By Kimberly White, Faculty of Education, Cambridge University
“Miss, can I come and see you at lunchtime?” A phrase often heard in school, especially around exam season when stress levels are high for GCSE and A Level students and equally as high for their teachers. The student wants to clarify a piece of knowledge I’ve imparted to them earlier on in the year, to make sure they understand how to use it in the correct context. They look to me as the fountain of all knowledge; the key that can unlock the door to success; the person with all the answers. And to some extent, we teachers do hold that. We understand our subject and the demands of the exam but in reality, it is my belief, that we should forever be like the students in front of us. Willing to learn from the wisdom of others and be the one who feels that sense of ‘not quite there yet.’
Even considering undertaking a Masters was a long time in coming. With the countless hours spent marking, planning and trying to form some kind of life outside of school in those early days of teaching, returning to academia seemed like an impossibility. Then one day, well maybe I can’t pinpoint it to an exact day, but at some point, I realised I was in the zone. Not the Twilight one, although some school experiences may have led me to believe that, no, I was in my comfort zone. That wonderous place where you feel like you have a handle on life and the scales of life and school was becoming balanced. This would not do.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that a life spent teaching should be one of never-ending stress, but when I stand in front of the class espousing a life of being challenged and personal growth, it does seem a little hypocritical when one is in their comfort zone. This is where the motivation for my research area came from – the impact of Growth Mindset.
For those who are not already aware of Dweck’s (2012) work, she explains how there are two Mindsets. One being the Growth Mindset, where there is a belief that intelligence and abilities are not pre-determined but can improve and develop with practice and then there is the Fixed Mindset. This is where a person believes that intelligence and ability is ‘fixed’ from birth and everyone has a maximum capacity for learning. Even with hard work, a person without a particular talent cannot learn it. If you haven’t guessed already, I hold more of a Growth Mindset (but you can fall in between the two given certain contexts).
I needed a new challenge to develop my professional skill set and enhance my knowledge, hence taking on the Masters of Education. In addition to this it was a way of finding new ways of impacting positively on my students. Both through my research and by being a role model of a lifelong learner. With this in mind, my research centres around how I verbally communicate with my A Level class and how written feedback on assessments can alter the mindset from Fixed to Growth, hopefully then impacting on their aspirations. I feel this is needed more than ever in the current climate. With the compulsory age of education being raised from 16 to 18 in recent years, I have 6thForm students in my classroom who hated being in a school setting and chose to undertake A Levels because, ‘what else is there?’ I’m sure many teachers would agree that teaching is not just about the transfer of knowledge and skills. It is getting students to understand their potential and supporting them in reaching it.
But this isn’t all I have on my metaphorical plate. As a Professional Mentor to trainee teachers, I am also involved in supporting their action research assignment for the PGCE qualification. So, I find myself being the one discussing literature review material, possible research questions and methodologies, while all the time feeling like I’m at the Starting Post of my own qualification. The novice expert indeed. But it means I’m out of that zone. I understand I have a lot to learn about researching education, but that’s the whole point. With every conversation I have, every piece of reading or seminar discussion, I am developing as a practitioner. The lessons I learn go back into my classroom for the benefit of my students and I try to reflect the Growth Mindset message I so strongly and enthusiastically believe in; we are never the finished product, life and teaching is a learning journey.
Dweck, C. S. (2012) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. USA: Random House
Kimberley White is a teacher of Philosophy, Ethics and Religion in addition to Sociology at a High School and Sixth Form in Essex. She graduated from the University of York in 2007 with a BA (Hons) in Sociology and later from York St John University with a PGCE in Secondary Education. She is currently undertaking a MEd at Homerton College. In addition to her belief in the Growth Mindset in a professional setting, she applies this to her personal life by being a keen runner, swimmer and ballet dancer.