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Leave Your Old Ways of Working At The Door

22 July

Gill Smith is an Educational Consultant, Performance Mindset Coach, and Delver, contributing to lots of Delve Projects, including the Surrey 500

The Shift Towards a Growth Mindset

Key pedagogical developments in schools during the second decade of my teaching career, saw a shift in practice to ‘personalise learning’ to meet the individual needs of all.  With this came the move for all students to develop a growth mindset approach to their learning. The focus was on creating school environments fit for the 21st century, and assessing whether the very Victorian approach of having children sit in rooms with four walls behind desks, being instructed and tested, writing on paper and learning a fairly fixed curriculum, was actually preparing them for a life where 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet?  It struck a real chord.

As Deputy Headteacher leading curriculum innovation, teaching and learning and assessment at the time, as well as staff CPD and standards, it was truly liberating.  We had the freedom to design a curriculum that was right for the students in our school context.  To offer a curriculum to suit the academic and complex pastoral and social needs of the children, families and the local community, whilst reflecting the national and international drive to develop digital technologies, science, engineering, numeracy and literacy, and the creative and expressive arts.

We Threw Everything up in the Air

  1. We sat round tables and we talked.  We consulted each other.  We listened to each other.
  2. We coached each other.  We learnt from each other. We asked why we did what we did.  We decided what we needed to change.
  3. We spoke to the children, the parents, the staff, the stakeholders, community organisations and local project leads.
  4. We worked together with multi-agency groups in the fields of mental health, social care and policing to get to the real root of the issues that our students and families were facing.
  5. We knocked down school walls, completely redesigned the pastoral system, introduced mobile technologies and re-wrote the entire curriculum around our findings to completely change the way we taught.  And with it, embedded the ‘whys’ and the ‘whats’ that the students would learn.
  6. We employed staff from various community agencies and based them directly in the school. We shared experiences directly with them, took risks and developed a collaborative culture beyond anything we had ever experienced before.

With a pioneering Headteacher prepared to be different, supporting all our efforts and ideas and giving the green light to lead the new system, we put in the effort to pave the way to achieve more.  To bring opportunity, challenge, ambition, aspirations and success to our students.  We rapidly moved the school from Ofsted ‘Notice to Improve’ to ‘Good’ within the space of 18 exciting, but tough months.

The Lessons for Organisational Life

Pioneered by Carol Dweck, ‘Growth Mindset’ theory focuses on learners understanding the possibility of developing one’s abilities by embracing challenge, resilience and using criticism to make improvements.  It also encourages the practice of viewing other people’s successes as a source of inspiration. As an educator in schools, adult education and organisations for almost 25 years, my role has always been to help my students and staff to understand where they are now, where they have to or want to get to, and critically, the whys and the whats they need to do in order to achieve this. The same applies in business and organisations.  Getting to the root of the ‘whys’ and the ‘whats’ is key.

During an ongoing programme of Delve leadership development events, 500 aspiring and existing leaders in Surrey Heartlands have been challenged to collaborate more effectively across the health, social, community and policing organisations in a drive to develop a cooperative ‘system leadership’ approach to working, to shake things up for the better. While taking part in an observational activity looking at leadership behaviours, one comment from a participant resonated deeply with me. “Let’s leave our old ways of working at the door.” That one comment took me right back to the days of our school system redesign, when I had what these participants now have: Carte blanche to re-design provision for stakeholders and develop system based leadership approaches to working. It was quite possibly the highlight of my career to date.

I was interested to see how the different mindsets around the table at the Surrey 500 event might affect the attitude and efforts of participants so I listened and observed closely but I realised it is not that simple. It’s a theory that even Dweck herself now questions: ‘Although I truly believe that there is no “mindset” that applies to every situation; I have a very fixed mindset about skydiving. I also believe that the notion of not having a growth mindset has been used to label people that don’t agree with a certain direction of an organisation or school. Many people challenge, not to hold on, but to move forward.’ That’s a comment worth noting.

Embracing a Deliberate Practice Mindset

Instead, Dweck now describes the need for a ‘Deliberate Practice Mindset’.   Also known as the third mindset, Dweck suggests, “The climb to great achievement is long and arduous, requiring lots of preparation, support and perseverance”.   These qualities build upon the principles of the growth mindset and focus more on a cycle of continuous effort. Like the swimmer who trains up and down that pool every single day.  The musician who practises those notes for hours on end.  Or the ballet dancer who repeats, repeats, repeats the same intricate moves over and over again. A deliberate mindset is one step further than simply ‘opening up our minds’ to what is possible, it is what the Delvers describe in their Delve Talent Tool as ‘Purposeful Practice’.

Given the risks identified already by those involved in developing system leadership in the Surrey 500 Project, e.g. funding, time, geography, communication etc., it is clear that participants will indeed need to maintain an intense focus, stay on the edge of one’s comfort zone, seek immediate feedback, identify weak points and develop practices specifically to address those weaknesses.  Deliberately.  And because deliberate practice is hard work, the Surrey 500 leaders will also need to keep themselves motivated, develop effective supportive networks and recognise that the path will be long and difficult.   Achieve this and they will undoubtedly take pleasure in the process, appreciate the hard work required to truly improve and reflect on their progress towards their goal.

Meanwhile, we will watch and support with interest. I have everything crossed that they will throw things up in the air and rise to the challenge.

And so, back to the school.  How are things there now?  Things evolved.  Again. Completely out of our hands, political decision-making subsequently changed our pioneering approach.  The government enforced a return to the traditional academic curriculum of old.  “Standards had to improve” nationally and students were forced back down the one-size- fits all academic pathway.  Funding cuts meant that the multi-agency working practices started to shrink.  Time and money became the drivers again, with creativity and risk-taking stifled. The opportunity for our staff to develop this new, shared system leadership community was removed, and it was back to the drawing board to create fresh practices. It was harsh change.  It’s inevitable, but not always as we like it.  It doesn’t mean I have regrets.  None at all.  Those students touched by our re-design thrived and achieved and received a worthy education in the context of that school.  I loved every minute of that work and learnt so much to take forward from it.  Particularly the need to respond to change, whether agreed or ‘enforced’, with positivity.

My hope now is that the system leaders of the Surrey 500 will generate positivity and learn so much from collaborating and sharing, re-designing and co-creating a better system for the people of Surrey Heartlands. Whatever happens, they hold a privileged opportunity for impactful change in their hands. We can’t wait to see the outcome of their determined mindset efforts! You can fight change, adapt to change, embrace change, create change, and lead change. Your choice.  It isn’t going away.

Gill Smith

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