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Teaching and learning: 'I can't do that - YET!'

Teaching and learning: 'I can't do that - YET!'

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking that it is stupid." Albert Einstein

As part of our commitment to developing our education provision our Teaching and Learning Committee regularly reviews current best practice, to ensure our school community is continuously inspired. Reviewing, rethinking and revising our attitudes to, and methods of, teaching ensures staff, and students, co-operate to create the best possible environment for academic and personal growth – for all. On Monday of this week the committee spoke about its current focus during INSET; promoting a growth mind-set and, by doing so, erasing the fixed mind-set.

Each of us learns in a different way. Those of us who teach also teach in different ways. These different styles, comfort zones, and attitudes to teaching and learning are due to each of us holding different ‘mind frames’, which affect our personal lives as well as professional. An individual’s penchant for a growth mind-set versus a fixed mind-set will affect the way they converse and interact with others, set goals, and how they view their own and others’ capacity for success.

A growth mind-set refers to those people who are wired to respond well to challenge or failure which, especially for educators and parents who are responsible for nurturing young people during their formative years, is an extremely important attitude to encourage and instil in students. To take seriously our commitment to ‘coping effectively with failure’ (one of the 12 Mary Ward characteristics on which the school’s ethos is based) it is essential not only to pay lip service to, but actually to create – based on best practice recommendations – a learning environment in which all young people are able to and comfortable in pursuing any dream they wish.


In contrast, those with a fixed mind-set will claim ‘I’ll never be intelligent’ or ‘I can’t run’ or ‘I’ll never be any good at singing’ – holding on to a belief that making progress in any of these areas of difficulty is simply not possible. Watch Professor Carol Dweck’s TED talk The power of believing that you can improve for further explanation.

An example of learning which highlights the benefits of a growth mind-set can be seen through the example of ‘Austin’s butterfly’ in which a group of Junior School pupils is shown the way in which another pupil, Austin, on receiving positive and specific feedback on his first attempt (scientific drawing of a butterfly), was able to make significant improvements to his work. Had Austin given up after his first attempt, he may have believed he was only average, or worse, at scientific drawing; an attitude which, sadly, is often wrongly ingrained in young minds only to hang around for life, if left unchecked.

At our school we strongly believe that intelligence and ability are not pre-determined, nor set in stone. What’s more, a fixed mind-set negatively affects those children who aren’t (yet) struggling just as much as it affects children who may have a longer term experience of dealing with disappointment or failure. A child who has a natural aptitude for academic study and doesn’t have to work hard until they reach A Level, will suffer just as much from a fixed mind-set outlook as a pupil in Year 2 who constantly feels they are unable to comprehend the level of Mathematics their peers are understanding – both children concluding “I can’t do it”. The A Level student on receiving her first C grade would be no better equipped to deal with this setback, or perceived ‘failure’, than the Year 2 pupil who consistently feels like a failure. However, if both children held a growth mind-set attitude, their reactions would be very different, accepting and reminding themselves of a different version of the truth: “I can’t do it – yet!” Watch this four minute video to see these differences explained through the story of the tortoise and the hare.

As teachers and parents, we also bring our own unique range of mind-sets in to the learning environment, with the ability to reinforce or change children’s attitudes about not only the subject or issue in question, but the whole range of areas in which people may state “I’m rubbish at that”. To this end, we encourage our teaching and non-teaching staff to invest in Continuous Professional Development (CPD), whether through training courses or simply trialling new technologies to improve teaching and learning.

It’s important that our teachers personify a growth mind-set, pushing their own limits and believing they can master new skills. During the INSET session this week members of the teaching staff were invited to share information on new apps they have been utilising for their own, and the students’, benefit.

Parent and teacher, and student and teacher relationships are key in creating a growth mind-set culture in which all believe they are able to achieve. Therefore the value we continue to place on choosing excellent teachers who are able to build of high quality relationships is as important as those who boast superb academic qualifications. Year 11 parents’ evening on Thursday is a perfect opportunity for students, parents and teachers to discuss together how to support each child’s learning – based on a belief that everyone can flourish with a ‘not yet’ mind-set.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan might argue that it isn’t possible to spend time marking papers with the grade ‘not yet’ when there are targets to be met or comparisons to be made between schools through league tables. The debate on fact-based or skills-based learning is only going to get louder in the coming months and it is important to address what the purpose is of teaching, and learning. At our school, we work to unite: our growth mind-set; the teaching of skills, self-confidence, an inquisitive attitude and happiness; a repertoire of provision for spiritual health and well-being; as well as this very real need to continue to teach facts.

Ms Morgan has promoted the need for this learning of facts to be assessed before children leave Junior School, and the assessment process is one key area in which teachers are able to impart a growth mind-set to students. As per the Austin’s butterfly example, a key way to create a growth mind-set is through setting aside lesson time and habitually encouraging students to reflect on their work, to seek advice and specific feedback, and to make revisions to improve results and, perhaps more importantly, levels of comprehension or skill. Teaching young people that to FAIL is a First Attempt It Learning, and should quite naturally be followed up by SAIL (Second Attempt In Learning), presents second attempts as the norm, promoting the habits of hard work, practice, commitment and dedicating time to reviewing, re-drafting, and honing a technique or developing mental or physical fitness. It’s also important to praise wisely; by praising those who display effort, perseverance, progress and engagement, rather than simply praising displays of talent and intelligence, we encourage and develop those attributes we wish to promote.

In Asian cultures, although there is just as much (if not more) pressure on young people to achieve highly as in UK culture, it is far less common for young people (or adults) to give up or claim that they can’t do something. What’s far more common is for young people to spend significant amounts of time improving their understanding or prowess in areas in which they don’t easily achieve success. Their culture personifies the ‘not yet’ mind-set over the fixed mind-set in which we see so many people lose heart.

Retraining the minds of our young people is beneficial for all – both for those who are achieving highly (so that they are prepared for the difficulties which will inevitably arrive later in life) as much as for those who are ‘not yet’ achieving as highly. This is such an important area on which we must all work together in order to effect change in our school, and wider community. As a school community we should jointly resolve in this New Year to create a culture of ‘not yet’, by being mindful about what we say around young people, both directly in response to their intelligence, fitness, or social success, and also in those throw away remarks we make in front of them about our own and others’ failures or struggles. Imagine an army of young women for who the natural reaction to failure or difficulty is “I’m not good at that – YET”!