A Perpetual State of Renaissance?: Applications and Interpretation of the Growth Mindset for Independent Schools

Dr. Derald Wing Sue spoke about micro-aggressions to an audience of the Klingenstein Young Teacher’s Institute and the two-summers masters cohort last weekend. He showed two film clips. This new advertisement from Verizon represents micro-aggressions towards young girls, but also, the development of a fixed mindset. By telling her she was a “pretty” girl and emphasizing how she looked, this was establishing a mindset that told her she could not succeed in the math and sciences. I am struggling to differentiate and understand the interplay between “fixed mindset”, “stereotype threat” and “micro-aggressions”. I find them all interrelated, but have yet to find a schema that presents a cohesive picture of how these different social behaviors play out and interact.

Dr. Kelley Nicholson-Flynn’s citations of Carol Dweck’s work on “mindset”, and Steele and Aronson’s “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans”, and Whistling Vivaldi on “stereotype threat” left me with a lot of reading for application in my classroom; but I think it also applies to some of the readings I did for today about enacting change in the culture of our institutions. I have two case studies of schools I have worked with to present in this post; I will refer to them as my “alma mater”, and my “current school” rather than their names, as I believe the virtue of comparing them is not to advertise the individual institutions (I have high opinions of both of them, as you well see) but rather what their two different approaches illuminate about ways of enacting change, and a adopting broader “growth mindset” approach to the school culture

As Dr. Pearl Rock Kane was speaking to us about how to institute change in our schools, I kept reverting back to the notion that our institutions often have “fixed mindsets”, and this is not an entirely bad thing; it is important to have a clearly articulated identity. Ideally, that identity includes “life-long learning” and the importance of a “growth mindset”. I feel lucky to work at an institution that has a deep commitment to professional development, and I hear repeatedly “we can’t rest on our laurels”. However, at times I wonder if our “laurels” and the celebration of “our culture” inhibits us from innovation. The high school I went to no longer exists (metaphorically). I graduated in 2007, and it has undergone a renaissance. They have embraced the culture of innovation and change at my alma mater, and have worked to support innovation with new buildings and facilities on campus. As the school I work at, and my alma mater,  are proximate schools that compete athletically, but have very different “feels” or “cultures” despite (or perhaps because) they are ten miles apart from one another. I often get asked about the differences between the institutions. As I grew up at my alma mater as a faculty child I often say it was my home and where I grew up, and the school I work at is where I chosen to “spread my wings”. This normally satisfies the questioner, until I accidentally wear some of my high school apparel to an athletic contest and I get called a traitor (all in good fun of course!)

If I reflect deeply on the differences between the schools; I note the place I work has a clear, and strong identity. There is a quiet, but deep commitment to reflective practice by virtue of “where the money is” and how many resources are devoted to professional development. However, if you were to look at our website, although we confidently publish our NEASC accreditation report and focus on the importance of growth, it might appear to be a place steeped in conservative, perhaps “fixed mindset” tradition (and conveying a true reflection of who we are is the challenge of the new communications officer, she is doing great work). My alma mater was a place that did not have a clear identity when I was there. Part of the reason for the cultural, and physical renaissance, and the buy-in from the community at my alma mater, I believe, is because it was very much needed. There was a clear “unfreezing”, or “sense of urgency” in the school culture , and the “fear of not trying” was made apparent to use some terminology from Robert Evans’ The Human Side of School Change: Reform, Resistance and Real-Life Problems of Innovation. There was also quite a bit of top-down leadership, facilitated by a relatively young faculty. The two institutions face very different challenges regarding their cultures.

I am very much an outsider to the change at my alma mater as an alumna and do not claim to be an expert, or even a real participant in that culture any more. As an alumna, however, I am very proud of the institution they are becoming; and I perceive that there is a new cultural value of a “constant state of becoming, or rebirth”. However, this is a bit complicated when the mission statement focuses on cultivating life-long learners in the students, but not explicitly focusing also on faculty-learners or “evolving” institutionally. They do ask the question in the strategic plan part of their website: “How does a an old school remain vibrant?” and target three main goals, one of which is “Faculty and Staff Support”and the creation of a professional culture, and under that category one initiative is to create a dynamic, innovative professional culture. So it IS a clearly articulated goal, but the fact that it is a bit “hidden”, and doesn’t talk about evolution on an institutional level. At my current school, again, while there is an  intrinsic growth mindset in our professional development, it is not clearly conveyed as a value in our mission statement.

This (very superficial and quick) comparison of websites begs the question- how does an institution “sell itself” to prospective families and donors, while also fostering a constantly evolving and growing identity?

I feel very lucky to work at my current school, that does not have a fixed mindset, although as Evan’s writes, a growth-mindset is not a comfortable, or natural phenomenon in our institutions.

Culture thus serves as an enormous conservative force, the collective expression of the conservative impulse within individuals. It reflects, “Our human need for stability, consistency, and meaning” (Schein, 1992, p. 11). Hence the culture of an institution strongly supports continuity. Indeed, it is as if this were its chief purpose (44).

Not all change is good. Resistance to change, is in fact formative and, I believe, an important part of the process of instituting change. Sometimes this “push-back” can be infuriating, and seem unenlightened, or “stodgy”. With the example of technology, there are real reasons teachers are wary of the role of technology in their classrooms. When it doesn’t work, for example, there is a very tangible example or vindication for those “tech-phobic” teachers. But it is deeper than that. There are intelligent, thoughtful, and (dare I say) progressive reasons to avoid technology in the classroom. Appreciating the complexity of experience (something I strive to teach how to do in a history classroom to avoid the singular narrative misconception), is very important when starting to initiate change.

My current school is a strong institution, and has been a successful, stable place. Evans writes, “…stability is bread by success.” Because of this, perhaps there is less incentive for change, or a lower “sense of urgency” at my current school. Luckily, however, by allocation of resources towards professional development, it is a school with a clear growth mindset for its faculty and staff. I found this quote from Evans particularly striking:

 “…what is surprising is not that institutions resist innovation, but that anyone would expect them to welcome it” (45).

I feel very lucky to work at a place that, on an institutional level, has dedicated structure and funds the growth of its faculty. It may not seem like “innovation” from the outside, but investing in faculty allows for, and provides space for innovation. But we can’t rest on our laurels. We can’t rest on the fact that we do a good job facilitating a growth mindset for our faculty, just like my alma mater can’t stop innovating, that would be counter to the whole notion of a growth mindset.

Do you believe the brain can “grow” just (metaphorically) like a muscle? I am convinced.


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