The Compelling Value of the Growth Mindset

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An article sharing my passion for the work of Dweck, Ritchaart and Claxton where I attempt to demonstrate 'mindset' is the key to raising the status of education to a profound level.

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The Compelling Value of the Growth Mindset

  1. 1. The Compelling Value of the Growth Mindset Carol Dweck – Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2006 As I wrote my article Improving Learning in 253 Words I knew the challenge of limiting myself to so few words would come at the cost of chopping out major sections of what is involved in establishing vision. This is set in direct contrast to what you will read in some management theory which portrays various ways of organising people using wonderful, complicated diagrams which would blow your mind or make you look intelligent, or both. For an excellent example of this I would advise you to read Caldwell &Spinks’Leading the Self-Managing School, 1992, who famously said important things about managing schools. I have to say I was left feeling sceptical about Caldwell &Spinks as they portrayed effective self-management as a gargantuan task not lessened any by their mind-boggling collection of plans, arrows, circles, numbers, symbols and labels. However, to my mind the success of the book and the self-managing model as a whole is that the philosophy which underpins it is a good one. Even when I so innocently and, perhaps naively first read this book, long before being first appointed a headteacher, I understood the challenges were numerous and I questioned if their goal was achievable at all, especially when Ofsted is due and time is not in abundance. At very least, however, Caldwell &Spinks generated a list of qualities required for the leader of the modern school (‘demonstrates responsibility’, ‘task completion’, ‘risk taking’, ‘ability to handle stress’, ‘self-confidence’, ‘originality’, ‘energy’, ‘persistence’, ‘capacity to influence’, ‘capacity to coordinate others’) which was helpful while challenging, representing a significant development in the understanding of what it means to be a successful people manager. Ten years later, I am still of the opinion that Caldwell &Spinks’systems and various plans are by no means as important as people, and working with them ‘shoulder to shoulder’. With hindsight, and an abundance of experience, however, Leading the Self-Managing School, appears to understand so little of the reality of changing schools as they are very peculiar beasts amongst organisations and teachers are a very protected and distinct species among them. So going back to vision, in the earliest stages of encouraging deep transformations of culture the most important step is to engage people in the underpinning academic theory verified by being rooted in research. Opportunities should be created for creating ‘buzz’ among colleague educationalists and planning for higher standards of learning for the young people entrusted to the organisation. In order to achieve this, in the earliest stages of introducing change, I enjoyed introducing pedagogical discussion at various levels in the school and I did this in various ways including academic reflection and discussion of good reads such as Carol Dweck’s book about mindsets. There were other books that we studied and discussed which I will reflect on later but my colleagues and I actually felt this book elicited an excitement around the moral purpose of education. The fact is for Dweck and others (such as The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born – It’s Grown by Daniel Coyle), the possibilities to be aspired to by
  2. 2. education systems are quite simply limitless. Compared with the drudgery of some education management reads Dweck is concerned with matters of universal concern. No one should believe about themselves or others, let alone young people, that their potential is limited. You can imagine the categorical imperatives that I began to introduce as headteacher and how the value I placed on the dignity and worth of each individual child was received by the more than healthy numbers of cynics around in those days. Dweck encourages us to ‘react’ against ‘brutal pessimism’ that holds to the belief that ‘an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased’. Loaded with the kind of gravitas and moral significance you would expect in scripture Dweck advocates ‘with practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgement and literally to become more intelligent than we were before’. This is the stuff of mission writing and certainly should be read by parents visiting schools before they decide where to apply for places for their children. For me, personally, as an advocate of catholic education of twenty-four years, this book provides a major piece of God’s jigsaw that underpins some of the most exalting parts of the Bible and demotes any attempt to dismiss Christian anthropology as mere rhetoric. Both the claims of Genesis 1:27 that all human beings are of infinite value and worth plus the poetry of Psalm 8 singing about human beings as little less than gods are deep but not unfathomable with the help of insights and commitment of people like Dweck. She employs research plus anecdotal experience to demonstrate her claims. For example she cites one of Bloom’s most provocative remarks in her ‘the sky’s the limit’ approach to education: ‘Bloom concludes, “After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” He’s not counting the 2 to 3 percent of children who have severe impairments …’ My favourite anecdote from her work is her recounting around page 70 how people, in the space of only a few days, radically developed their portrait skills from being immature to very impressive and very skilled. Yes, these people received a crash course and were tutored by a very effective teacher. And this is her point: Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training. This is so important, because many, many people with the fixed mindset think that someone’s early performance tells you all you need to know about their talent and their future.’ However, Dweck’s motivations for writing this book go even further. Many of her readers, many of whom will be parents (and maybe even a few Ofsted inspectors), will be most concerned with classroom pedagogy which creates exam success. While I take absolutely no
  3. 3. issue with this, many of us need to be reminded that what happens in our formative years also defines our learned response to life and all it may cast our way. While it is possible to change and grow later in life it certainly becomes harder than when we progress through infancy and adolescence when major neurological arrangements and constructionsare established. Dweck appears to be saying something similar: ‘For twenty years, my research has shown that the view that you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value …. And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching oneself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.’ In other words, the way we are taught to approach life could actually lay down a person’s ability to capitalise, succeed and even thrive on the mixed bag of fortune that life deals us. When viewed in this way, decisions made about how we approach learning attain deep moral significance. Compared with the past, books such as Mindset are not to be dismissed, but to be digested as crucial to the ‘great teacher’s’ approach to managing the educational formation of young people: ‘Great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.’ Mindset is at the heart of the experience of managing change. This refers to both the mindset of the school leader but also to the various mindsets of the school’s staff: ‘If like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even if it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re orientated toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively.’ Going back to reflecting on making rapid change to an organisation, it must be expected that people are unlikely to move forward together in the same way, at the same pace or as one, homogenous group. Some people will be more than ready, some will need some persuasion to get going, but others will be resistant (see John Kotter’sOur Iceberg Is Melting). The impact of how resistant people will recycle and portray the original message in another form should not be underestimated. When individuals do this people receive the wrong message and begin to question the official message. Parents may even oppose you and older pupils quite possibly will do too. Many people on a school staff of a couple of hundred will have been formed in families and schools that have long since produced
  4. 4. individuals who will always see glasses as half empty, adopt egocentric responses even to changes which promote the welfare of children and have a well-defined but outmoded and inflexible view of ‘who we are’, always were and where we definitely aren’t going! Mindset is an essential tome for any school leader. If self-evaluation concludes a school is operating in a way contrary to the concepts and principles discussed in this book the schoolmust be either transformed under the leadership of a robust and committed leader or invite Ofsted to force their version of child-centredness and make the necessary changes the hard way. The open mindset of teachers, school leaders and governors cannot be assumed, change is often required and for those schools that are stuck in the past, change may also be painful. However, the pupils, parents and staff who have adopted the growth mindset will reflect and remember education in its most healthy and worthy form. For those of you with flexible, muscular minds … “Keep Calm and … Carry On”.

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