COLUMNIST: How could we develop our own ‘women of steel’ at girls’ school?

Zoe Holmes
Zoe Holmes

Around three years ago, a colleague shared a TED talk with me that would have an incredible impact upon my pedagogy as a teacher and my vision as an educational leader.

The talk was by American psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth and entitled ‘Grit: The power of passion and perseverance’. In six minutes and nine seconds, she had convinced me that ‘grit’ was indeed the key to success at all ages and stages of life.

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Educating pupils in the City of Steel, where inner-mettle runs through our veins, language such as ‘grit’, ‘perseverance’ and ‘effort’ held instant appeal as I asked myself why this wasn’t at the centre of our curriculum. How could we develop our own ‘women of steel’ at Sheffield Girls’ Infant and Junior School? Whilst not having the answers for how to cultivate ‘grittiness’ in learners, Duckworth did advocate embracing a concept called ‘growth mindset’ as the best starting place she knew.

The concept of growth mindset was developed by Professor Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, who asserts that learners with a growth mindset fundamentally believe intelligence can be developed.

They embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, learn from criticism and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others; they know that there is a direct correlation between effort and success.

In contrast, those with a ‘fixed mindset’ believe that intelligence is static. They typically avoid challenges for fear of failing, give up easily when faced with obstacles and find anything other than positive feedback hard to hear, often taking constructive criticism personally. They feel threatened by the success of others and, in a desire to avoid experiencing failure, can consequently fail to reach their true potential.

Whilst our school has long acknowledged that having the right mindset is key to effective learning, Dweck’s ideology was a catalyst for placing it firmly on our agenda and exploring tangible ways to engender it in our pupils.

One of the first things we did was to make the language of growth mindset and its many characteristics much more explicit than we ever had before.

We focused far more on the feelings associated with learning and the processes involved in the learning journey. We started talking about moving out of our comfort zones and into our ‘stretch zones’, whilst avoiding the ‘danger zones’, giving our pupils the skills to be able to identify when they were in each and the confidence to take action if needed.

We built much more time into the curriculum to achieve a deeper level of reflection to give pupils greater self-awareness and ownership of their learning.

With a growing ability to reflect and self-evaluate, and an increasing understanding that challenge, struggle and failure is an integral part of learning, we began to let the girls choose the majority of their tasks in lessons.

It was an eye-opening and truly joyful experience to watch the girls assess their own understanding, select their personal level of challenge, have the confidence to move themselves down or up a level and be able to justify their choices at each step. It also gave the girls a tremendous feeling of empowerment.

After a year of exploring mindset in the classroom, the staff discussed the specific skills we felt our girls needed to be successful learners.

After much debate, we settled on eight characteristics that have become our building blocks: resilient, independent & innovative, resourceful, risk-taking, curious, empathetic, reflective and collaborative.

Over the last two years we have ensured we have created regular opportunities to model, identify, develop and celebrate these eight skills; slowly but surely, they have come to rest at the centre of all that we do.

Assessment and reporting systems in schools should reflect their ethos and values; with our eight mindset skills firmly at the centre of ours, we felt it time they were represented.

Last month we introduced a mindset section to our Key Stage Two reports to parents. Replacing the more generic effort grades, we commented on each of our eight mindset skills.

We used level descriptors so that parents and pupils themselves could understand where they were at and more importantly, how they could develop in each of the eight areas in the future.

Since watching the TED talk three years ago, growth mindset has become commonplace in many schools across the country.

For some it’s become a ubiquitous term that, once seductive, now holds little appeal. For us, it has been the impetus behind re-considering who we wanted our girls to be as learners and as individuals and finding ways to achieve it.

The impact it has had on our teaching and learning has been huge. Creating opportunities to develop our eight mindset skills in every learner, every day, and celebrating these skills when in evidence, has without doubt aided our girls on the ultimate quest of being the very best that they can be – and who wouldn’t want that.