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This year we appointed a student research council to help us in a number of areas:
– To provide us with a student perspective in the research we were engaging with.
– To co-design and pilot test surveys and data collection.
– To inform the school leadership about implementing new approaches.
These students have been a revelation on a number of levels but their enthusiasm and dedication in working with Harvard faculty has been invaluable in helping us understand the impact of this research.
These are their words.
Being part of a Student Research Council
by Alexandra Russell and Edward Caffyn-Parsons, 6th form students at Wellington College.
Over the past year, both of us have been involved with the Wellington Student Research Council. In collaboration with Harvard University, the group has investigated the impacts of Growth Mindsets and Grit on individual academic performance and emotional wellbeing. In January, we conducted a survey that gathered data from the entire school regarding conscious attitudes towards these areas, the results of which proved to reveal a great deal in terms of the influence of character on achievement. Among the content we learned from participating in the programme itself lay a variety of established ideas, including those presented below.
From the research that we conducted, it has become evident that an effective method of creating a growth mindset attitude within a student (in the context of Wellington) is simply to encourage discussion regarding neuroplasticity, further reading of the relevant pieces of literature, and then engagement in active debate with other students over the topic matter. The pure appreciation for how the brain functions can induce a greater growth mindset, without a conscious focus on whether or not one has a growth mindset in reality. The inherent ability of any one individual to change their own “mindset” as such is subjective, and varies from person to person. Thus, the possibility of universalising and intervention in which the stated goal is an imperative seems highly unlikely, as per:
“You are going to get a growth mindset, and we are going to help you in realising the oasis that lies ahead.”
If the students are aware that their perception of their own ability is being directly “targeted”, the majority will refuse to accept the concept in any quantity. A particularly significant idea that arose from our research demonstrated that many students achieve very high levels of academic success, but possess fixed mindsets. Since such pupils achieve consistently good grades, they feel comfortable with the manner in which they are working, and deem it appropriate. Education has been one of the only ‘constants’ in the lives of students, so to admit that one has not been learning as well as they potentially could have for a number of years will be unlikely to yield an effective response. The very patient nature of what growth mindsets appear to be may, in some cases, cause a student to lose focus as their final aim does not seem instantly achievable. This is where the idea of ‘grit’ becomes a necessity. Perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity combined with a positive attitude towards learning (as demonstrated by the Growth Mindset) will bear for greater individual performance, and thus also higher levels of personal satisfaction and feelings of achievement. This is likely to be one of the most encouraging factors in the development of a student, both academically and emotionally.
The ‘Disease’ of a Fixed Mindset.
by Gianni Fortes, Lower 6th form
You’ve just completed an excruciatingly difficult task: in fact ‘completing’ is the wrong word in this case. You’ve sulked your way through a set of questions, your head slumped against the table, mumbling some nonsense about “your teacher short changing you”, as your brain tries to ignore the ‘tick tocks’ of an obnoxious clock. This particular person is one of two people: Either someone who has been lauded their whole academic life with praises like “you’re so smart” or “what a genius”; or someone who has impressed their teachers through their “strong work ethic” and “perseverance”.
Can you guess what type of person this student is?
According to Dr Carol Dweck and many psychologists in the field of education, the answer is the first person. Surprisingly, the so called “genius” isn’t as smart as they think; but then again who is?
“Robert” as we will affectionately call him is one of many students in Britain that suffers from the “fixed mind-set” disease. I say ‘disease’ for three reasons: One it is a very serious and dangerous problem; two it is a nation-wide epidemic and thirdly, and most importantly, it can be treated, like most others. Before I elaborate any further I would like to make it very clear, as my fellow students at Wellington College and Harvard colleagues have discovered, throughout the course of the year, through studying the “power of the mind-set in education” is that this is neither Robert’s, nor his teachers, or his parent’s fault. In fact, no one should or could be held accountable for such a disease.
I wonder how you could blame the proud mother of Robert who has enjoyed her son’s past academic successes; how you could you blame the teacher who’s been proud of her star student’s academic progress in a class where she’s focusing most of her teaching abilities on obtaining her student’s a grade C in GCSE; you get the idea? Surely their good intentioned praise and admiration for such an intellectually curious student is justifiable? The answer to that question is “yes”, “yes” and… “Yes”. The only problem that Dr Dweck and Duckworth, behavioural psychologists, Harvard University and Wellington College have is the ‘overdose’ of praise. It is ill-advised and unwarranted. It may seem harsh, and I do predict that some parents will cover their children’s ears as they read this now, but the truth has to come out.
Fixed mind-set children are less resilient to problems. Fewer are motivated to overcome difficult challenges in the short and long term, and more are inclined to ignore their weaknesses. By that definition, I agree, I am a fixed mind-set football fan (I support Tottenham), but on a serious note, the evidence is extraordinarily scary. In, one of many rigorously carried out experiments by Dweck, it showed that 67% of growth-mind-set children (children who believe that success is through hard work rather than a predisposed ability) chose to set challenge-learning oriented goals. This in stark contrast to 8% by fixed mind-set children. Fixed mind-set children spent ton average 3.2 minutes on a problem they were rigged to fail compared to 4.5 minutes from the growth mind-set students.
Before, I’m drowned in uproar and outcry such as these results being “isolated to a certain area, city, demographic, religion, gender…or that particular day”. Allow me the pleasure of informing you, such studies were carried out for students of mixed gender and of Caucasian, Black, and Hispanic and Asian descent all between primary school and middle school ages (ages of concern in social development). There can be no doubt that such findings should garner more attention and be applied to educational reforms as soon as possible.
A person with a growth mind-set is someone who shows key features: Tenacity, resilience, open mindedness, curiosity and grit. The only problem of implementing more “growth mind-set” students into an already rigid educational system is the problem of measuring it. At Wellington College we have scoured through pages of research papers and studies aimed at finding a method to measure this important cognitive tool. Indeed the usual arguments that “mind-set” is subjective and recordings of such behaviours will differ from observer to observer will arise, and I am not denying their truth. It is hard to measure a person’s character. Not solely because of the instability of operational definitions but also because, like any normal person, our attitudes and perspectives of life differ on a daily basis (especially us teenagers), depending on situational factors like the classroom climate and the cumulative interactions with people over the course of the day. It is here where one major problem, regarding measuring features like perseverance develops. Is perseverance a dispositional or situational factor? Is it to do with a set of continuous processes that occur on a daily basis or a part of a person’s character? This is important because, through answering this question we can find the optimum set of methods to use in measuring and understanding behaviours like ‘perseverance’.
For example if we were to take the stance regarding perseverance being dispositional we could then collate a set of self-reports, taken by the students themselves on a daily basis, on their pursuit of their long term goal, academic performance and how they feel their progressing.
If we were to theorise perseverance as a set of processes, however, we would have to do more observational studies carried out by teachers, with the intent of recording and noting down a series of behaviours, physiological reactions and emotions performed by the students struggling to answer difficult questions.
All in all, it wouldn’t be sensible to invest in one approach, and then abruptly change tactics
over the course of the “implementation” period. That would be detrimental and psychologically harmful for the students, not to mention a waste of time and resources. This is solely my opinion on the matter, not of the Wellington or Harvard faculty, but it makes sense that a clear conscientious approach to our understanding of “perseverance” would go a longer way than our rigid British culture of a “wishy washy” ambiguous approach. The more focused and analytical we are, the clearer our results will be.
Therefore to overcome the first barrier of the implementation period there needs to be an acknowledgement of what the methods are for measuring perseverance. Over the course of the year Wellington College has looked at four possible methods: Self reports; informant reports; the use of technology and school records. Each idea thrown and ripped to shreds around the Harkness table of a small but cosy room in Wellington’s Mallinson Library. Yet all commendable for their practicality; in conjunction with developing behavioural theories, being easily implementable; being indicative of a student’s traits such as tenacity and grit and finally being flexible within its mechanisms, so that such their structure can allow room for slightalterations.
At Wellington College we have spent a long time in that calm room snugly tucked amidst the first floor of our library, debating about the idea of Growth Mind-set. Make no mistake, however, that we haven’t experienced the struggles, first-hand, of being a British student, and dealing with teacher expectations, parent expectations, university expectations and most importantly our own. Having now enrolled at three different type of schools ranging from a small inner-city state school in London, to the imposing independent boarding school that is Wellington, I have experienced the different approaches teachers, administrators and other students have used to motivate students not only to continue learning but also to acknowledge their weaknesses and ‘gaps in knowledge’. From what I’ve seen there needs to be a time for change, a time of certainty, and a time of action. A new wave of growth mind-set like children, need to outnumber their fixed mind-set counterparts. This cannot be done today, nor cannot it be done next week, however it can be done for my generation, installing a new culture in the way we approach education, praise, criticism and failure. In a time where innovation and imagination appear only to be confined in the world of technology and thee adult world, we need to break out of such pretences, and drag ‘innovation and imagination’ to the world of teaching; where it is needed the most.
That is what ‘Robert’ needs; wants, requests. It is now our duty to listen.
Alexandra Russell, Edward Caffyn-Parsons and Gianni Fortes are students at Wellington College
by Jarlath O’Brien, head of Carwarden House
One of the defining problems in the British education system is the significant distance that exists between phases and sectors. Secondary teachers can mistrust primary colleagues (“They’re not really Level 5 are they?); state teachers can resent teachers in the independent sector (“Of course their results are great. Look at their facilities! And they’re selective!”); mainstream colleagues can patronise special school teachers (“Ah, you must be so patient.” *Cocks head to one side and wrinkles nose up*).
“So what?” you might say. I know that I have much to learn from colleagues working in schools very different from my own. More importantly to me, though, the stratification of our system entrenches the social isolation that children with learning difficulties face. Not only are they out of mainstream education but they are, consequently, out of sight and mind to most children, teachers and, crucially, policy makers.
Future health and wealth indicators for children with learning difficulties are dire. Research shows that they die younger1; they are more likely to develop mental health problems2; and as adults they are poorer3. Less than 10% of adults with learning difficulties work, and most of those that do work part-time.
Poverty also increases the likelihood of a child having a learning difficulty. Emerson and Hatton5 reported that exposure to poverty and disadvantage appeared to significantly increase the risk of acquiring intellectual disabilities. It is unsurprising, therefore, to find that there are children in my school whose parents attended the same school a generation ago.
The gradient that our students have to climb to secure paid employment means that our curriculum is geared towards doing what we can to improve their chances in the job market. Mencap4 identify the attitudes of others as one of the biggest barriers. Society expects precisely nothing from people with learning difficulties so we need to make ourselves highly visible and secure opportunities for our students to show others what they can do.
My colleagues and I from Carwarden House, a school for students with learning difficulties, have worked hard to build a solid partnership with Wellington College that is blossoming. Both schools are at the extremities of the educational continuum in England. 7% of all children in England are privately educated and 1.1% of all children go to a special school. We appear poles apart but the reality is that our schools, whilst looking superficially different, have much in common, share the same values and are ultimately trying to achieve the same things.
Our partnership started with the recruitment of one of the senior teachers at Wellington to our governing body as a parent governor (he’s now our Chair and has been joined by another Wellington colleague); we hosted a Wellington teacher as part of their PGCE; I sit on the board of the Wellington College Teaching School Partnership; I have delivered a speech at one of their chapel services; we hold our annual Prize-Giving Evening at Wellington College. All good, but not a Carwarden student working with a Wellington student in sight. If our partnership was to have any real strength it needed children to be involved.
This is where Ed Venables and Maria Ramsay come in. Ed is the Housemaster of The Stanley and an Old Wellingtonian and Maria teaches sixth formers at Carwarden House. Each week a group of students from each school meet and students from Carwarden House now undertake work placements in the Stanley boarding house. Ed and Maria have created an inspiring set-up that is led by the students. The staff involved are conscious that the world view of our students will be broadened considerably by spending time getting to know others they would not naturally gravitate towards.
In the first term of the partnership Maria and I were kindly invited to an assembly at The Stanley where the students involved in the partnership explained their learning to the rest of the boarding house. The students had taken the time to learn more about autism, fragile X syndrome and Down syndrome. A common refrain was, “I’m learning more from him than he is from me.” This is precisely the kind of outcome I’m looking for. The social confidence of my students is rocketing and I can see such maturity, fun, sensitivity and creativity in the Wellington students.
The students are all now firm friends and any hesitation or trepidation that may have understandably existed initially is now long gone. As Ed said recently, “When the students are together there is no sense of sector – they are simply teenagers.”
Ed and I recently discussed the progress the students have made this year. It is very hard to quantify but we have an exciting research project in the offing with Simon Walker from Human Ecology on assessing the improvements in heuristic cognition6 of the students. However, much of the dividend of this work will never be seen. It may manifest itself in the career choice of one of the students after university; it may make such a profound impression on them that in years to come they become the governor of a special school as is the case forAntony Power, a governor at Carwarden House. It may be the boost one of my students needs to their social confidence that they manage better in the workplace. It might convince them that they can make lasting friendships with people that they think are different from themselves.
Alvaro from Wellington recently commented to Maria that from now on he would never use the words special needs or disabled. James from Carwarden House recently interrupted a teacher when they commented on the link with Wellington. “It’s not a link. It’s a friendship.”
When I was 15 I spent some time finding out about life in the army. I met another student there who asked me what school I went to.
“Brakenhale,” I replied.
“I’ve never heard of that school. I go to Pangbourne College.”
“It’s a comprehensive in Bracknell,” I said.
“I spent a day in a comprehensive once. It was horrible.”
At the very least that kind of conversation is not going to be repeated with the students who spend each week working, laughing and joking together. They are simply teenagers.
Jarlath O’Brien is Headteacher of Carwarden House Community School, a special academy in Surrey.
5 Emerson E, Hatton C. Poverty, socio-economic position, social capital and the health of children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities in Britain