As an educator, parent, school leader, and serial house renovator, I have been deeply preoccupied with potential: how to evaluate it, discover it…and unleash it.

My first few weeks as head of school at IICS have been a roller coaster ride – exhilarating, terrifying, wonderful – and seem to have passed at breakneck speed. In this short time I have glimpsed not only some of the great assets of the school but also the many areas of potential. The challenge is of course how to approach these when there is so much to do and so little time. Received wisdom suggests we focus not on doing more but on doing things differently, and this is a central premise of the subject of this blog and of my first PTA guest speaker experience, and the key focus of our whole-school development program.

We have all probably read and heard of the benefits of positive attitude, how your mood or perspective can change your interpretation of events and subsequent actions. It makes sense. But this thinking has for a long time been banished to the realms of yoga-practicing vegetarians, not the ‘real world’ of business or education. However, over the last twenty years, fascinating science – both physical and psychological – has demonstrated that how and what we think actually causes physical changes in our brains. Have a look at this TED Talk by psychologist Kelly McGonigal about how the way you think about stress affects your body’s response to it.

This understanding is a game changer for education and has enormous implications for the concept of potential. If we can change our brains – and we can (see Barbara Arrowsmith, ‘The woman who changed her brain’ TED Talk below) – then the whole notion of IQ or genetically fixed levels of intelligence or talent is highly questionable. In the Nature versus Nurture debate, nature is taking a beating. In essence, we can impact how much we can achieve, and what we can be great at, much more than we thought – and so can our children.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck is perhaps most renowned in this field, and has ‘packaged’ the thinking in a way which has allowed it to be actionable. She is supported by what many others are finding: if we believe that intelligence, talent, ability – potential – is not fixed or genetically predetermined, then it fundamentally changes how we think and act on key drivers of exceptional learning, like:
-challenge (viewing it as a threat or a learning opportunity)
-effort (viewing it as a waste of time or a path to excellence)
-successful others (viewing them as a threat to self esteem or as an inspirational role model)
-feedback (viewing it as an assessment of worth or a ladder to higher achievement)

Dweck gives us a shorthand for the two approaches: “fixed mindset” is based on the idea of unchangeable intelligence and “growth mindset” is based on the premise of neuroplasticity or malleable intelligence. For a clear explanation of this thinking, this 20 minute TED talk by Eduardo Briceno is brilliant. Secondary parents watch it with your children.

So, what can we do?
It seems we can do much more than we thought.

IICS, as it is forward-thinking and focused on being exceptional, has identified this area of research and practice as one which we will focus on as a learning community. We will collaborate to develop our collective expertise of how this information can have impact on unleashing more of the potential of our students. We will share our learning with you in various forums throughout the year.

Firstly, learn more about it! It has relevance to all of us; and in a world where time is perhaps the most precious commodity, it could be one of the most useful areas to develop your understanding to benefit your children – and probably easier than trying to understand Higher Level Mathematics to support your Grade 12 child.

I will share more thinking on what parents can do to support their children in developing a growth mindset, but for now just this: possibly one of the most powerful habits is to make sure you are valuing your child’s effort and hard work in all their endeavours and attributing their successes not to their innate (fixed) qualities but to their actions. Watch this great clip from one of Carol Dweck’s experiments with students to clarify this idea.

I am sure blogs are not supposed to be this long – this is perhaps more of a ‘blab.’ However, it is exciting stuff and I look forward to sharing our efforts and strategies with you and hearing about your thoughts and discoveries. In the meantime, I’ll jump back into line for another go on the roller coaster.

Great resources for more info:
Book- Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (in our library and available online)
Article-‘Brightening up : How children learn to be gifted by Guy Claxton and Sara Meadows