The Fixed Mindset in Action

While speaking in assembly back in 2018 I mispronounced a word in Maori. It was a word commonly heard around the school, and my attempt in this instance was unique to say the least. I knew as I was saying it I was wrong, and moments later the giggles in the audience was more than enough to confirm. I could have corrected myself, joined in the giggle and been humble in correction, but instead I spoke louder, continued with my planned speech and spoke over the response. I felt the change in my body as I tensed up, turned red, and shrunk in embarrassment. I went on pretending nothing had happened during and after the speech, but deep down I felt the pit of shame eating me up.

On this particular day, this was the first of a double assembly – the seniors first, the juniors straight away afterwards. I had to give the speech again in only a few minutes. At this point I was internally looking for excuses. Worried that someone would challenge me on my pronunciation I had various thoughts enter my head, such as saying a different word students didn’t recognise or the difference between North and South Island dialects – anything to remove me from blame. These thoughts were in the back of my head when I found myself on stage again approaching the same word I mispronounced before. I still struggle to admit to myself what happened next, but – indeed – I doubled down and deliberately this time mispronounced the word a second time.

Why? What could I possibly be thinking? The new audience responded the same as before. Digging my heals in literally I continued the speech feeling even more shame than before. I walked away from the assembly clarifying my excuses, preparing my rebuttal, but I was never challenged. No one from either assembly mentioned it to me, and to date no one ever has.

I was thinking about this episode from 2018 as I was reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential. The growth mindset has been in and out of my professional career. I’ve attended a Carol Dweck workshop that focused on the triggers of the fixed mindset and challenging these in educational contexts and associated ideas have come up in various contexts. Reading this book was a opportunity to revisit and reflect.

The episode I described above is an episode of denial. I lived in the devastation of the shame, and wallowed in the misery. I choose not to accept failure, and as a result denied myself an opportunity to learn from it. Furthermore, as a teacher I had publicly modeled denial and had missed an opportunity to teach the students about how to deal with mistakes and grow from them.

This doesn’t necessarily mean I am a fixed mindset person. Dweck talks about how we all are a combination of both, and this combination is dynamic. Recognition and understanding is key. Dweck proposes a journey to the true growth mindset as being

  1. Embrace and accept your fixed mindset
  2. Become aware of your fixed-mindset triggers
  3. Name and understand your fixed mindset
  4. Educate your fixed mindset (254-262)

Thus, I think it’s important to reflect openly about our defining moments of fixed mindsets. Through doing so we can understand our triggers, develop our awareness and educate ourselves to respond differently in the future. There are many more episodes of fixed mindset thinking in my past I can interrogate – using these anecdotes honestly in the classroom is one way we can help encouraging growth mindset thinking in students.


Dweck, C. (2012) Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential. Robinson: Great Britain.

Celebrating Difference: A Whole-School Approach to LGBT+ Inclusion

This book is a comprehensive guide for schools to undertake the work required to make inclusive spaces for all sexualities and genders. The author Shaun Dellenty invests significant pages in the book to showing mindfulness, compassion and respect to all aspects of the approach making it read more as a philosophy that is accessible for all. I’ll be keeping this book nearby because of how practical and useful the contents are. In this blogpsot I’m going to reflect on a couple of the key aspects of the book that make it stand out.

Structure

The chapters in the book are divided into a six tier approach that are built upon a foundation layer of positive relationships, inclusive behaviour policies mindfulness and pupil voice (10-11).

  • Tier 1: Focusing as an individual – promoting self-reflection and building an authentic sense of our own attitudes bringing non-judgmental curiosity to our thoughts and feelings.
  • Tier 2: Focusing as a team – continuing this focus at a collective level.
  • Tier 3: Strategic development for organisational change – forming of the ethos and vision into a strategic plan.
  • Tier 4: Implementation – application of the strategic plan, including work on culture, curriculum, and the classroom.
  • Tier 5: Evaluation and realignment – Measuring impact and making appropriate adjustments and changes.
  • Tier 6: Celebration – inspiring growth and change outwardly beyond the school.

The approach of tiers I think is really meaningful here. Schools can find themselves at different levels of this strategic vision and can use the book as a means of investigating next steps.

Activities

Threaded throughout the book is a range of activities that could be used in professional development sessions. The nature of these activities are mainly reflective, promoting critical thinking related to developing compassion (as discussed below).

There are a range of powerful activities throughout the book. One example is stopping to pause after identifying bullying behaviour targeted at LGBT+ people and instead of making an assumption about the impact of bullying, unpacking what damage prejudice-relating bullying can cause (40). This brainstorm should lead to discussion of mental health, self-esteem, dropping out of education, self-harm, shame and much much more. Raising these ideas engages compassion and empathy, and gives an opportunity for the importance of this professional learning focus to resonate with the participants.

Compassion

I was regularly struck when reading by the promotion of a “honest and non-judgmental approach” (53). Time to reflect and mindfulness are regularly visited throughout the book to promote noticing our prejudices, biases and assumptions. The core of this idea is a compassionate approach to prejudice and acceptance and that prejudice is an inherent part of the human condition.

Compassion and empathy often make token appearances in educational discussions, but it is the integration of these values into all layers of this philosophy that felt powerful. The book argues that “effecting organisational change within education systems begin with changing hearts and minds at an individual level” (65). But this approach “must never assume that other individuals experience empathy in the same way as we do” (151). It’s a compassionate approach that takes time, but respects every individual’s understanding and experiences to make sustained and lasting positive change.


Dellenty, S. (2019) Celebrating Difference: A Whole-School Approach to LGBT+ Inclusion. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Education.

Courage in the Classroom: LGBT Teachers Share Their Stories

Courage in the Classroom: LGBT teachers share their storiesWe are all at our most effective when we can be ourselves at work, but more than half of LGBT teachers hide their sexual identity within their school workplace. For LGBT teachers, vigilance, concealment and assimilation, take a great deal of energy, on top of what is already a very demanding job.

This book is essential reading for any LGBT teacher aspiring to succeed as their authentic self. It will also be of interest to Headteachers and other education leaders seeking to make their schools safe and inclusive workplaces for their LGBT staff and LGBT families. Based around the inspirational work of the Courageous Leaders programme, this book turns on its head the notion that it can be difficult to be a leader in school and be LGBT. 

Through personal testimonies, advice and a rousing call to arms, this book shows how LGBT School Leaders are often amongst the most inclusive, creative, adaptable and intuitive colleagues, when they are able to flourish and be their authentic selves.

It has been a real privilege to contribute to this book on the back of particpating and now mentoring in the Courageous Leaders programme. I’ve now had a chance to read the whole book and wanted to take a moment to reflect on the importance of this project and what it means.

It only occurred to be while reading the book that this project (effectively a collection of stories) is a 2020 version of a book that was very important to me back in 2009. When I was in Melbourne I visited Hares & Hyenas, my first experience of a queer bookstore. This was in my teacher training year, and in the education section of the bookstore I picked up One Teacher In 10. It was a compilation of stories from teachers from various contexts across America taking about their experiences of being an out teacher. It brought visibility to my situation which I felt very conflicted about. I think this was a powerful moment in my journey, something that I haven’t previously valued. In the opening of the book there is a statement which acknowledges the pathway that has been laid out for us:

To all the LGBT teachers that proudly went before us. We stand on the shoulders of giants and know that our lives as teachers are better, and this book is only possible, because of your courage.

In one of my contributions in the book I talk about the power of community and connection. I think I could add to the ideas I share in this chapter by including the community of readers. Through the act of sharing stories, we become connected with those who we share with. One Teacher in 10 made me feel connected to other teachers who were like me. My hope is that at least one person, maybe a teacher, maybe someone who wants to become a teacher, who will feel like they have a community thanks to this book. I’m very proud for my story to be part of this book.


Lee, C. (Ed.) (2020) Courage in the Classroom: LGBT teachers share their stories. London: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Freakonomics on Behaviour Change

In previous pastoral roles I’ve been interested in the idea of behaviour change, but have rarely looked for or encountered any literature or theory to support or challenge my practice. A podcast from Freakonomics changed this where from a economics perspective it introduced a range of ideas on behaviour change, forces and incentives which I think are adaptable to educational contexts. Episode #306 ‘How to launch a behaviour change revolution‘ contained discussion and ideas that I’ll attempt to summarise here.

Firstly, behaviour change is not desirable – there’s always a reason for things being the way they are. According to Wendy Wood:

The things that we’re really good at right now is changing behaviour in the short term. We’re also really good at changing people’s knowledge and beliefs. We’re not so good at changing long-term behaviour.

Short term satisfaction is a major barrier to long term success. The internet is a terrible influence as this as it provides endless instant gratification that signficantly changes our short term behaviour because of the opportunities and temptation for distraction. The people that succeed in changing their behaviours are equipped to do so, and generally aren’t the students who we are supporting specifically to do so.

The people most responsive to behavioural nudges are often the ones who already have a pretty decent track record with self-discipline and delayed gratification. It’s sort of the behavioural equivalent of pharmaceutical trials using the least-sick patients they can find.

One such suggestion that the episode explores is the idea of not focusing on the benefits for self, but the benefits for others: prosocial benefits instead of personal gain. This requires more of a focus on the why, and the underlying consequences of different behaviours. For example, by sitting next to a friend the student is getting distracted and would be able to focus more if they sat elsewhere (personal benefit); but they would also distract the people about them less, and help the whole class to stay on task (prosocial benefit). The former focuses on performance skills, but the latter focuses on mastery. These behavioural nudges are a good starting point, but is insufficient for the complex behaviours of many students. 

German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin‘s ideas are a excellent next step. One of his key contributions to modern psychology is the idea that people’s behaviour is strongly driven by two main external forces – driving and restraining forces. In researcher Danny Kahneman’s words:

The notion that Lewin offers is that behaviour is an equilibrium between the driving and the restraining forces. You can see that the speed at which you drive, for example, is an equilibrium. When you are rushing some place, you feel tired, or you’re worried about police. There is an equilibrium speed. A lot of things can be described as an equilibrium between driving and restraining forces. Lewin’s insight was that if you want to achieve change in behaviour, there is one good way to do it and one bad way to do it. The good way to do it is by diminishing the restraining forces, not by increasing the driving forces. That turns out to be profoundly non-intuitive.

Diversity InertiaIn this light you can see current behaviour as an inertia of sorts, and behaviour change is attempting to change the balance of forces in order to create change. This relates to the research I did on shifting attitudes of teachers towards gender and sexuality difference, which expanded to consider wider ideas of behaviour change (see insert on right). It too looked at how shifting pressures and supporting teachers to be more comfortable with discomfort can create long term change.

In terms of student behaviour, the shift is from asking “how can I get them to do it?” to “why aren’t they doing it already?” Increasing the driving forces tends to address external motivation with things like prizes and competition – only producing short term results. Diminishing the restraining forces usually means looking at the environmental factors that are influencing the behaviours – shifting these is much more likely to produce long term results.

This requires an approach from a position of care and empathy: we need to position ourselves in that individual’s point of view to truly understand the forces that are driving and restraining their behaviour. I can see this model being utilised in restorative and reflective dialogue: mapping the forces in play and planning how to diminish the restraining forces with meaningful action. The image below might be one such method of identifying the different forces and the degree to which they impact behaviour.

Force-Field-Analysis

It’s interesting to reflect on behaviour change initatives and what past success I have had. It feels like the students I’ve put the most effort into have largely failed, and the smaller efforts (the nudges) have been more successful. This reinforces the pattern that people equipped to change are the ones that are capable. Lewin’s framework gives a new approach to these problems, but I’m also interested in what measures for success we use for these initatives. Does behaviour change take a long time to manifest? Are we trying to encourage beyond school behaviour change or just short term results? Are there hidden successes of behaviour change initatives that may not be immediately apparent? Food for thought.

Switching on the Remote Learning

pexels-photo-1792056Recently I wrote a range of ideas about the issues around access, pedagogy and culture that have been highlighted by the sudden shift to remote learning. I wanted to extend that discussion by drawing together various sources and ideas about what remote learning should look like. 

Education was never the sole focus of schools, and it’s a shame it has taken a pandemic to prove itLaura McInerney

Vision

This is the most important time to lead with humanity, empathy and kindness. Individual schools’ visions will have values that relate to these ideas, but now is the time to really make them visible. Perry Rush from the NZ Principal’s association affirmed that “Our job at this time is to infuse any home learning plan with a deep sense of humanity.” This absolute focus on well-being means some other concerns might take a back seat for a while, but the bigger picture here is we are helping to equip our young people with resilience and grit.

What is needed at this time is leadership that has emotional resonance. This is not a time for you to be a transactional leader singularly focused on how learning may continue. It is a time for you to metaphorically wrap your arms around the young people in your care and embrace their families too – Perry Rush

Jacinda Ardern continues to emerge as a beacon of hope not just for NZ but for the global community. Many of the world’s leaders have focused on instructive messages, politically charged with contradictions or explanatory in their intent. However, Ardern’s value-led statements have repeatedly emphasised care and compassion while using the mantra of “be kind“. Our schools should be led with the same approach.

Relationships

Humanity, empathy and kindness are central to the idea of positive relationships. In the classroom I consider my personality my most valuable asset – I use it to engage students, management behaviour, motivate and connect with the students. Now from a distance, it is still vital to connect virtually and maintain positive relationships. According to Core Education this means beginning with people – and people need humanity, empathy and kindness.

Parents will be under all kinds of new pressures in these situations so they too need reminding of these central values and the need to prioritise well-being and relationships above learning the times tables. Zoe Williams described the situation as a marathon done at a sprint: “We don’t have to win it – we just have to live it.”

Pedagogy

I had to check myself for a moment when I initially laid out this blogpost I had the subheading ‘technology’ – technology is not a pedagogy; it’s a vechicle and we can learn to be better drivers, but ultimately it is not a replacement for excellent teaching and learning. What does that look like in this context? I think there are a few considerations:

  • Project based learning: chunking learning into assignment style projects.
  • Beyond the classroom opportunities: community support activities, citizenship endeavours that focus on family well-being (i.e. cooking), and where appropriate subject scholarship.
  • Personalised: available to access anytime and anywhere, with plenty of options and approaches for learners at different levels, with different skills and interests.
  • Work ready focus: enrichment activities like online language learning, investigating careers through online talks and work preparation.
  • Collaborative: make students part of the planning and learning creation; have opportunities for their feedback and contributions.
  • Learning to learn: a fundamental underpinning of the NZ curriculum; for a lot of students this might be a deep end experience so a focus on how will help.

These considerations can be enabled by tools like Google Classroom, Canvas, Seesaw, Microsoft Teams etc. in different ways. I think the key is that whatever tools are used, they are collaborative, interactive, and promote agency. Furthermore, that the spirit of experimentation is encouraged. Many teachers will be encountering these tools for the first time, and a sense of there being one right way will only restrict the potential learning possibilities.

Structure

It was terrifying to read that many schools have maintained their classroom timetable for remote learning. This is not the time for business as usual. It’s not viable for most households to maintain this, and greatly reduces the opportunities that distance learning pedagogy can have. Claire Amos in a recent Spinoff article put it this way:

Life in lockdown shouldn’t have a predetermined timetable, and neither should learning. Replicating a timetable in a remote context is not kind, and haven’t we all been asked to be kind?

Bishop Carroll in Calgary, Canada is part of the Self-Directed Schools movement. Their approach is to timetable the teachers (so students know when they are available) and student co-construct their own time including masterclasses and workshops. Such an approach could very well be adapted to the current context. Teachers could be timetabled into an online chat space (with video to enhance connections) on a regular basis with students checking in to ask questions, seek clarification or feedback. The rest of the time a suggested programme could be provided helping students to fill the time in meaningful ways. 

Monitoring student connection on a shared google sheet (or similar) in lieu of attendance rolls will help to keep tabs on engagement and help inform tutors and pastoral leaders or who needs checking in on. But monitoring students for output should not be valued at all. This would not fit within the vision of leading with humanity, empathy and kindness. 

Assessment

This is a great opportunity to diversify the way we view assessment. So many assessment systems are stuck in traditional mindsets that view examinations as the dominant form of assessment. As these are no longer possible in the short term, perhaps we can consider how alternative approaches could be more authentic, integrated, and holistic. Performance over time can produce a significantly different result to a single high-stakes summative test. Which is a more accurate reflection of a student’s ability?

But perhaps a better consideration is to interrogate what we are measuring and how we are collecting that data. What skills and knowledge do we value in these times? Perhaps we should be finding ways to reward students who develop the skills to support their families and communities, or even volunteer for the NHS. How do we want to measure and collect this data? Perhaps we need to be looking at engaging students with more than just written work through social media, oral submissions, and multimodal methods.


I am by no means claiming this is a holistic take on all the issues that the current crisis presents. I’m sure school leadership in these unprecedented times is far more complex than my idealised take on it. Regardless, I think it is so important to keep emphasising the values of humanity, empathy and kindness.

You Can’t Change a Culture Via Emails

In the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, the internet has produced a wide variety of hot-takes on the implications on education. From definitive guides to home schooling to the articles in awe of teachers, there has also been cynicism such as “e-learning is no substitute for the real thing” and “E-learning [an] unlikely solution.” This negativity sometimes focuses on the perceived limitations of technology and distance learning, but also on the social and wellbeing challenges. I’m interested in how much this sudden forced shift to remote learning might be an opportunity to improve education and how access, pedagogy and culture have the potential to shift as a consequence of this crisis.

1. Access

Recently my flatshare’s internet contract required renewing and I was was shocked at how expensive the options were. Internet access, which many including myself assume is a human right, is actually a financial privilege. 22% of households in the US do not have home internet, 4 million of those with school age children; in the UK things might be better but there are still significant numbers not connected. 18% of my own tutor group do not have access to wifi or a computer at home. However, every student I teach owns a smart phone, but this is hardly satisfactory to undertake remote learning.

UK society is already so class divided, I fear the lockdown will create only further segregation and a wider divide. Lots of devices have been loaned to students, but with such a short time to prepare for this crisis, this is a small band-aid on a gaping wound. Internet access should be a human right and a shift in government policy is needed so that all our young people have access to both the internet and an appropriate learning device in their  homes.

It is also worth considering the technology teachers have access to. In the four schools I’ve worked at in the UK for longer than a week, only one (my current one) equips teachers with laptops. Cloud based storage is rare and most web technology that schools are using is limited. The potential of technology use is often squashed due to concerns about safeguarding and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). I think there are wide misunderstandings about technology and its classroom potential. I hope the tidal wave of online conversation occurring at the moment will inspire a new openness.

2. Pedagogy

My condensed experience of pedagogy in the UK is that teachers here are strong teaching a knowledge curriculum. The measurements of pedagogy are significantly focused on what the students learn and only mildly interested in the how. This is represented by how little scrutiny classrooms or schools get that produce outstanding results, therefore the focus is heavily on outcomes, finding little time for the invisible skills curriculum. These strengths and weaknesses presents both opportunities and challenges for remote learning. I expect most learning design will continue to be strong, but the need for focus on skills outside the explicit curriculum like digital skills and emotional and psychological wellbeing has never been greater.

The joint union guidance that gives solid pedagogical advice is all reasonable and shamefully being ignored by some schools.  Terrifyingly, some schools are expecting students to mirror their school timetables in their home context. Others are adopting forms of project based learning, or at least focusing on longer term assignments. My hope is in this high-stakes data-driven education environment that our shift to remote learning can find time to focus on the joy of learning. Allowing time for – dare I say it – fun, might help us all get through this crisis.

3. Culture

I’ve written before a few times about the clash I’ve had with the UK education culture. The current circumstances exaggerate those issues. I’m upset about the lack of a spirit of inquiry in regards to this situation. Some schools in NZ had the foresight to have a practice remote learning day, gave teachers the chance to trial a range of approaches and then measured engagement. The findings are not likely transferable to the UK because of the dramatically different cultures. In a climate of learning objectives, success criteria -lessons that are “do now” and differentiation is select from these three options – the lesson recipe is limiting our potential to inquire and shift practice.

I want to caution thinking that if we measure and study the effectiveness of the current practice of remote learning we might find robust evidence to shift education. We won’t. This will fail. Remote learning will not be successful. The Ofsted style outcome data we gain from this time will not be a valid measures. Without first addressing the barriers of access, and the gaps in pedagogy, this data will not accurately reflect the potential of online learning.

My hope is that more teachers will experiment, see the potential in giving opportunities for student agency, discovering the ubiquity of learning, and be reminded of the power of relationships. The greatest loss in shifting to remote contexts is the loss of the physical community and central hub that creates opportunities for connections and socialisation. In is those contexts that the social and emotional education of our learners takes place, and without an established online culture we are in a poor position to address this. BYOD schools are already dealing with these questions head on and they are beside students who are distracted by their devices, helping them to develop the skills to succeed in this world filled with technology. Without using technology in our classrooms already we are poorly positioned to shift the culture, no matter how many emails we send.

The UK is a long way away from prepared to deal with the educational challenges from this situation.  But the dramatic potential to finally address the issue of access, embrace different pedagogies and begin to shift the culture is exciting. I deeply hope there will be some positives from these truly dark times.

Dear Front Half of the NZ Curriculum, I Miss You

In the UK I’ve met a different breed of student which has really challenged me. They are students who believe their teachers have never believed in them. They don’t believe in a power of learning, because they haven’t found success in a conventional way. They have little knowledge of their strengths and abilities beyond traditional academic results. They challenge and reject opportunities for new learning as a default, and often dismiss help and support because they feel they will be able to do it themselves. They have lost faith in education. And these students are across the academic spectrum. They are not just low level learners still trying to gain GCSEs in the second time around, they are also high achieving students who do not trust the system.

These students are really troubling for me because they really challenge my vision of the classroom. My passion for learner agency has really taken a battering from the endless data drive and high stakes assessment. I try to maintain a classroom with lots of students choice, independent learning and opportunities to explore connections and tangents. But the assessment regime is an authoritative beast with a ubiquitous presence. These students are confrontational: seeking approval but no feedback, support but no guidance, attention but no challenge. They struggle in my classroom because their armor of expectations is so thick.

My views come from teaching in certain contexts, and shouldn’t be read as representative of the entire system. However, I can’t help but see the roots of these observations in the system itself. Ultimately, the students don’t trust the system – and to what degree is the system to blame?

I have written previously on the difference that driving the NZ curriculum from the front half of the curriculum makes. The equivalent in the UK is the teaching of British Values and the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC). These are usually dealt with in an isolated tutorial programme and rarely enter pedagogical conversations. This does filter through to students who don’t consistently hear the value of the skills and competencies that they are developing, or miss out on the explicit teaching of these skills or competencies.

The principles, values and competencies that guide New Zealand educators, and thus New Zealand ākonga is the fundamental difference that I miss most teaching in the UK. They play such an important role in developing learning rigor. The complexities of how students develop their attitudes and actions is admittedly far more complex than just what is written in the curriculum but it’s an important component of the conversation. More than anything it helps that conversation to be guided by a common language. It’s clear to me that the disparate education system in the UK doesn’t have one. The students I’ve described here are just some of the victims.