Establishing A Growth Mindset: How School Culture Can Unlock Student Achievement
It’s easy for us to forget how important schools are in forming character. We tend to ascribe this quality to family, to friendships, to certain “more strategic” life choices. In many countries, one simply attends the school conveniently nearby. Rare are the few who get to choose, and rarer especially are the ones who recognise the importance of culture when assessing what’s actually “good” about the place at which children spend the majority of their day.
I’ve been giving school tours for about ten years now and the questions parents ask generally run the usual gamut: school logistics, curriculum, teaching qualifications, extra curricular programming and recently, university acceptances. A few years ago, I was asked a question that was refreshingly thoughtful and in answering it, I realised how much more important it was compared to schedules, lunches, handwriting and buses: “What’s the most important thing I need to know about your school culture?” I paused for a moment then because there’s so much really that I could have said, but I distilled it to a response like this: “We view success broadly and we want students to understand that about themselves too. We don’t believe that success should be simply tied to one narrow dimension, because that’s not how the world works. The worst thing a school can possibly do is have children feeling like failures. So we emphasise quality in various realms, not just in academic pursuits.”
When students relax, when they feel accepted for who they are, they perform better and seek more challenges.
A balance must be struck between the academic objectives we provide for our students and the cultural objectives which inspire their dispositions. The argument might be made that if the culture raises them adequately, students might develop a more solid vision of who they are as a person and who they want to be, as well as being better equipped to envision even the post-secondary path that suits them best. And so we began by distilling our school ethos into words students could understand and concepts teachers could teach. We figured this most effectively empowered our school community to move purposefully within the culture we wanted to perpetuate. We understood that the future required students to create a vision for themselves, and we recognised that certain attributes or prerequisites needed to be identified so they could be acknowledged and taught more explicitly.
In 2013, The Harbour School revisited the basic principles which formed the foundation for the school’s ethos and distilled them into actual learner outcomes that would be measured and taught alongside the academic or content goals. The thinking was, if we could map our cultural markers, then we could plan for, teach and assess them. Better yet, we could plan for the students to appreciate and assess their own progress in embodying them.
Learner Goals at The Harbour School
And so the Learner Goals were created: Perceptive, Innovative, Resilient, Integrated Within, Integrated Among, Inquisitive and Self-Determined. At the onset, we relied on shared community responsibility to ensure schoolwide understanding. Each class prepared a related Learner Goal (LG) project for sharing with the rest of the school during assembly. Within a matter of months, LGs quickly became part of school-speak, working their way into the classroom and even into celebrations.
When students were recognised as “Star Students,”, their accomplishments were acknowledged in relation to specific learner goals. It’s typical on a given day to walk through the school to hear one student exclaim to another how “self-determined” she was being and how, or to hear teachers exclaim they’re proud of a student for maintaining resilience under adverse situations such as a test retake due to a low math score. Today, Learner Goals are taught during morning meetings or “O.H.M. room” (Our Home Meeting) time with discussions on quotes, art work and sometimes music. Students continue to self-assess in consideration of each goal and compare their determinations with that of their teacher’s to increase their own understanding.
Five years into the refining process finds the beginnings of a learning system restructured to allow for a more balanced ethic at work. Recently, we’ve expanded our definition of success even broader by adding our Centers of Excellence to spread the opportunities for students to find their interests and passion. We are just as proud of a student who receives a coveted internship within our Marine Science Center as we are of a student awarded an A in Physics.
More importantly, our culture reflects this in many small moments every day. Without compromising on depth and intensity of study, we’ve widened the window of success. No longer measured in terms of content knowledge or “academics”, it’s become culturally expected that students value resilience during play practice just as importantly as a well-written essay. Whether engaged at recess or project based learning opportunities, students appreciate the value of being integrated among others just as thoroughly as the construction of a critically sound argument. Indeed, many observe that masterful application of each attribute improves the quality of many an authentic task. Whether goals are employed in this year’s Maker Faire for primary (innovative) or next year’s narrowing of university steps for secondary (integrated within), ensuring relevance and generality as expressed by the most important facets of our culture provides each student, we hope, with an illustrious vision of an uniquely worthwhile life ahead.
About J. Christine Greenberg, THS Prep and Primary Principal
J. Christine Greenberg is the Prep and Primary Principal of The Harbour School in Hong Kong. Before joining the THS faculty in 2009, Christine worked in schools as a teacher and educational consultant. She completed the rank of Master Teacher in accordance with the Comprehensive Application of Behavioral Analysis to Schooling® certification system and was awarded undergraduate degrees summa cum laude in English Literature and Elementary Education (K-8) from the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, New York. She completed her graduate studies as a Doctor of Philosophy candidate in the field of Special Education where she was the recipient of the annual scholarship from the Department of Health and Behavior Studies in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In 2014, she co-authored a paper on inclusive practices in education in Hong Kong, It Takes Two to Tango, published in the Global Education Review. Her research and professional interests include progressively inclusive education.