One of my favourite trees is the oak tree, so I was very pleased to discover it is Emmanuel’s symbol. Trees are places of shelter and abundant life and speak of longevity and strength, all of which we want to see embodied in the life of a Christian school. But how do we grow students who feel safe but stretched and whose learning endures long after school days are over?
One of the buzz words in education is ‘Growth Mindset’. Its author, Carol Dweck, an educational psychologist, argues that when students see their intelligence as something to be developed rather than something which is fixed, they actually increase their potential to grow and develop. Because their identity is not found in being talented, they take risks, embrace failure and learn from it, anticipate improvement and make the most of the opportunity to do so. Many of Dweck’s ideas resonate with truths in the Christian gospel which are the foundation of confident learning in our school.
1. Finding identity in the right place promotes lasting growth
Dweck argues that when we find identity in a label we have given ourselves, we are reluctant to lose that label and so are less likely to take risks. If you tell a child they are ‘wonderfully intelligent’, what does it mean to them when they fail? That they are no longer wonderful? To avoid that scenario, children who see themselves as ‘gifted’ may not put themselves in a situation where they will fail. But for a Christian, the only label which counts is the one which says we are loved, known and treasured by God as deeply loved children. It is out of this identity that we can venture confidently to explore God’s world, knowing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and woven together intricately by him.
2. Challenge and failure is the way we grow
When someone who finds confidence in themselves fails, one of the temptations is to pretend it didn’t happen, blame others, or say it didn’t matter. Dweck tells the story of a multinational corporation where the seeds of its destruction were sown in the fact that no-one wanted to lose face so covered up their failings until eventually they were too big to hide. But failure in the Christian life is not a place of shame, but of hope in restoration and future fruitfulness. So too in education, we can seek challenge and embrace it, rather than hiding from it. This doesn’t mean we intentionally set children impossible challenges so they can learn from failure, but we don’t limit our expectations of them, or their own of themselves. Instead we nurture a context of love which drives out fear, so that children are motivated to step out beyond their current abilities with confidence.
3. Education and learning is a hopeful enterprise
I was asked by the governors about what I think the biggest challenge in education is today and my response was that we have too low an estimation of what children are capable of. In a sense, we give up on children too easily, or trivialise what we teach them, rather than expecting them to be on an exciting continuum of growth fuelled by their innate curiosity and love of learning. John Newton’s saying, “I’m not what I want to be, I’m not what I will be, but by the grace of God, I’m not what I was” applies to learning too. Dweck argues that the word ‘yet’ should be a staple response whenever we are met with the response of “can’t”, articulating the confident expectation that all children are natural learners, provided we promote the right conditions.
4. What we do with our talent is more important than the talents we have
It’s interesting that when Jesus tells the parable of the talents, the servant who turns his five into five more and the servant who turns his two into two more receive the same commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant”. And when the master rebukes the one who buried his talent in the ground he calls him a “wicked and lazy servant”. There are many layers to the parable, but it is interesting that the emphasis of the master is not on the opportunity each had, or the outcome, but the work put into it. When I was at school, our headmaster used to remind us that ‘Everyone is excellent at something’. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made and different and what we do with our personality and temperament and the opportunities we have been given is most important, not whether we achieve the same as others. With this mindset, we encourage children to make the most of their different gifts, confident that God can use each one of them as the person they are to bring him glory.
5. If the root is right, the fruit will come
What I think is most healthy about Carol Dweck’s mindset is that it shifts the focus from the surface to the root. It is right that we evaluate children’s achievement from time to time, just as from time to time we measure their height. But just as the more important question for a child is not, “How tall are you?” but “Are you growing?” and “Are you eating properly?”, so as teachers the most important question we can ask is, “Are you attempting new challenges? Are you asking questions? Are you learning from your mistakes? Are you growing in wonder at the world around you?”. If the answers to these questions are “Yes” and we have grounded children in a deep sense of belonging and security, the essential foundations for bearing last fruits of learning are in place.