Posts Tagged ‘growth mindset’

I don’t know about you but the break over summer is always a time of reading and often a time of reflection.  Whilst most of my reading is fictional (a summer habit that I have had since I was a kid when I read an average of 5 books a week) my work year normally starts with clearing out my email in-boxes of all the RSS feeds I get from the educational websites I follow – ASCD, David Didau, Teach Thought, New York Times Education, etc. My normal process is to have a brief read of each one and if I find it valuable and related to the areas that we as a consulting business are interested in then I curate it to one of our our Scoop.It pages. In this way I can keep track of a wide range of thinking and discussion about educational research and ideas. The most impactful articles I print out for possible use in future themed newsletters (like this one) or pass it on to schools as we work with them.

Two recent articles had me reflect deeply about failure, the mindset we could develop in our students, and how we as educators could empower effort in the learners around us.

The first article was written by Ron Friedman titled If you’re not failing, you’re not growing. Friedman begins his article telling the story of how Sara Blakely overcame remarkable obstacles to create the multimillion dollar Spanx underwear business. The key paragraphs for me were;

“Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?” When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.

 “What he did was redefine failure for my brother and me,” Blakely told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.””

My parents didn’t ask me or my two brothers such questions but my experience was that they never stopped any of us from taking things on. They expected us to contribute around the house, to the family, and be responsible for our actions. This is not to say we weren’t rat bags and never got into trouble – we were 3 boys remember – and our health insurance did get quite a workout over the years. Somewhere along the line I developed a strong growth mindset about the academic side of things and thus was the first member of the family to go to University and then go on to get a PhD.

The second article How to engage students in their own learning process is by Nina Smith, a Finnish teacher who blogs about her experience within the Finnish school system, student centred learning and developing intrinsic motivation within students. The paragraph that stood out for me was;

“One main problem is that “students are typically presented as the customers of engagement, rather than coauthors of their learning”.[1] It is really, really hard to be intrinsically interested and very engaged with things you cannot control, or in activities that are mandated by someone else.”

If I look at my own life experience I am intrinsically engaged in those things I have control over. I suspect that if you look at your own experience you will find the same thing. One of the reasons I struck out to create my own consulting business, despite the challenges that faced us at the time and since, was that there was always some point where I became frustrated with the “mandated” hoops and side work I had to do to maintain my position in the organisations I worked for. Now that I am creating what I do each day and 100% responsible for how my days go I have no problem with engagement. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get stressed or anxious about certain things or that I am always successful, it just means I have no questions about what I am doing and why I am doing it. I find myself often taking on opportunities that I, on first look, haven’t got a clue how to do. I have learnt to figure it out – mainly in collaboration and discussion with others.

This leads me to my takeaway for learning within a school environment from the two articles. If we honestly want the students to be engaged in what they are learning, and to develop their capacity and skill to be lifelong learners, then it is critical to create the environment where they experience being, as Nina put it, the co-authors of their learning. This includes learning that failure is a stepping stone to success and developing strategies and process to deal with “non-success”.

I can hear the echoes from teachers and people in positions of leadership telling me “that’s all nice and good but how could we do that given we have a curriculum to cover?” I am not sugar coating it when I say that it is quite a big challenge. It is big because most schools I see are not structured culturally to create that type of learning environment. Just look around you now, does your school allow you as a teacher the freedom to be the co-author of your professional learning and development and to fail and then learn? Are you even given significant time to collaborate with your peers and develop new learning? I am not talking about the 2 hours you get once per week in meetings I am talking about the time you would get if you were studying a course at university. Are you told by school leadership about school-wide pedagogical initiatives (e.g. embedding formative assessment), have a couple of PD’s and then expected to implement the ideas? Or does the school take its time (sometimes years) to engage staff in a new pedagogical initiative and the teachers are supported with time, group and one-on-one discussions, peer feedback, etc to have the initiative embedded? Research does show that this is what works in schools.

One of the contracts I have been working on involves teachers from a range of secondary colleges taking on an 18 month action-research project in something that mattered to them and the school. The teachers had to build a case for action about the need for an initiative, get it vetted by the school leadership as well as by a university team, before articulating a plan for how they will go about it. It has been fascinating to watch and see the growth in thinking and practice of these teachers. This project for me, as a critical friend, has highlighted the importance of developing great change management processes within schools if we really want to change the nature of the learning environment for ALL learners within the school.

The bottom line, if you as a teacher or school leader, are ACTUALLY interested in developing a strong community of learners and learning within your school then there is work to do. It begins with saying “yes” and then figuring out how. To get you started I have included some articles that could spark some ideas and discussions with your colleagues.

How Beliefs Shape the Effort Effect

STEM Teaches Failure as an Opportunity to Learn

How to Motivate Students to Work Harder

Why Motivating Others Starts with Using the Right Language

Motivating Young Adolescents

Motivated to Learn

COMPASS Learning

12 Things I Want To Hear My Students Say

Grit Plus Talent Equals Student Success

Have a great start to 2015!

A class begins, something is taught, hopefully something is learnt, the bell rings and then the next class begins. A unit of learning is begun, there are a range of activities occuring across days – weeks – months, hopefully something is learnt, then the unit ends and the next unit begins. A school year begins, a wide range of activities occur, assignments – possibly tests – are done, culminating projects are run with varying success, hopefully something is learnt, the year ends.

When one thinks about the flow of most of the learning that occurs within schools there is a particular pattern that arises – there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Sometimes the beginning, middle and end occur in one session. Sometimes it stretches across a few weeks and sometimes across the whole year. However, the habitual pattern is that there is a beginning, middle and end. So does it surprise you that over the years of schooling a learner could naturally develop the perception that learning is linear?

I had this insight recently during a conversation with a group of teachers at a primary school. The predominant unconcious context, and thus the subsequent habitual practices, within the school indicate that learning is perceived as linear by the students AND teachers. I then started exploring if that was the case in other schools, both primary and secondary, and found the same pattern. When I brought up my thinking with the teachers they all agreed. The way they often operate as educators could certainly develop a perception in their learners that learning is linear – start topic, do activities, end topic, next topic.

Learning, by its nature, is non-linear. The gaining of knowledge, whether by the individual or by humanity as a whole, is non-linear. Vygotsky coined the term “zone of proximal development” as a way of indicating that an individual learnt in a non-linear way. Piece by piece we gain knowledge and build a mental model through which we perceive the world. We begin with an incomplete model, given by our personal observations, the opinions and beliefs we grew up with. It is filled with misconceptions and misunderstandings. As we learn we slowly come to a more organised and consistent perception and interpretation of our world and how it works. The learning is non-linear but the explanations and ordering stem from an organised viewpoint . What often happens in schools though is that we “teach” in a linear fashion without honouring the non-linear nature of learning and thus engender a linear way of thinking about learning.


Context is Critical

“So what!” you may say – isn’t that the way schools have to operate?

Well, no.

As the saying goes, our context will eat our strategies every day of the week.This underlying context within the way that we teach will undermine any and all good evidence based initiatives because it stems from and leads to a particular mindset. How we as educators think abut learning influences our habits, our practices, and the way we create learning for others.

Let’s look at some of the common issues and complaints in schools that we could infer stem from this context:

All of these definitely have a range of underlying causes to why they occur but one of the common features is the way that teachers think about learning and thus operate as educators.

If we take the case that teachers have a big say in how learning is perceived by learners, then by shifting the context of the teachers implies we can shift the way learners perceive learning. Look around you at the dominant habits and practices of the teachers within the school.

  • What do they tell you about the context they hold about learning?
  • Do their habitual practices show that they are linking learning across lessons, classes, subjects, days, weeks, years?
  • Do they have anchor contexts and visible displays (which are constantly referred to) where students consistently and coherent develop the perception that they are exploring and building upon their understanding of the world?

If you think not then then the teacher context needs to shift to enable good pedagogical practices to occur.

If we begin by focusing on developing teachers to think from the context that learning is a spiral of increasing understanding and richness then I assert that these issues will start to shift. From this focus context teachers can begin to build habitual practices that are consistent with this context.

In Part II we will discuss what I mean by Spiral Learning and also give some simple HOWs teachers could use to go about shifting their context so as to develop a spiral learning context with the students.

Recently I wrote a  reply to a school who was asking me about Growth mindsets as a school philosophy and also how to go about framing the need for school cultural change. While I was writing it I realised how critical what I was writing was for many schools. As such I have included it for all of you. I would love any thoughts you have.

Do you know of a ‘template’ or model for a curriculum framework?

When you say “curriculum framework” it could mean many things… so I have found and edited a document (Useful Links for Planning the Transition to the Australian Curriculum) that could inform you for your question. It is partly put together by the Victorian Education Department so there is a Victorian Essential Learnings focus but the thinking and processes are equally applicable to what I believe you are up to.


Do you know of any schools who are using the “Growth Mindset” as their ‘philosophy’ of teaching and learning in some way? or pursuing it in a systematic way?

Developing a Growth Mindset can be considered a fundamental way of operating that underlies all contemporary programs. When you explore schools and classes that are high performing they develop a growth mindset in their students and staff. Perhaps the most integrated systematic approach to doing this I have heard about is “The Leader in Me” approach by Stephen R. Covey. Check out The concept is about applying and developing the 7 habits of highly effective people in students as part of the way that the curriculum is delivered. When you look at the Covey program after reading the book you see that what they are doing is building a growth mindset within the students by developing them in the set of strategies and thinking that a Growth mindset individual would have.

It is also worth checking out Masada College in NSW who implement this program in their Leading Learning Program (


I have also found articles about ‘Brainology’, a program teaching the Growth Mindset available from the USA. However, the Australian articles seemed to be about one main school. Are you familiar with that program? Do you know of any schools using it? Is it necessary to ‘buy into’ a program like that?Or would that be a good way to go?

Brainology ( is obviously Carol Dweck’s work implemented into a program. Whether one needs to do it depends on the school’s vision. One of the challenges about the questions you ask is that until you are clear about what the school’s vision for learning is then taking on any of these programs will just be another thing to do that “hopefully” will make a difference. Inside of knowing what the school is “building” then you can judge whether it fits with that vision or not. Could it be valuable? Probably. I haven’t come across a school using it yet in my travels.

It is also worth checking out how Kathleen Kryza and her wonderful team has used the Growth Mindset idea in their work of Differentiation. They have just created a book called “Give it a Go” which is all about creating growth mindsets in a class.


I want to include our recommendation that a ‘culture change’ could be needed at our school with regard to ‘teaching and learning’ and would appreciate hearing your ideas on how this could be ‘framed’ or expressed in the report/proposal.

Ok. Let me have a go at this. One of the conversations I am now having with schools is leading an inquiry into “what is student centred learning?” This reveals an enormous amount the perception of the teachers and the culture in the school. At one session I led it was interesting to hear teachers expressing opinions giving students more choice, more control, etc, When you looked at all the statements together what you got was sense of the teacher maintaining control and giving something to the students so they ‘felt like they had a say’.

The next inquiry question was “who is more important in learning in a classroom – the teacher or the student”, and we can draw a see-saw with the teacher and student balanced on either end of it. Of course, teachers answers vary depending on their perception.

Here is the crux.

The teacher vs student thinking is industrial age paradigm. In a contemporary learning environment everyone in the classroom is both at different times … and it is critical to realise that you need to THINK this way to have that occur. At different times you learn from your students just as much as they learn from you. We need to reinvent what it means to be a “teacher” because at different times you can be a teacher, coach, facilitator, guider, supporter, coordinator, organiser, and so on … but at all times you are a learner. In fact I believe in a school it is more appropriate to think of our roles along a continuum

Beginning Learner ——————————-> Master Learner

In particular areas educators are masterful … such as specific domain areas or even in how one learns. In others we are not … but the students have a certain capacity and competency in those areas. Other people may have a greater mastery in those areas and so we learn from them or have them partner us to achieve our goal. Our job is to partner the students to develop mastery of learning in areas that they are currently weak in such that they are prepared for an ever-changing world. That involves mastering the skills, thinking, understanding and mindset that will adapt and thrive in the world.

Can you become masterful without the doing? No. This is why student-centred learning is important. Student Centred Learning is a profound shift in the way that teachers think about learning and teaching. It is a shift in context from Teacher as the Driver of Learning (this is what I have to cover, this is what I must make sure they know, this is what I have to teach), to Educator Setting the Destination and They Drive. In this new culture of learning and what it means to be a “teacher”, the focus becomes about getting clear about what the learning destination (skills, understandings, concepts) and planning on how we can create an environment where the habits, practices, activities, learning experiences supports the student to drive where we believe they will develop what they need for their future.

“Teachers” move from being the Drivers to the Driving Instructors. They don’t have their hands on the steering wheel but sit beside the learners, masterful at understanding the rules of learning and the skills of learning, and provide what is required for the learner to arrive at the destination.

Unless the school has a clear overall destination in mind they will be making many side-trips to destinations that can leave the student confused, disoriented and ultimately not where they need to be. This is why it is critical to align school culture, practices and planning such that everyone is on the same page. At the moment many schools have not done the thinking and the curriculum planning to achieve this. A school needs to have a clear vision for who they are and what they are building, a clear scope and sequence of skills and understandings they are developing through the years, a clear map and plan of how they are going to do it, and also how they are going to measure progress towards the destination(s).

Assessment is not a destination … it is your measurement guide towards the destination. You could say it is your GPS!

I hope this helps!

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