We all know how important resilience and growth mindset (which aren’t interchangeable, but are certainly complementary) are to the development of successful learners.
To be sure, research recently published by Iowa State University suggests that “grit” (the term generally preferred by Angela Duckworth and other American researchers) is less important in students’ success than other elements, namely teaching them study skills and ensuring high attendance levels.
Notwithstanding that view, given that in a setting such as the RGS those other elements are largely in place, the next piece in the jigsaw of achieving successful learning must be to tackle the problem of turning that discussion of growth mindset and resilience into a practical, practised reality.
So how do we do it? I confess I was no wiser than anyone else. A good teacher does quite a lot of it naturally: but we need to be more systematic, more thorough, and not just do these things by chance with the right class or on a good day!
The answer came at a useful staff training day here at the RGS in June, devoted to those very themes. An excellent presentation from Anthony Kerr-Dineen (firstname.lastname@example.org) moved us on a long way. Anthony has become an expert in these fields: not a scientist or psychologist himself, he brings his own experience as teacher and musician to a thorough reading and digest of all the relevant literature.
The moment of clarity came for me when he asked us all to think about one of our greatest achievements and ask ourselves what the key to success was. Then he produced a list of some 24 concepts or qualities: we might all have predicted the presence there of such things as determination and hard work. But others had certainly not occurred, such as: enjoying the process; self-belief; imagining yourself doing it; working to repay others’ faith in you
The school’s Senior Leadership Team spent a few hours later that month brainstorming the qualities that we thought the ideal RGS learner should seek to have and use. Having organised them to some extent, we found (somewhat to our surprise) that they fell conveniently under three overarching domains: confidence; control; compassion.
I really wished that they hadn’t all become begun with C! The educational world is already too full of clever acronyms or alliterative mantras. Yet, try as we might, we couldn’t devise any better synonyms.
Confidence is an essential overarching quality: it’s all to do with self-esteem, the ability not to be beaten down by failure but to feel one can learn from it and move forward. It really is all about that positive growth mindset that students need to develop, to cope and deal with setbacks as they occur.
Control was one that slightly surprised us. It has to do with the kind of self-discipline and self-knowledge which allow learners to be realistic not only about the challenges that face them (which can appear overwhelming) but about the direction they have already travelled, so they can take a measured view of their progress. That realism forbids despair and easy giving up: it also provides a measure of balance that ensures that ambitions, while perhaps lofty, are achievable, not mere pipedreams.
Finally, we’ve been struck, ever since hearing Anthony Kerr-Dineen, by the concept of gratitude: one of the drivers of achievement is that sense that one must do something with the opportunities given. Moreover, whatever gifts and talents a student is born with and then develops, it must be within a humane framework, used for the good of others, not for selfish gain or wrongdoing. And so compassion became our third overarching theme. Thus our list of desired qualities ended up looking like this:
RESILIENCE: WHAT IT TAKES
CONFIDENCE CONTROL COMPASSION
openness honesty kindness
curiosity adaptability gratitude
determination sense of humour selflessness
optimism self-control empathy
So what do we do now? Nothing glib, nothing formulaic: no mantras or chants! We hope that, with all the teaching staff aware of the need to focus on these qualities and concepts (which don’t cover every eventuality but would make a very sound working basis for success if all were developed), the concepts are sufficiently numerous to be comprehensive but not so many that we drown in words!
We hope teachers will readily share them and talk about them with their students. The teacher who likes a list on the wall of an office or even a classroom can do it: those who don’t, don’t have to. There is no centralised thought-control on this: teachers must find their own way forward.
Nonetheless I believe we will move towards consistent collective action on developing these qualities at the RGS: we think that gradually our students will start to absorb them and understand what we are talking about, given our coherence as a teaching body. The gains may be slow, but they will be steady, and they will be sure.
Watch this space: perhaps we’ll be reporting back in a year’s time, but for now it is good to start the new school year with a clear direction.
Bernard Trafford, Headmaster at RGS Newcastle