Using ‘Service’ to Build a Growth Mindset

By Ed Venables, Housemaster at Wellington College on 26/06/2015

Putting aside serious pastoral issues, the most challenging and frustrating issue that I deal with year-in, year-out when running a boarding house is a handful of boys who simply fail to discover or demonstrate any motivation towards academic work. Often they will have no lasting motivation towards anything despite, perhaps, their social lives. In every sense they are wasting a fantastic opportunity but they fail to see this and end up suffering sanction after sanction from the school and from their parents.

It has therefore been an issue that I have been working on this year in conjunction with Wellington’s research group’s work on growth mindsets and resilience. These boys essentially appear to have fixed mindsets with very low levels of resilience. Below, I will attempt to describe how I am using the notion of ‘service to others’ to try to change the mindsets of these boys.

I have experimented with various approaches, from pure punishment to pure encouragement, from direction to coaching, with little sustained success. The pupils appear not to appreciate the bigger picture, they have no goals to aim for and hence really do not see the point of putting themselves out; they lack resilience in this sense. The vast majority of the boys in this situation come from supportive families and so it seems to me to be, in most cases, an issue intrinsic to them. Of course there may be historical factors that I have missed or am not aware of and this may merit further investigation.

Knowing these students as their housemaster I felt that I wanted to experiment with seeking to get them a better appreciation of where they stand in the world. I have therefore changed the way we introduce ‘service’ in the house this year. The main group that I am working with is my Year 11 group, mainly because it was possible to timetable a weekly service session for them and I could also take advantage of the time they have when they finish their GCSE exams in the summer. They are doing two things which I hope will increase their inclination towards a growth mindset and their resilience. As a research project in itself it is not ideal because the evidence gained is only anecdotal this year but we hope to measure the impact more scientifically next year. I hope that I will have fewer boys lacking motivation in the sixth form as a result of this.

The weekly service session has involved them being visited by or visiting students from a local school for children with medium learning difficulties. Ten of my students have got to know personally ten students from Carwarden House School and have designed activities to do with them each week. The learning curve has been very steep for both sets of students. The Wellington students have spoken about being very unsure beforehand and the early sessions were certainly awkward. Two terms later, however, they greet each other as friends and the atmosphere between the groups is relaxed and easy. The Wellington students speak about how they have really discovered the personalities of their peers at Carwarden. Their genuine frustration is simply that time has precluded the Carwarden students really discovering their full personalities. It has amazed me, however, to see how the similar characters in the groups have been drawn to each other – as with any teenage group! The Carwarden students have gained immensely in social confidence and will hopefully come across as such when seeking employment in future. What makes this project different, in my opinion, is the direct relationships that have been built. It has been about seeking to make friends rather than simply ‘serve’ in an abstract way. It has involved the hearts of all involved and this has been so special.

The second challenge – three days climbing the 14 1000m peaks in Snowdonia (aiming to raise a significant sum of money each for their chosen charity helping children with special needs) – was designed to give them the realisation that through their efforts they can change other people’s lives. This walk takes place in late June.

I have gathered feedback and reflections from my students via peer-led video interviews and via a harkness-style classroom session. The vocabulary that they use to describe their thoughts coincides strongly with that expected to be used by students with a growth mindset and I hope that this is an early indication that progress has been made. I haven’t been targeting any particular student this year but my colleague from Carwarden House, Maria Ramsey, has noticed big changes over the course of the year in some of my students – especially those who might be future concerns – and this seems to me to be a good indicator of success.

As above, I hope that this method of grounding my students a little more will have a positive impact on their mindsets and this in turn will help them academically and otherwise now and in the future. Next year I hope to use Simon Walker’s heuristic model to identify and quantify the impact this project (and the fund-raising challenge) has made on both my students and those from Carwarden House School. Ultimately, I hope that we can show that ‘serving others in a wholehearted way’ really can be a realistic and scalable way to help students change their mindsets.


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