Growth Mindset: Changing your culture

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The work to adopt growth mindset strategies and approaches at Hanham Woods Academy continues. Surface cultures have changed, and the focus is now on deep culture change. Rebecca Tushingham explains.

Growth mindset has made the transition from academic research into educational practice in a big way over the past few years. At Hanham Woods Academy, we have been on a journey of discovery to find out how to make growth mindset work for us and our students.

Our motivation for wanting to place growth mindset at the heart of our ethos comes from our desire to raise the ambitions of our students and their families and in doing so perhaps transform their life chances to some degree.

A recent INSET enabled us pause for thought to reflect upon the things that we are challenging ourselves to do more of in the pursuit of learner grit and resilience. These are a few of my favourites:

  • Supporting students in collaborating to set goals and targets.

  • Regular student voice with prompt feedback.

  • Inviting constructive criticism from other teachers.

  • Planning lessons where process is important rather than outcomes.

  • Being open to students’ ideas, opinions – let them challenge you to be different.

  • Building a confidence “bank” with each student to draw upon in fixed mindset times.

  • Drawing on or sharing links from or with other curriculum areas – organising cross-curricular events.

  • Establishing a cycle of trying new and challenging techniques.

To better understand the way in which growth mindset is shaping our practice as teachers, an audit was carried out to learn more about when we are most likely to use the technique as a teaching tool and which areas of our practice it is altering the most. Areas identified included:

  • Planning: vulnerable groups and MAGT (more able gifted and talented).

  • Delivery: questioning, understanding, rapport.

  • Response: student participation, quality of students’ progress.

  • Challenge: independence, willingness to tackle tasks.

  • Assessment: feedback, students acting upon feedback, peer-assessment.

Feedback indicated that areas that we have developed or changed the most because of growth mindset are questioning, building rapport, and engaging in challenge-based dialogue with leaners.

One teacher said: “I find that talking to the student about the fact they can’t do it yet helps, after all the reason why I am there is to help them. We then start off by doing it together and I gradually withdraw.”

Another added: “The change has been describing why we are doing different types of homework and the relative difficulty and how it is important to feel the challenge. I have therefore been able to set more challenging tasks. The last one was really tough and students were remarkably open about how it had challenged them and the learning that had taken place.”

The audit also enquired into the areas that we are finding the hardest to improve. The top two answers were getting students to act on feedback and engage in meaningful peer-assessment. 

This is interesting because it suggests that while we have changed our “surface culture” it would seem that we are still tackling the “deep culture” of our students.

Surface culture is defined as being made up of words, customs and traditions, while deep culture is made up of beliefs, values and thought processes. As teachers we are doing a great job of introducing new words and customs, but have we missed the metacognitive point a little?

By this I mean that we could be missing opportunities to help students to engage in some rather tricky thinking about the way that they think.

The majority of my students exist very much in the here and now, so the notion of trying to remember how they were thinking in a given situation rather than simply remembering how they acted is a challenging one.

I have had a bit of a head start at this with a group of year 11 students who go under the name of “Growth Mindset Leaders”. We meet up once a week to think about thinking and they have grown more and more adept at being able to recall their thought process in different situations, which is starting to make them more self-aware as these situations reappear.

Their brief as a team is to lead other students towards understanding what growth mindset has to offer them and plan A has been to start their own newsletter. Entitled Think Change Grow, the newsletter is designed to complement our regular Monday morning “readiness for learning” tutor slots.

The idea is that we could all benefit from checking our minds in the same way that we make sure that our pencil case has absolutely everything we will need for the day in it.

Every now and then I am asked if I realise that growth mindset is just good teaching by another name. I agree that good teachers work a special magic that can turn even the most recalcitrant of learners into a star student, but consider things from your students’ point of view for a minute...

In your lesson they feel that they can tackle anything, they have a thirst for knowledge and challenge. However for some reason they don’t do so well with their homework and actually think that they are awful at your subject.

More than likely they have attributed their stunning in-lesson performance to some kind of magic on your part which, while flattering for us, isn’t going to help our student very much in the long run. 

It is my opinion that to reach the tipping point between surface and deep culture change, we are going to need the help of key groups of students like our Growth Mindset Leaders, who can start to spread the message from the ground upwards.

For me, the best possible outcome would be when students are trying to explain to me what growth mindset is and why I should really try it, rather than the other way around. This might sound touchingly naïve, but the Growth Mindset Leaders are already planning an assembly for year 7 students and I know that year 7 will pay far more attention to these fellow students than they would to me.

Furthermore, I am not sure if we have high enough expectations for the way in which students actually think and this could be why we are getting stuck when we want them to act on the feedback of peers and teachers.

I have a hunch that putting a metacognitive spin on feedback might help us to set the wheels of change into motion. Obviously this takes time and the pressure to scaffold “quick learning” is ever present – however the cost over time is learners who are heavily teacher-dependent.

Are there missed opportunities in the school day for metacognitive reflection? In our school, I hope that Think Change Grow opens up conversations about thinking habits and also paves the way for Growth Mindset Leaders in other year groups. Every class could theoretically have its own sub-team of Growth Mindset Leaders whose responsibility is to help their class mates verbalise their thought processes.

The realisation that you can alter your own thinking is an empowering and important one – the thing is that it takes a lot of practice and we are all responsible for providing the opportunities for this practice to take place.

  • Rebecca Tushingham is an associate senior leader at Hanham Woods Academy in Bristol.

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