A former Principal of mine would often share with students the famous Henry Ford assertion that ‘[w]hether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right’. Indeed, the notion that confidence breeds success is a common one. In The Little White Bird, the 1902 precursor to Peter Pan, author JM Barrie observed that ‘[t]he moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it’ and we see this sentiment play out in the characters from his books. Consider the confidence of Peter Pan as he takes flight, never for a moment questioning the impossibility of it all.
We also know that in lots of instances the development of confidence, in whatever endeavour, typically comes about through experiencing failure. Famous failures of course abound: Lucille Ball was dismissed from drama school; Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and Thomas Edison was told by his teacher that he was too stupid to learn anything. So, failure of some kind is inevitable but what matters much more than whether or not you fail is how you react to that setback. It was with this premise in mind that the Acting Deputy Head of Middle School – Student Learning, Meredith Plaisted, and I recently had the opportunity to share with students some of the principles behind developing and sustaining a growth mindset approach to their learning.
Middle School marks a significant increase in certain aspects of schooling. Students are expected to do more and to do so for longer periods of time, like with homework. The level of academic work is higher, and classes move faster than before. Students may feel challenged by things that seemed easier to them before and this is all perfectly normal. Mistakes are a necessary part of learning. As part of our recent presentation, we reminded students that they need to take risks, try out various pathways, take notice of the ones that don’t ‘work’, and learn from them. Students were reassured that, like all learners, they won’t get the ‘right’ answer to questions first time all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn.
Stanford University researcher, Carol Dweck, is synonymous with the compelling idea that links the concept of growth mindsets to academic success. The research suggests that people with a fixed mindset see strengths and skills as innate. People with growth mindsets, however, recognise that the brain can grow and change through effort, and they embrace failures as opportunities for developing new strategies and approaches to learning content and concepts they find challenging. With Dweck’s research in mind, we highlighted for students that those with a growth mindset see effort as a necessary part of success, so they just try harder when faced with a setback.
Some of the strategies that learners with a growth mindset adopt include the capacity to generate other, and new, ways to do things. For example, if one route doesn’t work, they will try others. They also tend to think ‘outside of the box’ to solve problems because, like Peter Pan, they just believe that they can. A growth mindset helps people to be motivated and to succeed. We know that it can be learnt and we can also foster a growth mindset in others by the way we act and approach challenges. Role models, like Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey, who was publicly fired from her first television job as a TV anchor for getting ‘too emotionally invested in her stories’, also demonstrates to us that role models give people evidence of the growth mindset in action.
Everyone can learn and can learn to learn better. Ultimately, as part of the process, Middle School students were encouraged to consider: What are you going to stop doing? What are you going to continue doing? What are you going to start doing? Our roles, as teachers and educational support staff working and learning alongside Middle School students, is to help them keep these important questions (and even more important answers) in mind as they make their way through Term 2 and beyond.
Deputy Head of Middle School – Student Wellbeing