When I graduated from my teaching degree, I had the absolute privilege and pleasure of working at Cherbourg State School, then managed by a charismatic and thoughtful principal, Chris Sarra.

Chris had started at the school four years previously, when it had been one of the worst achieving schools in the state. Cherbourg is a former government mission, established for “the protection of” Queensland (and Northern Territory, and New South Wales…) Aboriginal peoples. Chris, over the following years, collected a group of hard-working teachers and teaching assistants, and shifted the culture of the school from one of failure, in which students were never expected to achieve, to one of success, in which students achieved at similar levels to those across the state, meeting the benchmarks set for them as they are set for all students in Queensland. You can read his story, from his point of view, in his book Good Morning Mr Sarra, or a little in this extract available online.

How did Chris achieve this? He created a culture of high expectations. He had high expectations of his staff, and he required that we had high expectations of our students. We gave a consistent message of these expectations to all students across the community and throughout their school experience. Our students constantly heard that they had to be “strong and smart“, and we discussed what this meant over and over again, exploring it in different ways but applying it in all contexts of school life. “Strong” meant healthy in our bodies and our minds; it reminded students to eat as best they could and sleep as best they could and prepare themselves for learning. “Smart” meant being willing to learn, having a go, giving a consistent effort and working hard even when the work was challenging. The message was that students could succeed, could learn, could achieve, and could make good decisions for themselves and their families.

Maintaining high expectations required us as staff to challenge our ideas about our students, but more than that, it required our students to change their ideas about themselves. This is a pretty big ask. Out in the wider world, Indigenous Australians can be denigrated, dismissed, or simply made invisible, and hearing over and over again that you’ll never change, never grow, never learn, and never contribute – that you are useless and helpless – is a tough message to contradict. I still think every day about my former students at Cherbourg, and hope that we did enough to help them deflect that message with the one we gave them.

Learning to have high expectations of my students gave me a solid foundation for managing student learning and behaviour at all of the schools at which I worked following my very short stint at Cherbourg State School. It was the best lesson I ever received about teaching. I not only knew to have high expectations, I also knew how to communicate them. Having high expectations, though, takes a lot of effort, and the default position of everyone is laziness.

And I’m starting to notice a worrying trend in the world: I keep receiving the message that people don’t change. The message is that people don’t change their opinions, don’t change their beliefs, don’t grow up, don’t learn anything new. Worryingly, I occasionally receive this message from some of my pre-service teachers. And I object to this message, quite strongly. It’s lazy! People do change their opinions, their beliefs; people do mature, do learn new things and change as a result; people evolve. Just as energy drives change in the physical universe, surely learning drives change in the personal universe? If that’s not true, what is the point of teaching? What is the point of attending university?

The problem with the message that people don’t change is that it sets the expectation we have of others, and others have of us. If we are not expected to learn, to grow, to change, then we don’t have to, so we won’t. If our friends and families are not expected to change, what is the point in discussing anything with them? What is the point of thinking creatively, of solving problems, of investigating scientific ideas, of asking questions if no one is going to change anyway?

Carol Dweck has explored some of these issues in her research into implicit theories of intelligence. It reads a little bit like pop-psych, and is perhaps a little too black-or-white, but it goes like this: when students believe that intelligence, character and creative ability are static (they hold a “fixed mindset”), and they encounter a challenge, they withdraw their efforts, as they see no point in trying to do something that they obviously can’t do. Ultimately, they seek activities in which they can succeed and avoid activities in which they might fail. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The other side of the coin is that there are those who believe that intelligence, character and creative ability can and do change (they hold a “growth mindset”). Such people thrive not on success, but on challenge, and see failure as a springboard for further learning. Maria Popova describes the differences quite succinctly and illustrates them well on her blog Brain Pickings.

Further, Dweck contends that these “mindsets” are developed quite early on, and developed through the ways that children are praised in their early years. In general children praised for being “clever” go on to develop a fixed mindset, while children praised for having made an effort go on to develop a growth mindset. This should cause a pause for thought in both parents and teachers; Dweck’s suggestion is that our praise of even very young children can have a much greater and longer-lasting impact than we may have guessed. I’d still like to see more research on the topic, and replication from other researchers in different locations and cultures, but in the meantime we can consider how we might already have facilitated a fixed mindset in our society about people.

Further research by Dweck and her colleagues has found evidence that a fixed mindset causes us not to challenge stereotypes of our own and others, and has even challenged the notion that self-control is a limited resource. Perhaps some of the current feeling that people don’t change is reflective of a dominant (or at least, loudly communicated) fixed mindset in individuals in our community, and perhaps it is playing out in different ways. But for every racist rant on public transport that has gone unchallenged, another has been condemned by those around them.

Perhaps what Chris Sarra did at Cherbourg was to facilitate a change in the mindset of all of us; by requiring his teaching team and our students to hold high expectations of ourselves, he also set us up to embrace a growth mindset. And with that growth mindset, our students could see that they could achieve, they could learn, they could contribute, and maybe they could challenge some of the stereotypes given to them by others.

If the fixed mindset/growth mindset dichotomy has anything to it, and our expectations of others and ourselves lead to these mindsets, what we can do now is facilitate the a healthy growth mindset in our family, friends, colleagues and students. So, do something for me? Let’s start giving people the message that they can change their minds, their ideas; that they can grow and change and become better (or worse) if they want to. Let’s build a growth mindset, just like Chris Sarra and his teaching team accomplished at Cherbourg State School. Please go out there and have a conversation with someone today about something you changed your mind about. Next time you’re asked about your opinion and you don’t know very much on the topic, seek out more information. Next time you disagree with someone about something, ask them why they hold that opinion. See if your mind can change, or if you can change their mind, or if there’s a totally different solution altogether!

Let’s have high expectations of each other, rather than no expectations at all. Let’s grow and change and achieve together. And maybe, people will respond…

What do you think?

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