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.
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.
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.
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.