We are at the beginning of a new school year and some of us are getting to know the children we hope to build into even more confident learners. With this duty comes much guilt about how to get things right from the start. Teachers have been busy building up their Maths and English resources, decorating their classrooms (and I am impressed by those reading corners I see on social media - stunning spaces!) and stocking up their classroom libraries (yippee!). The drive to a perfect beginning is innate to many of us but really it makes for a stressful start. The results are sleepless nights building up to first days back, panic attacks about what steps may have been missed and whether or not we might look a right numpty when we roll up in front of our new class without the perfectly planned day.
Over the holidays I certainly had lots of plans that never came to fruition - like reading 20 children's books (I achieved half of that), redecorating my sons bedrooms (well I did thoroughly clean them unmasking many long-forgotten treasures) and doing a massive marketing mailshot (well I will still do that - when people are actually in school). I saw many pics of reams of books many of us managed to read and sometimes felt a pang of guilt I should have read more. then I realised this was simply a need driven by outside influences not my own personal reading behaviour. I thoroughly enjoyed reading my 10 books and noted I also read a couple of adult books and conducted research through several other academic texts. As for my sons rooms - well they claimed to be happy for this to build up to Christmas so no need to rush. I have spent quality time with my family this holiday as the first time in years I have not been burdened by classroom planning or other administrative tasks I have never really enjoyed. I actually did what I liked- which was very rewarding both personally and professionally.
According to Dr. Carol Dweck the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. When I maintained a fixed mindset I felt the urgency to prove myself took over many elements of my expectations in school and many times entered my home like the the Tibicenas of Karen Hargrave's The Girl of Ink & Stars. The drive to be perfect is indeed a fixed mindset for it is underpinned by the belief that making errors is folly. Throughout my interactions with pupils I have witnessed this same fixed mindset in children who are indeed high achievers. They have the perfect pencil cases, coloured highlighters and perfectly poised characters designed to please the teacher. These students are usually a teacher's dream. They try so hard to adhere to the rules it is amazing to see and doesn't it make life that much easier? Plus they are always asking for jobs. Ace! On the other hand there are those who quit when things get too difficult. We see them in the middle of tasks looking painstakingly at an activity like we have fed them bitter gall. They then throw a wobbly when they have hit that cognitive barrier and start to lament about how they will never be good enough. Tears are akin to these children or ready temper tantrums. Some of these children will often present challenging behaviour because rules are just too hard to follow and many spend lots of time in the office or on some chart being staged, phased, timed out or whatever jazzy behaviour policy we follow these days. Where it is easier to exist as always being right or as always being the trouble-maker, the clown or the one that can never work independently - these are all fixed states of thinking.
What we want for children is really what we should embody ourselves; a balanced approach to life through adapting a growth mindset. A growth mindset is a mental state where learning flourishes simply because intelligence and abilities are adaptable through the amount of effort one puts in not only individually but also through actively seeking the help of others when needed. I have many times seen where having this mindset could have been hugely beneficial in times when I felt stressed and pressured ploughing through jobs on my own where I could have used some help but failed to ask for it. So what stops us and our children from actually seeking help? It is simple - we fear judgement. This understanding will enable you to spot and empathise with those children who never put their hand up when stuck. As a young teacher, I did learn a few tricks to empower such children to seek help without having to stick their hands up in the air- a simple colour coded square with thumbs up or 'I need help' which they displayed accordingly on their tables as I walked around would prompt a stop or a mini-plenary to clarify. (Pics below of one I have had for years - can you tell?)
"As soon as children become able to evaluate themselves, some of them become afraid of challenges." Dr. Carol Dweck, Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential (2017) p.16
This is true of us as educators as well. Fear of being seen as less capable will often hinder us from reaching out and leave us swamped, likewise fear will many times erode trust and maverick abilities for fear of not being seen as a team player. Not all of this is unavoidable as we interact with many personalities of both fixed and growth mindset but how we encode it into our thinking selves is what matters. To be honest, despite knowing this I can still be very fixed in mindset when approaching a task. I think I am horrible at Maths and always approach a problem like I will never get it and declare this from the get-go, so if I fail, no judgement. However, I often tackle it alone and don't stop until I either get it - or quit because I haven't asked a soul for help - then resort to google or YouTube for the answer and some mental relief. (Ridiculous, I know but we've all been here in one way or another).
In the world of reading, being of fixed or of growth mindset will determine whether or not our young readers will finish a challenging book, pick up a dictionary or thesaurus, clarify understanding or persevere to the end of a comprehension test. In many ways books are a beautiful way to introduce these mindsets to children so they can seek to understand where on the scale they exist and how to tackle this once identified. Fully exploring characters in novels and picture books with these themes can make a world of difference to the difficult task of introspection and empathy. For example, looking at comparatives between characters of both mindsets will clearly define the features of having a fixed or growth mindset to children. Books like Wonder, The Boy at the Back of the Class, Holes, Pig Heart Boy, The Girl of Ink & Stars, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, Tin, Who Let the Gods Out? and Street Child are all fabulous to demonstrate such comparisons while reading for pleasure and exploring characterisation. The picture book below It's Your World Now I highly recommend as an introduction to this in KS1 or KS2 as it shows quite clearly how adults impact on the mindset of children.
As teachers we have the power to greatly impact on the movement between fixed and growth mindset. By focusing on standards before understanding we make evaluation paramount and force children into a fixed position of making the grade. We give them the you can be anything speech but what happens when this is not awarded? Praising ability is a dangerous game which we as teachers often feel trapped by due to the pressures of the curriculum standards. By recognising effort as more significant, failure becomes a part of the process of learning and the desire to try again flourishes. The picture book goes on to make exactly this point:
This is great lesson for us all. Your efforts surpass your abilities and it is important in your day to day profession this is the focus of your 'big up'. Let us make growth mindset a main focus for term 1 to build more resilient children in our classrooms. This is a process they will use proactively to tackle challenges life outside of school will no doubt present.
'Of this, at least, I have no doubt.
The rest, I can't say much about.
So go and play and live and learn.
It's your world now.
This is your turn...
...to think and ask and do.
This world is magic, just like you!'
It's Your World Now by Barry Falls (2019)
Embrace the thinking, the asking and the doing, the effort and the growth of understanding which is the heartbeat of a healthy classroom.
Kala Williams is a Primary based Education Consultant specialising in the teaching of reading using a mastery approach. She works across primary schools in the West Midlands, UK providing whole school CPD and coaching teachers daily to be their best reading teacher in the classroom. Follow her on twitter - @rogue_reading or contact her via FaceBook @brightideasedconsult