It's going to be tough because coming into the building will be a new cohort, representing about 25% of the school population, who are not happy with school. Don't get me wrong, they are great kids, with wonderful potential. It's just that they are hurting.
They are hurting because, for a myriad of reasons, they have become convinced that they can' t learn; that they are not as capable as their friends; and, that school is a negative place for them. It doesn't have to be that way. I am a big fan of Carol Dweck. My wife Rheanne (who is the most reflective educator that I have ever known) reminded me today that Dweck poses a framework to refocus students on their potential for self-fulfillment. Her thesis on nurturing a "growth mindset" in students is a powerful argument for directed, positive reinforcement of executive functioning skills and work ethic in students. She contrasts a growth mindset with that of a "fixed mindset", a difference which she defines this way:
In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.
Many of my new students have a fixed mindset. They are totally convinced that they can't learn, that they are "dumb" (to use Carol's term) and that school is a place that is filled with frustration and failure. They have suffered under the misapprehension that they are "dumb" because they have done their best and have come up short. They are often articulate, creative and highly interested and motivated students, and when they "fail" it is interpreted by teachers (and even sometimes by their own parents) as being a product of their own lack of persistence, effort and grit. How many report cards have you read that say "Work harder and you will succeed"; or, "Not working up to ability"; or, "Needs to make a greater effort" ? Now I am a big believer in true "grit". They even made a movie about it - twice! But I watch these kids, who have more grit than any I have ever known, beat themselves up because they believe that they just can't do it.
For these students, repeated failure has cemented a fixed mindset in place. Unlike the student who is so highly praised for mediocre work, (a common occurrence given the inflation of marks and the deflation of evaluative language - does anyone get less than a SUPER!!!! written on their work anymore?), these students get firmly convinced that they are incapable of completing what appear the simplest tasks for their peers to do. Their self-esteem plummets, and they become convinced that no matter how much they persevere, they will surely fail.
So where is the balance? Years ago I had the privilege of teaching alongside William Watson Purkey Jr.(Self Concept and School Achievement, 1970) at the University of Connecticut. Bill Purkey (University of North Carolina) and my friend John Novak (Brock University) wrote Inviting School Success in 1984. Their work in invitational education struck the right note between empty praise, and potentially limiting criticism. They saw invitational education as a general framework for thinking and acting about what is believed to be worthwhile in schools. It centred on five basic principles: (1) students are able, valuable, and responsible, and should be treated accordingly; (2) educating should be a collaborative, cooperative activity; (3) the process is the product in the making; (4) people possess untapped potential in all areas of worthwhile human endeavor; and (5) this potential can best be realized by places, policies, programs, and processes specifically designed to invite development, and by people who are intentionally inviting with themselves and others personally and professionally.
Purkey once told me "anything worth doing is worth doing poorly - the first time". The secret is to see learning as a continuum rather than a series of isolated successful or unsuccessfully completed tasks.Learning is a work in progress. It is a developmental process that can easily be derailed as soon as we adults put a value judgement on it (e.g. "good work", A+, C-, etc.). Finite assessments, no matter how well intentioned or justified, stop the learning process and lead to not only fixed mindsets in our students about their ability and potential, but also in our own professional judgements about them as learners.
So the real question is: "Who is the architect of the fixed mindset"? Is is the parent who thinks that her or his struggling child can do nothing right? Is it the student who receives so much discouragement at school that she or he is convinced that every test will be a disaster; every assignment an F-; every speech a clunker; and, every team tryout, an early cut? Or is it us educators who are quick and easy with both our praise and our critical judgements? It is easy to avoid inflating an ego, and encouraging a work ethic; but, it is even easier to crush the spirit of a learner and prejudge their perseverance based upon our vague perception of how well they "should" do. Unfortunately, in the final analysis, all too often it is us, as teachers and administrators, who place these limits on growth.
So what should we do? To begin with, we have to undo the damage that years of failure have caused. We have to create new pathways to achievement; celebrate each small success; open students' eyes to the fact that no-one is perfect and that everyone has her or his own individual path to follow. We are lucky in our school. We have a dedicated faculty and staff who are so numerous that is almost impossible for a student to fall between the cracks. For most students, we are a way station between a frustrating beginning to their school careers, and a much more balanced and satisfying end.
I could speak to you about differentiation and IEPs and one on one tutoring but the reality is exactly as Carol Dweck says. We try to instil in our students a flexible mindset. Our goal is to make them understand that their journey is a personal one and that the route that they follow will be uniquely theirs.
Will every one of our students reach their full potential? Who knows! Our job, as with every great teacher in thousands of schools across this continent, is to open their minds to the possibilities. To have that flexible mindset that says: "if I have the will, and the perseverance, there is definitely a way".
None of our students, nor us, should ever accept that there are limits on growth.