Thursday, 15 June 2017

Meeting Carol Dweck (2017 Term 2 Week 8)

Last week at the Edutech conference, I had the opportunity to meet and to interview Professor Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Whereas most professors of psychology are known only within the academic context, Professor Dweck has become known around the world for her research that first reached the public sphere through the best-selling text Mindset. 

Her core thesis, which is unpacked here, is that we have underlying beliefs regarding our intelligence and abilities. The fixed mindset holds that these capacities are largely predetermined; either you have it or you don't. The growth mindset sees our intelligence and abilities as malleable and able to be improved. The second of these mindsets is correlated with a willingness to embrace challenge, a thirst for new learning, and any other number of positive outcomes. 

I have written about the growth mindset previously, and we have worked hard to embed the growth mindset thinking across the school. In addition to training the staff to model and to encourage the growth mindset, students are explicitly taught about the growth mindset in the Year 7 Learning Foundations course.

It was a great honour to meet Professor Dweck and have the chance to interview her. In the course of our discussions, there were three nuances to her work that emerged that I found fascinating.

The first point is that each of us internalises a mixture of the fixed and the growth mindset. Although the paradigm is binary, the reality is that our thinking is mixed. In different domains of knowledge, in different areas of ability, at different times and in different contexts, we may shift between a fixed and a growth mindset. Anyone who has said 'I'm not musical' or 'I don't have a maths brain', is articulating a fixed mindset. It would be more accurate to say 'I have not learned how to sing, yet.' Or 'I find maths particularly challenging.'

The second point that Professor Dweck made is that there are a number of situations that are likely to trigger us back to the fixed mindset. These situations include struggling, especially when others look as though they are coping, and set-backs, when we experience failure despite our efforts. Our temptation with these triggers is to believe 'I haven't got what it takes.' I was particularly struck by her observation that 'stretch' situations can be triggers for us; when outside our comfort zones, we can often feel that we are imposters. Reflecting on the idea of 'triggers', I wonder whether formal school reports can function as triggers to the fixed mindset for our students. 

The third point was the way that our increasing understanding of the neuroplasticity of the brain supports the psychological framework of fixed vs growth mindsets. The brain has the capacity to grow and build capability, which it does through learning through new things. There is a biological basis to the observable experience.

If there was one thing that Professor Dweck said that continued to resonate with me, it was the observation that there is a disjunction between talk and walk for many teachers and parents who profess an allegiance to the growth mindset. Although we may assent to the general proposition, the throwaway comments, our own personal responses to trigger situations, and other elements of day to day interaction, can fuel the fixed mindset in our children.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Intellectual character development (2017 Term 2 Week 7)

Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things,  ..I am tempted to think ... that there are no little things.

The quote is from Bruce Barton, as cited in Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. His point has to do with character formation. The little things are the things that shape us. 

The same point is made in the difficult-to-attribute proverb that the students at Inaburra have heard from me time and time again: 
We sow a thought and reap an act;
We sow an act and reap a habit;
We sow a habit and reap a character;
We sow a character and reap a destiny

The Bible has the same dynamic in mind in Philippians 4:8, which reads: 
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. 

I read a fascinating book recently by Philip E. Dow, titled Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development. He argues that schools should be equally concerned for both the formation of moral character and the formation of intellectual character. 

The first element seems obvious; as I speak with parents in enrolment interviews, many of them are very clear that the formation of their child's moral character is important to them. We all want our children to be honest, to be trustworthy, to be kind and to be self-disciplined. Schools like Inaburra are unhesitating in affirming our desire to cultivate moral virtue in our students.

However, it was his articulation of the second element that captured my attention. Dow describes intellectual character as "the force of accumulated thinking habits that shape and colour every decision that we make." Rather than life consisting of a series of unconnected isolated moments of decision, most of the choices that we make are not the result of conscious and deliberate reasoning, but mental autopilot. We rely on mental ruts that have been long engrained in us through habits; these become our intellectual character. Dow argues that both the way that we think, and the stuff that we think about, will determine the kind of person that we will become.

He goes on to identify seven intellectual character traits that we need to function in the ever more volatile, unpredictable and changing world. His case is that, far more than any particular knowledge or skills outcomes, these habitual intellectual characteristics are crucial. His list is:

  • courage
  • tenacity
  • carefulness
  • curiousity
  • fair-mindedness
  • honesty
  • humility
There is a challenge here for us as parents and as educators. What are those small thoughts and actions that are shaping the intellectual character of our children? What little decisions are adding up to be cumulatively transformative over time? How do we encourage the virtue and discourage the vice, without just adding more elements to our nagging repertoire? 

Of course, recognising the powerful effect of our role-modelling, we would do well to ask some searching questions of ourselves first! 

I commend Dow's book to you.

Monday, 15 May 2017

The porn epidemic (2017 Term 2 Week 4)

There are some pretty confronting questions that can be asked of a parent. For example: What age do you think your child first did (or first will) encounter pornography? What age do you think your child first sought (or first will seek) pornography? How often do you think your child views pornography? Can you answer them? What would you want the answers to be?

At a principals' network meeting this week, we were asked these questions by James Grady, who has been studying the topic of porn and young people. Grady makes a compelling case that there is a world of difference between pornography as encountered by previous generations, and the experience of young people today - and that the difference presents profound challenges to our children and the adults that they will become.

In contrast to previous generations, through high-speed internet, porn has become free, anonymous, and perpetually available. There are very few limits on a young person's ability to access porn, given the ubiquity of internet-connected screens in a household, and the usual pattern of tech-savvy children and naive parents.

The statistics are sobering. According to the Burnet Institute's submission to the Senate's Committee inquiry into the harm being done to Australian Children through access to pornography on the internet, which can be found as submission 61 on this page, 37% of Australian males between 15 and 29 view pornography daily, and another 44% view weekly. The average age at which these people first intentionally sought pornography was 13. Grady has assembled some other statistics here.

The reality is that the speed by which pornography has become ubiquitous has outstripped our understanding of the effects of pornography on young people. They are living through a giant social/sexual/developmental experiment on their malleable brains, and we don't have a clear understanding of what the effects will be.

However, many outcomes are self-evident, and they are concerning. Our children are learning about sex from pornography - and the education being offered is not one that will equip our young people well for their relationships, now or in the future. 

I encourage you to take the time to explore the resources that Grady has assembled at his website The Frank Chat. In particular, a page on the website is specifically addressed to parents. For all the awkwardness that is inevitable in conversations between parents and children about pornography, this is one of those areas where our love for our children should compel us to speak with them, and listen to them.

I don't know that we can hold back the tide in this area, but that doesn't mean nothing can be done - or that we ought not try. Why not ask some of the questions above, and listen - really listen - to the answers.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Support for children and parents with cybersafety (2017 Term 2 Week 2)

We live in an age where cynicism about government is pervasive. Fuelled by media coverage of the messiness of politics, and the apparent inability of governments to solve many of the intractable problems that pressure our daily lives, it is unsurprising that we develop a low-level sense of weariness and disdain towards the public sector more generally. This filter can prevent us from giving credit where credit is due. This week I want to acknowledge the excellent work that the Federal Government has been doing with reference to cybersafety for young people, particularly in providing resources for parents and educators. If the topic of cybersafety for your children is important to you, there is help available!

The Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner is the Federal Government's principal agency in this space. The Office was formed with a number of briefs: to provide a national lead in the promotion of online safety for children; to handle complaints about serious cyberbullying material and illegal online content; to fill an education role through research, and the curation of resources; and to establish a national online complaints mechanism to support those affected by image-based abuse.

The Office understands that online safety for children is a shared responsibility, in which government, schools, police, social media services, and parents/carers all have vital roles to play. At a recent conference I was greatly encouraged by the ways that government, police and social media services are working together, not least through providing resources and channels to report abusive online behaviours.

The reality is that cyberbullying emerges out of the same murk as any other sort of bullying. Lack of empathy, lack of kindness, and disrespect have always led to bullying behaviours; the online world differs only in it broadens and extends the scope in which this nastiness can take place. 

The Office has established an excellent site called iParent, which has an exhaustive suite of resources, tools and links. I cannot commend it highly enough for families who are concerned about this issue generally, or who may be experiencing something of a crisis. 

Four themes for parents stand out to me in this area, both through the input I have received from the Office and from my experience in schools. First, there is no substitute for communicating and learning with your children regarding the online world. Second, the wider task of building your child's resilience and empathy is invaluable. Third, it is foolish in the extreme not to monitor a child's engagement and use of the online world. Fourth, each family must have explicit rules, expectations and boundaries associated with technology.

It is not easy to be a parent in this day and age. It can be hard work. I humbly suggest that setting aside some time to explore the sites linked above will be a worthwhile investment of a parents' time. As I once heard in a sermon: Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves. Digging is hard, but that is where you get diamonds.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The growth of anxiety in young people (2017 Term 1 Week 10)

It is a rare person who never gets anxious. In fact, anxiety is a normal response to stress and it can be helpful. Anxiety can motivate us to get things done, such as meeting deadlines, and it can alert us to a dangerous situation where we may be at risk. There is nothing inherently bad about the experience of anxiety, but I increasingly encounter members of the school community who are becoming anxious about being anxious. It is helpful to be informed about the nature of anxiety and the roles that parents and educators can play in helping the young people in our lives to cope with their experience of anxiety.

The first thing to understand is that there is a difference between being anxious and having an anxiety disorder. This blog focusses more on the normal experience of anxiety than it does on anxiety disorders. 

The nature of life is that we will inevitably encounter stressors that will cause us to become anxious temporarily, usually until the stressful moment or issue passes. At this basic level, anxiety is simply fear. In the lead up to formal assessment tasks, particularly in the senior years of high school, some experience of anxiety is normal. Learning how to manage and to cope with this level of anxiety is a valuable life-skill. At Inaburra, the school counsellors have access to helpful resources and run programs to help students build their personal capacity to cope.

Many of the coping strategies with this level of anxiety are common-sense. Articulating the fear and talking it through with a trusted person can be a helpful way of bringing perspective. Channeling and directing the anxiety into performance and task completion is an excellent habit to build. Structured problem-solving can be a good way to learn to resolve the stressor. Exercise is always of benefit, as are habits of relaxation. There are no shortage of places online where strategies to cope with anxiety can be found, including here and here.

As parents of children and young people experiencing anxiety, there are things that we can do that unwittingly compound the challenges for their child. One of our counsellors recently brought this article to my attention, and I commend it to you. The reality continues to be that the influence of parents, for good and for ill, has a profound formative experience on children.

As previously stated, anxiety is a normal human experience. The Scriptures speak to this reality in the following well-known Bible passage from the fourth chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The knowledge that, as John Calvin put it, 'God's fatherly face is turned towards us in love' is a wonderful antidote to anxiety. If you want to know more about the peace which transcends all understanding, I encourage you to join with billions around the world in gathering to celebrate Easter this year. God bless

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Christianity a public danger? (2017 Term 1 Week 9)

I have been reflecting recently on a significant societal shift that can be seen in our media and in the public discourse of our society. My thinking was crystallised at an event last week by Karl Faase, the guest speaker. His argument was that in Western society, Christianity is being viewed less and less as a generally benign and irrelevant anachronism and more and more as an actual and positive danger. He cited three ways that this reframing can be seen. 

The first is that love is being redefined. Recognising that love can and has been defined and manifested in all sorts of ways, and that Christians have often fallen short of their ideals, a Christian understanding of love has included the concept of unconditional commitment to the good of the other person, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. However, it is increasingly common for love to be understood as an uncritical acceptance of the other person and their views. In this framework, anything other than unconditional endorsement is seen to be an action arising from hatred.

The second way that this reframing is taking place is the emergence of the belief that Christianity is damaging to children. Richard Dawkins famously likened forcing religious beliefs onto children to child abuse. The argument suggests that religious ideas, including Christianity, genuinely damage a young person's capacity to think for themselves, to discern truth from error, and to participate meaningfully in a pluralist society. In its more extreme expression - religion poisons everything.

The third catalyst in this reframing is the emergence and growing awareness of the horrific abuse scandals that have taken place in Christian institutions and churches. As the nature and extent of these scandals have emerged, particularly through the Royal Commission, the church's social license - that is, its acceptance and approval in the community - is coming under threat. The church is no longer seen as an agency for good in the community.

Faase's point, which I accept as increasingly true, is that our Western culture is becoming more hostile to Christianity.

What does this all mean for Inaburra School? After all, we are a Christian school, and unashamedly so. Our foundations, our history, our staffing and our vision for education are all Christian. However, as a school with an open enrolment policy, our students and our families are representative of the wider community, being constituted of many faiths and of none. If Faase is right, the Christian faith embodied in the school is likely to become more and more 'on the nose'.

In a hostile culture, courage becomes a more vital virtue. In the Christian worldview, courage is seen both in word and in deed. Courage will be seen in our resolute commitment to, and articulation of, our convictions about the dignity and worth of the individual, the fractured nature of the creation, the fallenness of humanity and the hope offered by God in the Christian gospel. Courage will equally be seen in the way we work to make a real and concrete difference to the daily lives of individuals. In the context of a school, this looks like the humble, painstaking, sacrificial effort to know, love and serve our students. The first flourishing of the Christian faith took place, not when Christianity occupied a seat at the table of power, but as Christians took seriously the commands of their Lord to 'love your neighbour' and, more pointedly, 'love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you'.

One of the values of Inaburra School is that we will commend and cultivate faith in God. This has been an enduring commitment of our school community, in partnership with Menai Baptist Church, since our founding. My hope and prayer is that, whether your stance towards Christianity is positive, neutral, negative or a complex relationship of all three, what you see and experience in this school community might lead you to question the emerging hostility toward Christianity that can be seen around us.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Shaving, peers, and exemplars (2017 Term 1 Week 7)

I imagine that the school community is well and truly aware of the efforts of many of our students in the World's Greatest Shave this year. Yesterday, as thirty-odd Year 12 students had their hair cut or shaved in the Science courtyard and hundreds of others cheered from the balconies, I was immensely proud of our community. As I reflected on the event, there were three things that really stood out.

My first observation is that this particular fundraiser is a really good example of fundraising done well. My reflection has nothing to do with the worthiness of the cause - which is obvious - or the effectiveness of the initiative in raising awareness - which is equally obvious. Rather, there is a natural and obvious connection between the fundraisers' action and the cause to which it is directed. 

Along with all the other side effects, the loss of hair that is experienced by the chemotherapy patient is unwanted. It stands out. It changes their appearance. It draws attention. By voluntarily losing their own hair, the fundraiser expresses solidarity with the sufferer and steps - temporarily and in only a small way - into their shoes. As such, there is a cost to the fundraiser. A gift that costs nothing is worth nothing.

My second observation has to do with the power of a peer group. Social dynamics are a reality in life, for good or for ill. From a Christian point of view, we understand that we have been created for relationships, and relationships are where we truly acquire our identity, purpose and meaning. What this means in practice is that our peer groups play a significant role in shaping us. Over the last few weeks, Team ZNMOOR have shown us the power for good that can be exerted by peers. As a team, our Year 12 students identified and worked towards their goals, encouraged and supported one another, and lifted one another to surpass their expectations. Peer groups can be powerful forces for good.

My third observation is about the importance of the senior year in a school. One of the key ways that we learn to be a human is through role models. Initially and primarily our parents, as we grow we look to a wider group. In a school, the oldest students have a powerful formative influence on the younger students. The camaraderie and mutual support evident among the Year 12 students yesterday showed others how to be there for one another. Likewise, their willingness to work hard in a selfless cause was potentially inspirational to younger students.

All of which is to say, yesterday was a wonderful day and we can justly be very proud of our students. They have done well.

Post-script - at last count Team ZNMOOR have raised over $100K. Donations can still be made.