A quick survey of websites of famous schools elicits a clear message that a certain level of ability is required for pupils to enter the school. This suggests that the ability to do well at school is, in some way, fixed by the time pupils reach that entry age; otherwise, why require it? Anecdotes of pupils being assessed for entry to nurseries in city centre schools suggests that this ability is regarded by some institutions as being fixed at an early age.
A review of the research and work of Professor Carol Dweck, now widely accepted as well-founded, could cause the impartial observer some puzzlement when considering the entry requirements of independent schools. Dweck suggested that people have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. The growth mindset – found to be correlated with long term success and resilience – is not correlated closely with academic achievement in the very young. Does academic selection, therefore, imply a fixed mindset on the part of the school - and therefore a likelihood of the school inculcating a fixed mindset in its pupils. (A fuller explanation may be found at: http://michaelgr.com/2007/04/15/fixed-mindset-vs-growth-mindset-which-one-are-you/).
Whilst it is surprising how little traction Dweck's theories have achieved in British independent school (how many - or should that be few - have created structures in which there is much greater reward for effort than achievement?) this doesn't mean that selection itself is wrong. The function of selection, however, in a school which has 'dwecked' it's curriculum is to make sure that the starting point of each pupil is at a level where the school’s curriculum will enable that child to experience at least some success. Although effort generates more progress over time than pure ability, both Dweck and Malcolm Gladwell (in ‘Outliers’) would concede that a child who starts by experiencing challenges that are always too difficult, and experiences no success at all, is likely to give up before Dweck’s benefits are achieved.
Nevertheless it is worth schools, and indeed parents, asking themselves if the normal ways the school rewards pupils and indeed communicates with them from day to day, stands up to the scrutiny which Professor Dweck might bring to bear, in particular:
- Do teachers use language which suggests achievement is the result of innate qualities or of hard work (Contrast 'Well done, you have to be very clever to manage that’ with 'Well done: it takes real perseverance to manage that’?)
- Do pupils regularly hear the message that taking on challenges which are too difficult is a good thing, or is failure always failure?
- Does the school give prizes to those who try hard, or those whose results put them ahead of their peers?
- Do pupils take part in extra-curricular activities to learn skills, or to win, or pick up ‘baubles’ (including Duke of Edinburgh Awards)?
- Are the school’s teachers committed to learning – do they have a growth mindset?