There is often an uneven balance between lessons which provide a platform for instruction and information, and allowing students to explore the characteristics of the mindset needed to be an expert in a subject.
The ability to notice, analyse and record are a group of skills which feed into many subject areas.
In my subject, Art, the key skill of the artist is to notice. Notice the contour of shapes, the subtle nuances in colour, the way light affects a subject. Think of Monet’s fascination with light. He created many series of paintings exploring the subtle differences in light at different times of day. Henry Moore’s ability to notice analyse and record the human form to create his masterful sculptures. Or Rothko’s immense, uncomplicated abstract paintings, noticing the ethereal effect placing one colour next to another can have. This is part of the mindset that we must teach to allow students to truly engage and respond to a subject.
As a student, the teaching I received in Art was superficial. I remember learning how to make a slab pot, with a clay bow tie stuck on to it, I created an imaginary landscape and painted fireworks. I achieved a C grade at GCSE, which for me was pretty embarrassing. I didn’t take A level Art, because I didn’t really feel good enough, but Art was always my passion and I went to do my Art foundation at the wonderful Art college in Weston-Super-Mare, with some really positive tutors, who allowed us to explore and develop our skills in a manner which was completely alien to me. The one issue I had was life drawing. Every Friday, we trudged up to the top of the beautiful Victorian building to the life drawing class where ‘Andrew’ was always waiting for us in his full glory. I have to admit, there were a few winces from me, being a rather young 18 year old.
We had 2 to 3 hours to work on this. Every time, I could hear furious scribbling, huffing and puffing and discreet steps back from all the other students. I would stand there, wince a little and put together a few meaningful lines and hope for the best. I was considered one of the top students for many aspects of the course; the teachers loved my enthusiasm and the quality of all of my work. Except that was, for my life drawing.
Week after week, we turned our drawings round and there would be 20 or so strong, confident and fairly accurate drawings and then my, well.. Jelly baby. I was incredibly frustrated but seemed clueless why this was going so wrong.
Interviews for universities were coming up fast and I knew how important life drawing was seen by the colleges I wanted to apply for. The coming week, I decided not to look at gangly Andrew, and focus on my class mates. It was then, I realised what I was doing wrong. Students were spending absolutely ages looking at Andrew, thinking about it, then putting marks on their paper, then stepping back, looking again and changing it if needed. This was a revelation. For the first time in my life I had been opened up to the mindset of the artist. The ability to notice, analyse and record had finally been explained to me. From that point on I looked, I mean really looked at each angle, the contours of the torso and the relationship between each part of the body. My drawings rapidly improved and I got into my first choice for Uni.
An artist has the ability to notice. Notice how the light falls on the sea, the composition through a window pane, the beauty in the letter ‘S’ scribed in a tag at Peckham Rye station. As Cezanne said about Monet. ‘Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye!’ The artist has the ability to let others see the world in a way others cannot. This is their gift to the world; to notice and reflect the world in a way others don’t recognise.
Now, back to the growth Mindset bit. Carol Dweck has spent her life investigating achievement and success. In her recent book, Dweck implies that there are two types of mindsets- fixed, where people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.
Then there’s the growth mindset-people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities. ( I must be in this bit)
So, there are two things to consider here, when teaching your subject. Firstly we need to open students to the idea that great accomplishment, whether writing an essay, running a mile or drawing a still life comes from having a difficult time, where we have to be resilient when things get tough and that with hard work and reflection, we can improve.
Secondly, designing learning experiences within your subjects, which open up the opportunity for students to analyse the expert approach to your subject can help students develop the growth mindset for your subject.
The ‘where’s your head at scale’ is a great catalyst for encouraging students to consider their mindset for a task. Students with high ability or talent could place themselves high on the scale- but what does that mean they will do differently to encourage their growth mindset? Similarly, a student with less ability may place themselves high up on the scale due to the nature of challenge for them. This often demonstrates to students how much of a growth mindset they have. How much they are willing to push themselves, to be resilient, to take risks and consider the approach they will need to acquire to succeed in a task.
Allowing students to discover the mindset for growth and for expertise must surely be our priority when thinking about learning experiences. Who are great examples of great learners within your subject area? What is it about their approach to learning which has made them so successful? What can we learn from them to build mindsets for growth?
Getting students to investigate the ‘heroes’ for your subject or even the teacher talking about their own experiences- like my life drawing story helps unravel the key skills which are needed to allow students to think and learn like the professional, rather than think within a fixed mindset.
Moreover, students can build evidence of these skills through their investigations, develop their expertise of what skills and attributes are needed to become great at something. ‘This much I know’ has been running in the Observer for many years, where famous people or experts in their field pass on their wisdom to others. What a great thing to do for Year 7’s to pass on to Year 6’s and so on about the mindset needed for success in your subject.
As teachers, we must ensure that every student can access the mindset of the expert in our subject areas, to nurture and encourage the growth mindset for all.