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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Education & Society

Thinking about growth mindset in science

Looking for ways to improve student outlook recently became a priority for Christchurch science teacher Carmen Kenton.

boy-with-flowers.jpgThis article first appeared in New Zealand Science Teacher print journal, 2015. Find a digital version here.

One science teacher is finding ways to ‘switch students on’ using their current knowledge, and improve their outlook, in order to develop further understanding in the subject.

Carmen Kenton is HOD science at Christchurch’s Hagley Community College. The department covers a wide range of science subjects: from the traditional disciplines (physics, biology and chemistry) to pre-health nursing, psychology, and philosophy. Carmen also teaches science to refugees recently arrived in New Zealand.

The department has 12 teaching staff and two technical staff members. Classrooms throughout Hagley Community College include a number of students with complex learning differences that result in learning gaps, and lower reading ages.

Carmen says many students also have well established work avoidance strategies. “The students are often smart enough to work at their year level, but struggle to get their thoughts and understanding down on paper,” she says.

“Our job is to switch them back on to learning by finding ways to tap into their current knowledge and their developing understanding.”

New Zealand Science Teacher asked Carmen about some teaching strategies she has recently explored at Hagley Community College around growth mindset and helping her students to overcome some of their learning barriers.

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My Year 11 science class in 2014 was an ‘internal pathway class’, just sitting internal achievement standards in science and formed part of our supported learning programme. Our school has an extensive learning support programme for students in year 9-11 who have been identified as having learning difficulties that can be addressed with specific and targeting support. These students were able to pass science achievement standards at Level 1, but needed literacy learning support to get them there. 

I noticed they were unconfident and I thought that by getting them familiar with the literacy of the topics, they would realise their potential. My whole plan for the year was to build their confidence with some quick credits from the Science Unit Standards in the first term, and then build on that learning with Chem 1.1. 

Early on in the learning for Chem 1.1, we co-constructed an assessment template and then used it for all the learning as well, with the hope that once we got to the assessment, they would have the confidence to use it. It didn’t work out as I had hoped. Within 15 minutes of the assessment starting, many of the students gave up and wouldn’t even entertain the notion of giving it a go. 

“I’m not doing this. I won’t pass anyway” was a common refrain. Only 11 of the 20 students achieved the standards.  My hypothesis was not supported by my data.

All the literacy strategies in the world weren’t enough to help these students because that wasn’t their main learning problem: they had no self-belief. I began looking for ways to help my students change their outlook.

I remembered watching some time ago, a TEDeX video presentation about young, south Auckland Pasifika people breaking down their invisible barriers. So I hunted out that video and watched it again. Joshua Iosefo Brown Brother.

Fortuitously, just after this, a professional learning development session with our local science advisor had us unpack ideas around ‘fixed and growth mindsets’.

I went home and made a lesson, and the very next day we watched the video together.

Then I shared with my students some of the barriers I had experienced in my life. I asked them to write down the barriers that they had experienced in their lives, and then asked them to think how they would break these down. I asked them to go home and share this with their families, a mentor, or a good friend, for homework. 

It was the only homework they ever did all year. 

They were very keen to share their thinking the next lesson. We discussed how some barriers are put there by us, by peers, and by society. We discussed what we might do about it and they became passionate and really felt like they were empowered.

In the end we spent three hours of class time on this, and every second was worth it.

My students began actively doing things to break down their barriers and asking for ways to break a barrier. They started using new language in all their classes: fixed, growth, breaking barriers. They began explaining it to their other teachers, and I believe they are beginning to develop open and growth mindsets.

-          Carmen Kenton.

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What is growth mindset?

In her best-selling 2007 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that it’s not our abilities and innate talents that bring us success, but rather the attitude we bring to learning and achievement.

Since the book’s release, these ideas have received plenty of attention in the education sector. Dweck explores our most intrinsic beliefs, in particular, the way we think of ourselves, and concludes that we should view our personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, as things we can alter as we go through life – and not as absolute traits.

As such, Dweck argues that possessing a malleable, or ‘growth’ mindset, as opposed to a ‘fixed’ one can help us realise our goals and achieve more in life.

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