Work on ‘mindsets’ by American psychologist, Carol Dweck, has proved the value of cultivating a ‘growth mindset’, i.e. the belief that traits such as intelligence can be developed as opposed to being ‘fixed’ by birth or background.
Dweck’s work recognises that students adopting a growth mindset are more resilient, tenacious, and intrinsically motivated to learn. These are all character traits that can lead to better results and have associations with success later in life. At Kent College, we have always valued the idea that a girl should not be limited in her ambitions, so Dweck’s research sits well with our existing approach. However, as a school our mindset is not fixed and we realise that we can always refine our approach, looking in particular at the way we give feedback and encourage independent learning.
Even as adults, it is easy for us to label ourselves and it is not uncommon to hear phrases such as “I’m useless at X” or “I can’t do Y”. Unsurprisingly, these labels probably originate in the speaker’s own school experience. So how do we avoid such labelling? Dweck would suggest that, as educators and parents, we need to look closely at how we praise and how we encourage children to engage in constructive feedback.
It might seem counter intuitive to be cautious about praise, with all of its associations with building self-esteem. Indeed, my colleagues and I certainly feel praise has its place. It is essential, however, to use it carefully. Once a student is labelled as ‘good’ at something or ‘clever’, they are placed in a situation when making mistakes can become unacceptable. To admit error risks losing the esteem they have acquired. Thus, many will either lie about their performance or, even worse, avoid intellectual challenge altogether. In doing so a learner’s progress can easily stall. So at Kent College, staff have been carefully thinking about how they praise in a constructive way. For instance, we believe it is better to praise a girl’s learning process instead of her innate ability.
We need to look closely at how we praise and how we encourage children to engage in constructive feedback
Obviously labels can arise through written feedback as well as verbal. Traditionally if a student produces work, a teacher will write a comment and possibly offer a grade. The sad truth is that the comment will be largely overlooked, with the grade being the student’s only concern. Research shows that effective feedback is the most powerful tool in enabling students to make progress, so at Kent College we want our girls to focus more on the excellent guidance they receive from their teachers. As a result, we are looking at our whole approach to marking and grading, and are developing ways to encourage the girls to not only focus on the feedback but take ownership. This is where having a growth mindset really comes into its own. A girl with a fixed mindset might actively ignore any comments that note her errors.
A girl who accepts that her ability is not fixed can engage with these mistakes and learn from them.
In the high stakes environment of secondary education, it might be seen as controversial to identify value in making errors. To counter this, we have ensured that all staff, girls and parents have the opportunity to explore the concepts of growth mindset for themselves. Form time, assemblies, display work and external speakers have played a key role in this regard. Most recently, we were lucky to have a day for staff with Professor Barry Hymer, an educational psychologist and expert on mindset. Staff came away from this session palpably excited to engage with our new approach, and we are very pleased that Professor Hymer has agreed to return as speaker for our Annual Birthday Lecture, also giving parents an excellent opportunity to learn more.
It is wonderful seeing our new approach start to bear fruit at Kent College. At a recent well-attended afterschool ‘mindset’ lecture attended by staff, girls and parents, it was the girls who led the way in interacting and showing off their knowledge, with one happily quoting Samuel Beckett’s famous line: “Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
At Kent College we are on the first stages of this journey, but have a staff body who are excited and committed, and who realise that this is not a ‘quick fix’. Growth mindset is a long-term investment, but as we are looking to build life-long learners who thrive in the classroom and beyond, it is absolutely worth the time.