deeply absorbing) the fact that we will can all improve: that it our responsibility to get better and that we must encourage and model this mindset amongst our students.

For example, I would like to see our students get better at failing and using their failures and the subsequent feedback from them as a means of improving. I want them to see that there is always room for more improvement: for it to be normal to think that there is never any end point to personal development.

I would like to see our students be able to delay their gratification. To learn that the real reward of education lies at the end of a long journey of hard work and application.

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I would like to see our students battle against learned helplessness. To take responsibility for their lives and to make sure they are as accountable for their development as we are as their teachers.

I would like to see our students get better at conceptual thinking. To be able to talk about and solve problems when the answer is not immediately in front of them, and to see the connections between their different subject domains which is, for me, the sign of genuine, authentic learning.

I would like to see our students strive for excellence. For each and every task that they complete or piece of work that they submit to be their very best effort. For us and them to never settle for second rate.

These are some of the things that I think are embodied within the idea of Growth Mindset.

After Matthew’s Keynote address you will go to a series of workshops put together by a number of the many dedicated and inspirational teachers at our school.

Much of what is in these sessions is underpinned by cutting edge educational theory and research. You will hear some interesting ideas, some new perspectives and hopefully gain some practical approaches that you can apply to your own practice. All of these workshops feed into the idea of Growth Mindset in some way.

This afternoon you then will review the new school feedback policy, which is a document that attempts to articulate some important aspects of the Growth Mindset philosophy. It starts to take the abstract and make it real.

Let me be clear: today is not simply about sharing a bunch of ideas that I, or anyone else, think you should immediately implement in all your lessons starting this Wednesday.

There is no silver bullet.

And to try and absorb the intellectual underpinning of these sessions, or to put into practice all that you see today simply wouldn’t work. I know for a fact that all the workshop leaders have spent hours and hours honing their sessions in readiness for today, and I think they would all agree with me that what they are sharing is only the tip of the iceberg.

Everything that we do to enhance our teaching comes with an opportunity cost. We are all such busy people, so to do something new or something different means that something else has to be sacrificed. Today is an opportunity to step outside the maelstrom of everyday teaching and to reflect deeply on where we are as a school and where we would like to head.

The price is that we are out of our lessons, so I think this means we have a bit of a moral obligation to make this time really count. To make sure it makes a difference.

I guess what I am ultimately hoping you will all take from today is a sense of what is possible. To understand the potential that we all have as teachers, no matter how long in the tooth we are, or how many such INSET talks we have sat through in the past.

As Hattie says, ‘Know thy impact’. To which I would add, look to make it stronger.

Our school really is a fantastic school, but it could and can be even better. But only, if we know how to make it better and we are given the time and opportunity to make that happen.

Today is the first step in that process. I believe that this is just the start of something big.

I have had my say; the rest is over to you.