The power of collaborative learning

Guest blog: Andy Falconer Developing a Growth Mindset for Success

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How to help develop a growth mindset 

Andy Falconer is the Master of St Olave’s Prep School in York. He is a former Chairman of IAPS and sat on the boards of both ISI and ISC. A love of learning saw Andy undertake an MBA and he is learning to play the drums. Marathon running is a passion and you can read more about his thoughts on leadership, learning and running at www.andyfalconer.net or on Twitter at @andyfalconer

There once was an unlikely looking 12 year old swimmer who told his coach that he wanted to win Olympic Gold, probably in breaststroke. Instead of ridiculing him, the coach took the boy literally, & helped him with his ambitious goal. They developed training plans that took a huge amount of commitment and dedication to follow. Both the boy and the coach felt that he could develop his talent and they were prepared to embrace the challenge and effort it would take. The boy had to keep going when things got tough, but he was inspired by his swimming heroes, and wanted to be like them.

The swimmer in question was Adrian Moorhouse, and he did win Olympic Gold in 1988 in Seoul. He had the same coach from the day of articulating his dream to becoming the best in the world. Terry Denison, his coach, said “You have to be able to accept the ups and downs of life. It teaches people to deal with the disappointments in a way that’s not a major thing, because losing a swimming race is not like losing your arm or seeing a loved one die. I think young people learn that there’s going to be some knocks and some good times. You’ve got to live with both of them and at the end of the day they’ll both even themselves out. I think it teaches people to be disciplined and that’s most important in this life. I do think it makes people organised as well. They learn to apportion time to certain things in their life and they know that, whatever they are going to do, they’ve got to give a whole lot of time to do it.”

Had Adrian or his coach had a fixed mindset they would have believed that Adrian was born with a certain amount of talent and couldn’t really make the necessary improvements to be the best, and we would never have known whether he could be an Olympic champion or not.

Adrian Moorhouse, Olympic Gold medalist needed a Growth Mindset in order to improve at Swimming.

However they both had growth mindsets and so instead believed that through hard work and persistence Adrian would get better. They both knew that ultimately it might not be good enough to win Gold because they had no control over the other swimmers, but they could give it their very best and see where it got them, putting Adrian in the best position to swim his best race on the day.

Think about yourself for a moment. Have you ever thought “I find this easy, so I must be clever” or “I find this hard, so I’m not clever”? Have you felt the urge to try and look better than other people? Have you often given up when you don’t get things right? These are some of the symptoms of a fixed mindset. Such people associate failure much more intimately with their own sense of identity.

Perhaps you are the opposite, believing success is a reflection of effort. You are more resilient to setbacks and see failure as something to be overcome with renewed effort. You see the brain as being like a muscle that gets stronger as we learn to use it.

Or like me, do you recognise yourself in both of these?

I recently read an excellent description of the word ‘scholarship’:

  • it’s an attitude of mind not a description of intelligence;
  • it’s about intellectual curiosity and independent study;
  • about working hard but also doing hard work;
  • and about developing a lifelong love of learning.

Is this how you would view a scholar or would you take the more traditional view of it being the ‘brightest’ or ‘most intelligent’ in the group?

It’s tempting to try and boost a pupil’s self-esteem by telling them how clever they are when they achieve something easily, but, by doing this, the pupil will equate intelligence with getting things right, quickly. This doesn’t boost their self-esteem, it is actually more likely to make their self-esteem fragile, because the need to get things right with little or no effort makes undertaking any challenge – any ask where there is the slightest chance of failure – very scary indeed. If a child like this finds things hard, they will feel they are failing and may give up. Their fixed mindset tells them that if they were clever they would be able to do it, so they obviously aren’t clever. You can see this reflected in the way people deal with which maths set or sports team they are in – I’m not in a particular grouping that I think I should be in, when I compare myself to others, therefore I’m no use, therefore what’s the point in trying – instead of thinking I am where I am, there are others who at the moment are better than me but it’s not going to stop me working my hardest. It may be enough to mean a change in group or it might not, but I’m content that I’m giving my best and learning. Conversations about how someone ranks in comparison to others also reinforces a fixed mindset.

The self-esteem of a child with growth mindset will be solid because they get their feelings of self-worth from pushing their intellectual boundaries. A child with growth mindset enjoys being given a difficult task because the challenge is part of the fun. The learning for a child with growth mindset is the most important thing, rather than being first to finish, or the best. They value learning and improvement through effort and hard work rather than getting things right all the time.

We all want children to become the best learners they can be. We want them to feel good about their learning. We want them to value effort. We want them to fail and to pick themselves up and try again, because determination and resilience are skills they will need throughout their lives.

How can we help to develop this brain-muscle in the children we teach?

  1. Changing the way we praise children can affect mindset. Instead of saying “you must be good at this” try and say “you must have worked hard at this”.
  2. Ask open-ended questions to try and solve a problem or achieve a goal. This develops reasoning skills and encourages curiosity and observation.
  3. Be persistent and growth-orientated yourself. We need to be seen by our children to be learning new skills – when did you last learn something new? They need to see it takes effort, that it isn’t always easy. As a teacher, you are an important role model in the children’s lives: they will look at you and model their behavior on what you do, how you approach challenges.
  4. Don’t be afraid of failure. Getting it wrong is a learning opportunity. Again, children need to see us fail and they need to see how we deal with it.

Some examples of well-known people who had to deal with failure included Michael Jordon. After being dropped from his high school basketball team, Michael Jordon went home, locked himself in his room and cried. Albert Einstein wasn’t able to speak until he was nearly 4 years old & his teachers said ‘he would never amount to much’.  Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for ‘lacking imagination’ and ‘having no original ideas’. At age 11 Lionel Messi was dropped from his football team after being diagnosed with a type of growth hormone deficiency, which made him smaller in stature than most of his peers. At 30 years old Steve Jobs was left devastated and depressed after being unceremoniously removed from the company he started, Apple. Without a growth mindset, these individuals would not have been able to overcome the failure they experienced. With a growth mindset they have become successful people in their chosen fields.

Encourage parents to help with this growth mindset journey, by asking them to ask their children some simple questions at the end of each day:

  • What did you learn today?
  • What mistake did you make that taught you something?
  • What did you try hard at today?

Of course, we can also ask ourselves (or the children can ask us) those same three questions.

  • What did I learn today?
  • What mistake did I make that taught me something?
  • What did I try hard at today?

This will all help to develop a growth mindset in the children we teach, and in ourselves, where we love challenges; are intrigued by mistakes; enjoy effort; and keep on learning throughout our lives.

We have spent the last year starting to develop a culture of growth mindset in our school in an overt and planned way. This will take several years to embed fully, and unsurprisingly, it is the children who have seemed to grasp it most quickly. We have drip fed the messages through chapels, assemblies, PSHE, form time as well as specific sessions with staff and parents. We have produced a booklet which explains things to parents (click here). This year we need to be more subtle with the children as many will have got the message, but equally there will be nearly 80 pupils who are new to the school and for whom it will be very knew. The message will take much longer to get through to all our parents and we need to sensitively nudge them along this journey. Huntington School in York, a well-regarded maintained school, has also been doing a lot of work on this and you can read about it here.

Andy Falconer is the Master of St Olave’s Prep School in York. He is a former Chairman of IAPS and sat on the boards of both ISI and ISC. A love of learning saw Andy undertake an MBA and he is learning to play the drums. Marathon running is a passion and you can read more about his thoughts on leadership, learning and running at www.andyfalconer.net or on Twitter at @andyfalconer


Author: TeachAldenham

Online profile of TeachAldenham, Aldenham School Teaching and Learning Group. teachaldenham.wordpress.com Find us on twitter @teachaldenham

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