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Teaching for challenge: establishing a growth mindset ethos in a Norfolk secondary school

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In this reflection, we offer three viewpoints on the development of a growth mindset philosophy in one school and consider how it may continue to influence school improvement. Stalham High School is a small, rural, coastal secondary school serving a comprehensive intake. Following a period of change, including academisation and becoming part of North Norfolk Academy Trust, in 2015 the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) began considering ways to improve student motivation and engagement with learning. Discussions kept returning to the goal of moving away from the prevailing student attitude that “I’m not good enough”, and the growth mindset theory appealed for its straightforward approach. Part of Carol Dweck’s (2006) thesis is that people with a growth mindset value challenge and effort. The SLT felt that developing a growth mindset philosophy as a school might help students to adopt the ethos themselves, helping to break the cycle of poor outcomes and negative self-perception. Dweck’s work has been critiqued and used by many educators: David Didau (2014) and John Tomsett (2013) were particular influences to the SLT at this point, as were larger conversations on EduTwitter.

Rather than rush into a growth mindset approach without space for reflection, the SLT chose a few strategic approaches to introduce across the school, the first of which was launching a challenge approach to learning across the curriculum. The goal was to create an environment where challenge and struggle were seen as healthy parts of the learning process, encouraging students to move beyond performance-oriented mindsets and towards a more progress-focused approach to learning. Initial staff INSET focused on drawing positive attention to the provision of challenge in lessons, and ongoing CPD sessions regularly explore pedagogical theories and provide opportunities for staff to contribute to policy development and evaluation.

Challenge Stalham is not limited to subject-specific contexts, however: the message of challenge – act – transform is reinforced on banners around the school and features regularly in assemblies. After the challenge ethos became embedded in lessons, the SLT used the concept of growth mindset as the basis for overhauling a previously meaningless rewards system. Merits are now awarded for the demonstration of 20 growth mindset qualities, including perseverance and choosing challenge, thus encouraging teachers to recognise and reward the learning process as well as explicit achievements. In celebrating students who display these real-world qualities, the school are showing that learning has a value beyond exam results.

What does Challenge Stalham look like to an outsider? As a regular visitor to the school’s music department in 2018, the third year of Challenge Stalham, Alison noticed three particular absences in the school’s culture. Students rarely said, “I can’t”, even though several mentioned finding aspects of their work difficult. They did not wear large collections of badges denoting membership of clubs or prefect status, thus limiting visible labelling and the assumptions that a visitor might make from it. Thirdly, neither teachers nor students spoke of exam grades or levels as being the ultimate goal for learning. Reflecting together, we have discussed how features such as these have helped to create a growth mindset ethos that is embodied in the school community rather than a paper-based policy that lacks meaning. A further notable outcome is the value that both students and staff now place in questioning. Matthew arrived at the school in 2015, and has recognised a shift in his own teaching as a result of the growth mindset ethos. He says, “I now consider questioning as part of my termly planning, providing regular opportunities for student questions and reflections to influence the ordering of activities in order to encourage engagement with topics. In particular, I have become more aware of how the students can use vocabulary associated with growth mindset to identify progress with musical skills or to reflect on contributions to group performance projects.”

Three years after Challenge Stalham was first introduced, the school is enjoying some of the best outcomes in its history. Students are positive about the school, and their excellent behaviour and attitudes to learning were recognized by Ofsted in a secure ‘Good’ inspection last year. There are now mixed-attainment classes across the curriculum in Years 7 and 8, which are valued by parents and also further reduce fixed mindsets. Focused CPD has helped to ensure that mixed-attainment teaching is inclusive without reducing challenge. Rather than numerical targets, Key Stage 3 students are currently given a progress band which spans three grades and is intended to minimise potential limitations of the labelling effect. The next step is to explore whether summative grades can be decoupled from formative feedback in order to promote growth mindset through assessment without creating extra demands on teaching staff.

Reflecting together on our experiences of growth mindset at Stalham has encouraged us to consider how others have engaged with the policy thus far, and to speculate about potential long-term outcomes for the school community as growth mindset aspirations become normalised. For example, it will be interesting to see whether parental responses to Challenge Stalham continue to be positive and how this influences student achievement. As the policy’s instigator, Paul exercises cautious optimism:

“We are careful not to exaggerate our growth mindset approach: it is not a silver bullet, or a promise of success for students. Although it is an ‘umbrella’ for much of our policy development, it is only one of many approaches that we employ. It is clear, however, that our students are now proud to attend a school that promotes effort and mastery in learning, and the growth mindset approach gives us a vehicle to continue this work.” 

References

Didau D (2014) Focusing on performance is the enemy of growth mindset. In: Learning Spy. Available at: https://learningspy.co.uk (accessed 29 December 2018).

Dweck CS (2006) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. London: Constable and Robinson Ltd.

Osiris Educational (2018). Barry Hymer. Available at https://osiriseducational.co.uk/mindsets/barry-   hymer/ (accessed 29 December 2018).

Tomsett J (2013) This much I know about…developing a Dweck-inspired Growth Mindset culture. In: johntomsett. Available at https://johntomsett.com (accessed 29 December 2018).

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