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Research Project

Session 2014/2015

To what extent does the promotion of a growth mindset impact upon


young children’s perceptions of what makes a ‘good learner’?

By Alison Adams & Lynsey Binnie


Lasswade Primary School, Midlothian

▪ Abstract

In this report, the importance of teachers understanding their impact and engaging
explicitly with the learning and teaching being undertaken in their classrooms is
addressed through a piece of Action Research into the development of growth
mindsets in an Early Years context. While the rationale for undertaking this research
stems from deeming the acquisition of skills for lifelong learning from a young age as
important, it also stems from the need to adopt an enquiring stance in the classroom.
This report engages with the research question – To what extent does the promotion
of a growth mindset influence young children’s perceptions of what makes a ‘good
learner’ – and seeks to analyse and reflect upon the ways in which the creation and
embedding of eight ‘Learning Superhero’ characters based upon Guy Claxton’s Learning
Dispositions can have a positive and sustained impact upon learners.
▪ Introduction

In a time where global change and uncertainty is rife, there is a growing need to equip
learners of all ages with the skills and knowledge necessary to not only succeed in
society but to flourish. Therefore, it is crucial that children develop a deep and
extensive understanding about how they learn and why they learn. While it could be
argued that promoting and developing metacognition in learners is better suited to
children who are more mature in their stage of development, there is reason to believe
in the potential of young children to acquire and use language that accurately describes
their learning. This Research Enquiry seeks to explore the ways in which the
development of a growth mindset through the use of ‘Learning Superheroes’ might
change young children’s perceptions of what makes a ‘good learner’. The enquiry was
undertaken as a piece of Action Research with a Primary 1 year group in a Primary
School in the local authority of Midlothian comprising of 49 pupils from the ages of
four to six over a ten month period. As the Research Enquiry focused upon changing
perceptions and the language of learning in particular, it was decided that qualitative
evidence would be gathered to monitor and record the ways in which perceptions
changed over a ten month period. The introduction and impact of the ‘Learning
Superheroes’ – eight characters based upon Guy Claxton’s ‘Learning Dispositions’ -
throughout the research period was assessed through focus groups, observations and
written and pictorial evidence from the children. While the interest in undertaking a
Research Enquiry into growth mindsets is contextualised within the rationale for
flexibility and confidence in an ever-changing world, it is further contextualised in the
Midlothian Council priority of John Hattie’s Visible Learning. Hattie argues that
teachers need to adopt an enquiring and reflective stance in the classroom on a daily
basis in order to ‘Know Thy Impact’ and improve outcomes for all learners. Therefore,
this research has been undertaken in order to both assess teacher impact and to raise
achievement for all learners. While this Research Enquiry addressed the importance of
raising achievement, the evidence gathered throughout the research period suggested
that it was the attitudes of the children towards their learning that had the highest
impact on their perceptions by the end of the Enquiry. In this report, we will outline
the literature used, the methodology involved in the research, an analysis and
evaluation of the research findings and suggestions for future research.
▪ Literature Review:

Accepting the uncertainty of learning is a contentious issue for both adults and
children alike. Claxton argues that as teachers, it is our job to encourage tolerance and
acceptance in children for their learning and their temporary failings (Claxton, 2011).
In order for learning to be effective and successful, he argues that learners need to
be ‘ready and willing’ to tackle new and challenging learning however he goes on to argue
that in order for learners to be able to do this, it is teachers who need to change their
practice and thus their mindset. Claxton expresses this type of attitude as a ‘could-be’
attitude, where learners and teachers alike develop skills that will allow them to
respond to the needs of the global community (Claxton, 2011). This is supported by
research undertaken by Carol Dweck into growth mindsets who found that the adoption
of a ‘not-yet’ attitude to learning helped children to positively approach learning which
is unexpected and challenging. By developing a culture where failure and mistakes are
appreciated and, indeed, desired, she argues that children will become more resilient
and more able to tolerate change (Dweck, 2006). It seems that the development of a
growth mindset takes time and is both complex and gradual, this evidence further
supports the rationale for exploring growth and fixed mindsets in the Early Years.

While it appears that the development of a growth mindset stems from self-belief and
a positive attitude towards learning, a language through which this belief can be
expressed and shared is also required, particularly in the Early Years. In her research
into Formative Assessment, Shirley Clarke argues that a growth mindset can help to
make learning coherent and purposeful but suggests that children need a means of
communicating their understanding about how and why they are engaging in a piece of
learning. She states that,

“The growth mindset gives children the appropriate attitude and self-belief, but meta-
cognition gives them the tools to talk about and understand their learning, giving them
a shared language and understanding” (Clarke, 2014: 33)

Therefore, it is important that children be provided with a coherent, consistent and


simple language through which their learning can be explored, shared and evaluated.
This is supported by Claxton who explores the necessity of nurturing learner
dispositions which allow children to access and explain their learning. The learning
dispositions as advocated by Claxton are encompassed in the ‘4 R’s’ of reciprocity,
resourcefulness, reflectiveness and resilience and are outlined below:
Diagram from Claxton G., et al (2011) "The Learning Powered School" from Virtual Learning Network, http://
www.vln.school.nz/resources/view/693597/otagonet-dunedinnet-milestone-5-reflection-blaze-blp-introducing-a-
learning-centred-evaluation-to-tool-to-support-personalising-of-learning (accessed 12.05.15)

While each disposition has an important role to play in the development of a growth
mindset in a young child, it is perhaps resilience which has the most bearing on how
impactful learning is. Hattie argues that for teachers to maximise the impact of
learning, learning needs to be challenging in order to encourage resilience – an element
of successful learning which is supported by Claxton, Clarke and Dweck respectively.
Hattie believes in the contextualisation of these skills as outlined by Claxton in order
to create a culture where high expectations are encouraged and expected (Hattie,
2012).

Therefore, it would seem that in order to promote and develop growth mindsets in the
Early Years, a common language is needed for learners to express, share and compare
their learning experiences. It would seem that resilience, flexibility, curiousity and
collaboration are essential in the development of a growth mindset and it is even more
essential that children possess an explicit awareness of these skills. It is for this
reason that the ‘Learning Superheroes’ - based upon eight of the Learning Dispositions
- have been created and embedded in an Early Years setting.

▪ Methodology:

Action Research was selected as ‘a specific method of conducting research by


professionals and practitioners with the ultimate aim of improving practice’ (Koshy,
2010). This social research ‘strategy’ (Denscombe, 2010) supported us as class teachers
to gather evidence through practical activities with the aim of enhancing teaching and
learning and also supporting professional development (Koshy, 2010; Denscombe, 2010).
The practical nature of the Action Research approach taken throughout this study
allowed us to work alongside our pupils to gather evidence. Practical activities including
drawing and writing tasks were carried out at given points in the academic year when
we asked pupils to illustrate a ‘good learner’. The qualities which pupils associated with
a ‘good learner’ were then scribed. This activity was carried out in September, January
and May. Evidence was compared and analysed.

Focus group discussions also partly formed the basis of our evidence gathering. This
qualitative approach to data gathering was chosen to provide a ‘comfortable’
environment for pupils to share their experiences, ideas and attitudes about a
particular topic – in this case the Learning Superheroes (Williams & Katz, 2001).
Transcripts from the focus group discussions were produced and then analysed.

Throughout the academic session, informal observations and interactions with pupils
contributed to our evidence gathering process. Particularly relevant comments or
observations were noted down and reflected upon to enable us to plan for next steps.

▪ Presentation and Analysis of findings:

When looking comparatively at data gathered in September, January and May


respectively it was clear to see from pictorial representations created by the children
that their perceptions of what makes a good learner had changed considerably
throughout the course of the school year.

In September it was evident in their pictorial representations that they thought a good
learner was somebody who sat nicely, listened well and wore school uniform. In the
representations depicted in January it was clear to see that some elements of good
learner qualities were beginning to become embedded with comments from the children
such as ‘a good learner concentrates’. It was particularly notable in the evidence
gathered in May that attributes of each learning superhero were depicted in the
children’s drawings, and when discussing their drawings the children made comments
such as ‘a good learner is curious, just like Kevin!’ or ‘a good learner never gives up like
Tough Tina’.

Through analysing our Focus Group discussions with our learners, it was clear that by
the end of the academic year, the language of learning which had become embedded
through the learning superheroes had enabled children to recognise that mistakes were
a good thing because we learn from them and that you shouldn’t give up even when
things get tough. This provided clear evidence to us as educators that the work we had
done on both growth mindsets and developing the use of learning powers through the
learning superheroes had had a positive impact on our pupils in the course of an
academic year. Informal observations and discussions with pupils also supported the
notion that the Learning Superheroes had become an integral part of our everyday
classroom practice and they were an underpinning feature of our classroom ethos.

▪ Conclusion:

This research has sought to explore and clarify the extent to which young children’s
perceptions of ‘good learning’ are influenced by the development of a growth mindset
through the creation and embedding of ‘Learning Superhero’ characters in an Early
Years setting. Having engaged with the increasing need for Action Research, the
qualitative evidence and findings in this report recognise that the impact made by the
‘Learning Superheroes’ is most apparent in the altered attitudes of the children
towards their learning. It would seem that while the provision of a language for learning
from a young age has a positive impact upon how children engage with and talk about
their learning experiences, it is the reinforcement of this language in a context that is
both stimulating and meaningful for learners that has the most impact. This suggests
that in order to develop and nurture a growth mindset from an early age, a language for
learning is best communicated in a way that is visible and coherent for the children e.g.
through the use of ‘Learning Superheroes’. When reflecting upon how this might fit
into a wider context it would be recommended that further research is needed to
explore how a consistent and coherent language of learning could be implemented as a
way of promoting the use of transferable skills needed for life-long learning.

Bibliography

Clarke, S. (2014) Outstanding Formative Assessment: Culture and Practice.


London: Hodder Education.
Claxton, G. (2011) The Learning Powered School: Pioneering 21st Century
Education. Bristol: TLO.

Denscombe, M. (2010) The Good Research Guide for Small-Scale Social


Research Projects. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random
House.

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning.


London: Routledge.

Koshy, V. (2010) Action Research for Improving Educational Practice. London:


SAGE.

Williams, A., & Katz, L. (2001) The Use of Focus Group Methodology in
Education: Some Theoretical and Practical Considerations; International
Electronic Journal for Leadership in Learning, 5(3)

Appendix 1

Learning Superheroes Parental Feedback


P1 Assembly 29/05/15
- Super idea. Helped hugely with learning and thinking about what superhero is
required when doing a task.
- Fabulous Assembly. Well done P1 & Miss Binnie/Miss Adams. Tough Tina and
Mike the Mistake Maker – Zoe loves these!

- Love the superheroes. Ruby has really enjoyed this added support. Great idea –
great fun!

- Wonderful assembly! Well done everyone! Learning superheroes are great fun I
feel it really helps the children focus on important areas of learning

- One of the best shows. The superheroes have been a great addition to their
learning and a fun way to show its okay to make mistakes. I’m sure Hamish will
use this learning tool throughout his early years at school.

- P1 assembly was put together well with a wee bit for each and every one of them
which is good for confidence building. Well done!

- The superheroes are a fantastic idea to get the children involved in learning and
he is excited about school!

- Charlie has loved learning about all the superheroes this has made a huge
difference in his confidence so proud of how well he has come on. The songs
were brilliant.

- Fantastic assembly well done to all. Learning superheroes are a great way to
encourage good choices. Orran is using the strategies in his learning by
referring to the superheroes at homework time.

- Assembly was very good. Sets really good examples great way to teach the
children.

- Very effective method of learning – creates enthusiasm and motivation. P1


Assembly was amazing, a great demonstration of work learned.

- Really impressive work Miss Binnie & Miss Adams. Levi has really got hold of this
especially tough tina and colin concentration and he totally knows mistakes are
good which is brilliant. Thanks.

- The P1 assembly was really good well thought out kids was all really good. I think
the superheroes are such a great aspect to learning it makes learning more fun
for the children. Well done! And my daughter LOVES TOUGH TINA!

- Casey loves to learn anyway but the learning superheroes have made it more fun.
If they had been around when Dylan was in P1 it would have really helped him as
he is not as keen! Casey absolutely loves Miss Binnie too so we can’t thank her
enough for being a great teacher. Casey is always so keen to please her!

- A great way of developing language of learning and sharing with parents – thanks
for inviting me!

- It was good. The children were all wonderful. The singing and actions were great
and we especially loved the videos. Learning Lola is a favourite in our house!
What a fab assembly!

- Learning superheroes are great! Really helped at home. Assembly very good had
to watch as not on full screen but children did amazing! Well done to all. Help
him to articulate what he is learning and how he learns.

- Thoroughly enjoyed assembly nicely organised and happy pupils. Superheroes


have been great helpers for homework and throughout his day to day activities.
Hats off to P1 teachers!

- I think the learning superheroes idea is great fun. Grace has engaged with it and
it has proved helpful with homework.

- Didn’t realise the superhero idea came from the super talented teachers.
Fabulous idea!

- Learning superheroes certainly provides a structured framework for learning,


which Grace has responded well to. I think we need to be careful to distinguish
between helping every child realise their full potential and saying that anything
is possible for every child, which may only leave them disillusioned later in life,
rather than persuing life-long learning and excellence. That said, this has been
great for Grace this year and set her on a good trajectory for further learning
through the school.

- Well done Miss Binnie & Miss Adams, a great initiative to engage the kids. Euan
has really enjoyed learning (and trying to practice) all the new superheroes and
sharing with his sister and friends. Interesting & engaging learning for the kids.
Appendix 2

Feedback from Sharing Practice Event with Midlothian Colleagues


June 2015

• Informative with good ideas for the classroom. Thank you!


• I have introduced the Learning Heroes through stories and the kids loved it!
Thanks so much for your help previously. From today I am going to look at how I
track it and share it with parents.
• I love the know thy impact book. Great way to assess process and provide
feedback for next steps. Also love the gems in the jars!
• Looking forward to exploring this with my new class
• Good ideas
• Going to look more into Claxton’s dispsitions and look at introducing next session
• Enthusiasm for Superheroes! How can I encorporate into PE in schools? Thanks
• Lots of good ideas and work. Very impressed by your learning journey. Feel you
have contextualised the learning powers – will help to support Glencorse in the
process
• Really enjoyed the presentation. I’m on supply, so I have a heads up now and will
certainly use superheroes when I visit other schools. Thank you!
• Really great course. Definitely going to try this out with my class
• Love the idea of earning gems for learning powers! Thank you!
• Very interesting content. Enjoyed hearing about how it is implemented in class.
Thank you :)
• I will think about how the ideas could be used further up the school and look
forward to finding out how you progress this at Lasswade PS
• I have Primary One next session and I would like to introduce the superheroes
with my new class. I am keen to set up learning experiences with their play
activities that helps them to use the powers discussed with each superhero.
• Really interesting to see how you are using this idea with your class. Good ideas.
Thanks for sharing.
• Will introduce superhero stories to my new P1s. Loved how it’s used in play
areas/independent work and also social situations
• Really interesting to learn how you have embedded this in your everyday
practice. Thanks!
• Good ideas to try!
• Visual representation of the learning dispositions
• Thanks for sharing :) I will be introducing superheroes with my P1 class next
year.
Appendix 3

Dialogue/Key Points from Video about ‘What makes a good learner’

Research Enquiry Project

Q Tell me about the learning powers

A1 They help us to learn

Q How do they help us to learn?

A2 They want us to concentrate hard.

A3 They tell us to keep going.

A4 And we try not to get distracted.

Q How do you use the powers to help you learn?

A5 By being a good partner when we are working in pairs.

Q What does being a good partner mean?

A2 Being good at things and taking turns.

A4 Taking turns and sharing things.

A1 If people don’t know things, help them.

A5 You might know them and people who don’t know, you can help them

Q How do you use them?

A3 To keep us going and never give up or concentrating or anything.


Q Do you use the powers often?

A4 Learning Lola because it helps me to like to learn.

A6 You can do some practising.

Q Who is that?

All Practising Pete

Q Can you think of a time you used a learning superpower?

A6 once I said Tough Tina to a girl because she said I cant do it

A5 Jonathan goes to my swimming and once he said he couldn’t do back crawl


and I said Tough Tina – actually I just did that (action)

Q What superhero told us we can learn things out of school?

A3 Learning Lola.

Q What makes a good learner?

A5 concentrates and not get distracted and never give up. You could just try
and practice and then you’ll be good.

Q What else makes a good learner?

A6 Never give up and keep going

A4 It gives you satisfaction when you keep going.

Q What else makes a good learner? What do they look like?

A2 Someone who sits down nicely.

A3 They would look like they are sitting up straight and singing good.

A5 Focusing on their work.

A4 They sound beautiful.

A6 They would be quiet.

Q Should a good learner be loud? Should they talk alot?


All No.

A5 Only if the teacher asks you.

Q Who is your favourite superhero and why?

A4 Practising Pete because it helps you practice.

A3 Learning Lola because she makes you learn to do new things.

A6 Tough Tina because she keeps us going.

A1 Curious Kevin because we learn about other things.

A5 Colin Concentration because he helps me to not get distracted.


Appendix 4

Written & Pictorial Evidence

Presented at ‘Pedagoo Primary Event’ in Edinburgh

9th May 2015