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“What use are glasses or light if the owl does not want to see?”

Posted on: 16 Nov 2016

Craig Jenkinson, Deputy Head Academic at AKS Lytham, argues that the principles of 'Growth Mindset' should be central to this country's schooling DNA in order to lift pupils' attainment and behaviour as well as improve teacher retention.

A visitor to Edinburgh’s National Gallery will see the 17th century painting by Jan Steen: ‘A School for Boys and Girls’. The depiction of a chaotic and unruly classroom has, on the one hand, a lighter intent of amusement; alongside which, however, also exists a more pointedly symbolic warning about ill-discipline in education. Most tellingly, a distracted youngster offers a pair of spectacles to an owl on a perch, in moralistic reference to the Dutch proverb: “What use are glasses or light if the owl does not want to see?”


Our education system is at the moment a mess, and a young person’s chances of receiving high quality schooling in a well-disciplined environment with knowledgeable, skilled, and caring teachers seems to depend far too much on their parents’ choice of address or amount of disposable income. Few would dispute that the status quo does not offer the consistency, transparency, and classlessness that we would ideally wish for, but the proposed solutions of recent years - including the current debate around grammar schools - are all shining their searchlights in the wrong places. Focusing attention and responsibility on types of schools, short-term ‘hero’ leaders, or the overwhelmed and dis-empowered classroom teachers are misguided and will not create long-term, sustainable improvement. It does not matter what type of school it is, how charismatic and forthright the present Head is, or how innovative and tightly monitored the professional pedagogy of each lesson is, if “the owl does not want to see”. We have a similar proverb about a horse and water; the truth is the same.


Certainly, good schools all have good leaders, who understand how to get the best from their talented and committed staff; who in turn bring subject specialism, pastoral care, and moments of inspiration to the young people in their classes. But these good schools will also have an ethos of effort and achievement, where pupils try hard in their studies in the knowledge that any success comes from wanting it and from working for it, by themselves and for themselves. Some of these schools are fortunate to inherit this in-built desire to do well from effective parenting; others establish it as integral to their school’s vision and daily practice from the very first day. The owl must want to see, as the foundation for all else.


The principles of ‘Growth Mindset’ are already identifiable in many educational institutions around the world, but they are not yet central to this country’s schooling DNA; they should be, as a way forward. The extensive research and outcomes of Dweck, Hymer et al have a robust basis in neuroscience and the field of positive psychology, and striking exemplification of what this is all about may be found by watching the 5-minute “I can” video promotion for this year’s Paralympics. Another proverb of service in this context is: “Where there is a will, there is a way”. If our owl wishes to see, the developmental and learning potential of the brain can make almost anything possible - with effort, commitment, and practice. This is the mindset of ultimate success, and this is a core life-skill of resilience and perseverance, which will serve any individual well in a future employment market.


Schools undoubtedly have a key role to play in being the daily embodiment of a “Want to, Can do, Will do” mindset, and Government ministers would be wise to promote and encourage the effective implementation of this ethos as a main educational priority – the outcomes of higher attainment in Progress 8 or EBacc would follow as a natural consequence, as would improved levels of behaviour in some schools and a better retention and recruitment statistic for teachers generally. Too frequently, sadly, the best intentions of classroom professionals are hampered by ‘owls that do not want to see’.


However, if we, as a society, sincerely wish to shift the mindset of a generation, we do need to look closer to home. The wisdom of Trungpa is not restricted to Buddhists: “You must personally accept the responsibility of improving your own life”. Taking personal responsibility is not only a corner-stone of Growth Mindset, but is also vital to any civilised society – applicable to educators, ministers, leaders and, most critically, parents.

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About Craig Jenkinson

Craig Jenkinson is Deputy Head (Academic) at AKS Lytham, a coeducational day school in Lancashire.