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Roots and wings

| June 20, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Lizzy Nesbitt

“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other wings.” (William Hodding Carter II)

St John’s College in Houghton, Johannesburg, in Gauteng, has two symbols that represent its vision. One is official, the other organic.

When a boy arrives at the pre-preparatory school, he has a baby eagle on his blazer. When he moves into the college at 13, he walks past the eagle statue every day and is reminded of the wings he is growing and making ready for flight. But there is another symbol that is woven into our character: trees which provide shelter and speak of longevity and strength. Some of the oak trees were patiently watered in the 1920s by a master who was determined to grow trees that would provide long-lasting shade, rather than quick-growing blue gums.

Drawing on Dweck

Since starting work at St John’s nearly five years ago, I have reflected on what it looks like to give our children roots and wings. Much of my thinking about this has been influenced by the work of Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, in Stanford, California, in the US.2 In her most famous research,3 she split 400 children into two groups and after they had finished, regardless of their achievement, she said to one group, “Well done, you are really good at this,” and to the other, “Well done, you worked really hard on that.” She then explored how the five differing words of feedback might affect the students’ future success. She found that students praised for their hard work opted for harder challenges, blamed failure on not
trying hard enough and over time raised their performance. Through a number of other experiments, she has proved that when students are encouraged to see their talent as malleable rather than fixed, their actual potential to grow and develop increases.

When we believe our talent can grow, failure stops being something we cover up, but something we face up to and learn from. Risk is something we embrace, because it offers the opportunity to develop beyond our current abilities. With this mindset, failure can become the route to true and lasting success.

But, all too often, we think the brain is like a computer: you either get a Mac or a dodgy PC, and performance indicates which one we were given. But a “growth mindset”, according to Dweck, involves going beyond thinking that simply by owning a Mac you have made it. You need to develop the curiosity, graft, reflection and creativity that will make the use of that machine truly effective. It is this ‘software’ that makes the machine truly effective, not the possession of the hardware. Thinking we’ve got talent can be dangerous if we believe that it alone will ensure our success. Thinking we’ve got talent can be dangerous if it means that we avoid failure to ensure we keep being ‘successful’. Thinking we’ve got talent can be dangerous if it means what we have achieved is more important than how we are developing.

Tread cautiously with talent

Different areas of learning at St John’s have been influenced by Dweck’s approach. I have tried to give the boys in my Latin classes a greater sense of their own agency in their learning. I
stopped using the word ‘talented’ to describe students, as I have seen how often it can create a sense of entitlement to success, rather than the hunger and curiosity that is the hallmark of truly deep learning. A number of staff members have enthusiastically embraced this approach, and this year we formally introduced these ideas through a tutor course for Grade 8 and Grade 9 students, which focuses on where the roots of success really lie.

But knowing that the intellect can grow is not enough. Students also need to feel what risk-taking and discomfort feel like in real situations in class. It is important to create
opportunities where students venture into the uncomfortable place of uncertainty and try to navigate around. Students need to feel their own responsibility for their learning. Before I return tests to students, I ask them to evaluate how well they thought they have done and how they could have done better. Invariably, there is a strong correlation between effort and result. We need to create opportunities where all students are pushed just beyond their comfort zone.

Desirable difficulty

Another American professor, Robert Bjork, has done a lot of thinking about “desirable difficulty” at the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Laboratory at the University of California in Los Angeles, US.5 Our tendency is to think that able students need challenges and that weak ones need help. But according to Bjork, in order to ensure deep learning, we should fold specific difficulties into the way we teach so that no child relies on superficial props which give the allusion of flying, rather than true flight. We can invite riskier exploration by posing questions that are more open. In asking, “What might the meaning of that sentence be?” instead of “What does the sentence mean?”, we “open up the opportunity to explore without fear of missing the bull’s eye, and create the possibility that more students will actually discover how to hit it”.6 Visible Thinking routines help students to see how much they can understand without being spoon-fed. Students are encouraged to observe works of art, passages of literature or patterns in language to drive their thinking. The lessons can look messy, but they invite active student involvement – not just to find an answer, but to engage in an unpredictable process of learning.

Staff must stretch themselves

There is a third essential component for creating a culture of growth and learning in a school: staff should never stop growing either. As much as we expect our St John’s boys to be stretched and challenged, we must be willing to experience the same. Our Friday Forums are a space where staff share best practice together, and our Book and Blog group has encouraged staff to read a book that exposes us all to new educational thinking. However, there is much more we can do to create a culture of risky growth. As we expose our practices to one another in a spirit of mutual learning, we can take away the need to prove ourselves and instead improve together. We can leave space for plans and projects to fail, not insisting they must fly at first attempt. If we do, this culture among staff will naturally flow into our classroom dynamics, making lessons safe places to fail, energising places to learn and places where students see visibly where a commitment to lifelong learning might take them.

Students learn from teachers who have an infectious enthusiasm for learning. They learn from teachers who are willing to embrace risk and are teachable. They learn from teachers who use their experience not as a reason to sit back as the expert, but as a mandate to help others to grow and excel. Teachers who come to St John’s should be those who are not looking for a comfortable career, but a constant challenge to grow and develop.

A deep process, rather than a polished product

Part of our vision as a school is not about helping students pass through a door, but setting them on a trajectory of lifelong flight. We are not promising parents a polished product, but a deep process. We are not about growing grass, which will wither once it faces the real world, but about cultivating patterns and dispositions of learning that will last a lifetime. If boys leave St John’s having seen an ambition to grow in their teachers and having developed a desire for lifelong learning for themselves, I believe we have given them the roots and wings they need to be learners who will make a difference.


1. See, for example: william-hodding-carter-ii.
2. See:
3. See, for example: oct07/vol65/num02/The-Perils-and-Promises-of-Praise.aspx.
4. Ibid.
5. See:
6. Ibid.

Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2016

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