D Shoebridge: The Power of Association in the Formation of Mind Sets

As human beings we are bombarded with messages that shape our understanding of our environment on a daily basis. As a member of staff at Kennet School we can associate a pupil with belonging to a particular house in a split second, just by a colour. In our home life, through our exposure to media advertising, it is possible to associate a single letter from a logo to a particular brand or product. In an effort to increase sales, companies invest millions of pounds in product placement to get their new accessory to be associated with a high profile film. With Christmas around the corner, we associate Santa Claus as being a plump man with rosy cheeks and a bushy white beard. The key to all of these examples is the association. We see something and we associate it with something else. It is a natural part of human behaviour; however these associations can also shape our beliefs in either a positive or negative way.

Carol Dweck speaks of the Fixed and Growth Mind Sets as a way of challenging traditional associations that we have. This is Carol Dweckin relation to both the pupils and ourselves, but perhaps more importantly she questions how the pupils form these associations. They could be in a specific subject or more globally applied to school as a whole. The key notion is that it affects everyone, from the top of the class to the bottom. The most able pupils are equally as likely to form a Fixed Mind Set as the least able pupils. The key for us as educators is, to firstly be able to identify if and why this is happening, and secondly be aware of strategies we can implement to try and change their associations to a Growth Mind Set.

The underlying principle of Dweck’s work is that if a child is praised purely on their achievement in educational attainment i.e. “you are really good at maths” as opposed to the effort they have made to get there i.e. “you must have worked hard to understand this maths problem” they will begin to develop a Fixed Mind Set. I wonder the impact this has on pupils identified as Able, Gifted and Talented. I wonder if we just nominate them in the belief that we are increasing their self-esteem without having a conversation about how hard they have worked to be nominated, and what they must do to continue to develop, we could be sending them down a path that has a Fixed Mind Set at the end of it.

The initial assumptions we make about identifying talent is an interesting point: in sport, we fully embrace the concept of natural talent. We like to think of high profile sporting stars as being born with almost superhuman qualities, that have naturally made them different to the rest of us. As a result, unless we were born with ‘a gift’ then we would never be able to emulate their success. This is a Fixed Mind Set. How much more motivating would it be to utilise a Growth Mind Set here? Imagine if we just thought of them as ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary through their effort and application. The focus for us here, should clearly be on the process of improving and not an end product of fame and fortune.

I believe that no matter what our level of experience is, in whichever aspect of our life, if we reach a point that we feel that we can’t improve any more, we have developed a Fixed Mind Set and we have become stuck in a rut. I think it was Sir John Jones that said, “the only difference between a rut and a grave is the size of the hole!”

I mentioned that a Fixed Mind Set could also be the underlying issue for a pupil who is behind in class. As we know from PiXL, if a student is falling behind, our first priority is to ‘diagnose’ the reason for this. It could be down to a lack of effort, although when this is the case there is normally a fairly strong association with an initial lack of understanding, which has manifested itself in this lack of effort. Their mind set evolves into one where they believe it’s better not to try and fail rather than try really hard and still fail. They have learnt that if they find something difficult they are simply no good at it. The interesting thing here is that failure is subjective. In order to change how the pupil classifies success and failure, we must first break their association between challenging tasks being a reflection of their apparent lack of ability, and for them to instead believe that being resilient to challenges is a characteristic of making progress.

You may well be highly sceptical reading this, as I was when I first started reading about the impact of trying to adopt and promote a Growth Mind Set. And, I am fully aware that in reading about Growth and Fixed Mind Set I have not suddenly discovered the Holy Grail. There is no moment like Neo discovered in the Matrix where everything suddenly makes sense to him. We are all incredibly busy people who have a number of boxes to tick on a daily basis. The appeal to me of utilising the concept of Mind Sets is that it simply requires a different way of thinking: there is no data inputting and no quantitative measurements. The beauty of Mind Sets is its simplicity, and more importantly it is simply about learning.

mindsetIn embracing the Growth Mind Set in my own teaching, I have found it surprisingly refreshing to regularly reel out this line to my groups: “the only failure you will have is not trying”. I have made it very clear to my classes that I consider their best to be a success, regardless of the outcome/grade they achieve. I am sure at least at one stage in our career we have seen a pupil who has an unrealistically high potential grade. In embracing a Growth Mind Set, I have sat down with my students and explained to them that a piece of computer software has generated a particular grade for them and that I am not sure if it is accurate or not and the only way to find out is to try their best. It might be too high, it might be too low. The culture I am trying to create here is one where they associate their best efforts with success and are less concerned by a grade on a piece of paper.

I know I will be judged on their progress towards this potential grade at the end of the course but for the learning process to effectively take place, that potential grade is now irrelevant to me. My behaviour management is focussed on a Growth Mind Set. If I have a pupil who does not do their homework; submits sub-standard work; does not concentrate in class; disrupts other students etc, I give them a sanction and tell them the reason for this is because they ‘have not tried their best’.

Likewise, a Growth Mind Set applies to us too. This year, whilst planning my lesson as part of my performance management, I started thinking about the Growth Mind Set. I undertook the same amount of planning as I did for any of my other lessons, but I was content in the fact that I was teaching to the best of my ability. If my line manager observes me and subsequently gives me things I can improve on then this feedback is making me a better teacher. I have simply learnt to think of feedback as helpful rather than judgemental.

It is natural to try and relate anything we learn to past experiences we have had. The most successful rugby teams I have played for were not the ones that had the best individual players, but they were the ones where everyone worked for each other; a group of lads that would run through brick walls for each other if they thought it would help the team. Without wanting to sound overly clichéd about this, as departments we work in teams and as a Head of Department I am fortunate enough to pick the individuals for the team I work with. Beyond this though, as a staff body we are all part of a far bigger team. I mentioned in the opening paragraph about how we naturally make associations which subsequently affects our behaviour, and the strength of these associations depends upon being exposed to them on a consistent basis and the message always being the same. The handout I gave out on the staff training day was downloaded from a resource on Carol Dweck’s website and I think it provides a useful starting point. It is of course an individual decision that we must all make about whether we consider the impact that it will have in the classroom is worth the thought that will be required by us to change the focus of our conversations with pupils. As we saw in the Derren Brown video on the staff training day, subliminal messages imbed themselves in the mind’s subconscious and as a result can change an individual’s way of thinking and subsequently their associations. So, can we really transform pupil perception and promote more motivated, higher attaining students just through Mind Sets alone? Of course not. There is a complex combination of factors that are required for this and Mind Sets are merely a starting point. But, as they say in the sports world; ‘every marathon starts with a single step.’


One thought on “D Shoebridge: The Power of Association in the Formation of Mind Sets

  1. superb presentation, captured well here….we ALL have much to learn here…..a key message for pupils too , to raise performance and satisfaction in learning…


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