At Ambrose Treacy College, we have taken opportunities to promote students who have achieved both outstanding effort grades and outstanding results, in an attempt to reinforce the message around the importance of continued effort, resilience and strive. We have also challenged a mindset of alpha thinking, which limits the capacity of students to achieve their very best. In its place, we have encouraged students become beta thinkers and writers, willing to go beyond the one-word answer or the simple sentence. To put this in disciplinary context, in English, beta thinking looks like choosing the best vocabulary to describe an idea. It involves not merely being able to identify the literal meaning, but the connotative. It involves not merely being able to identify the theme of a particular novel, but how the theme has been constructed, and why.
The process of challenging alpha thinking and writing is an encompassing one, the rewards of which, will not be immediate. Those who have been comfortable in an alpha paradigm, will no doubt struggle with the taxing requirements of a beta world. Boys, particularly teenagers, like to do things quickly. In the rush to finalise a project, they can miss opportunities to reframe arguments, check answers, polish responses and massage evidence. They can be reluctant to think deeply about the consequences of a particular proposal. Some, look to the internet to do their thinking for them. Indeed, for many, technology is a world of immediate gratification, where thinking is surface level.
In our Vision for Learning statement, which was collaboratively crafted by staff at the end of 2015, we articulated a desire:
To equip our students for the responsibilities and challenges of the 21st century. … to develop empathetic, ‘worldly’ and highly literate students who know how to learn, problem solve, create, critique and reflect. By emphasising learning dispositions, including persistence, resourcefulness and open-mindedness, Ambrose Treacy College students will grow to become productive global citizens willing and able to play their unique part in the world.
2016 has been a year where we worked with greater intent around this objective. To succeed, though, we need to bring students and parents with us on the journey to a beta (better) world. Parents regularly ask me how they can help their sons improve their outcomes. While there is no single, immediate panacea, parents can do a tremendous amount to encourage beta behaviours. While we seek to build student capacity for a 21st century world, we should acknowledge that some of the ‘old’ ways, were effective. Three strategies in particular, come to mind.
Research has shown that ‘talk’, particularly talk with adults, plays a considerable role in shaping the beta thinking of young people. In the past, this was perhaps easier to accomplish as families worked less, and had dinner around the dining table. The absence of electronic devices in which children bury themselves, was also not something people had to contend with in earlier generations. The most robust ‘talk’ conversations I had with my parents, took place while we ate dinner watching the nightly news. Engaging in conversation with boys about current events, helps them formulate values, dispositions and thinking. Provoking reactions about the rightness or wrongness of particular events, policies or issues, helps boys learn to make arguments and defend them. Further, boys see how these types of discussions play out in a world beyond the classroom. Building a culture of thoughtful reflection and philosophical debate, is useful in the development of an inquiring mind and a disposition to relentlessly pursue the detail. It is, at is very essence, beta thinking.
Taking the time to build a reading culture with boys, is also important in the development of beta thinking. A reading culture is something that typically works best if it is introduced when children are very young. However, regardless of the age of boys, research speaks of the importance of having good reading role models, particularly male role models for boys. Different families may approach this differently, depending on the personality and interests of their sons. Our College Librarians, Mrs Ros Peters and Mrs Rachelle Garton, can be of help in providing advice about our fiction and non-fiction collection at ATC. However, book stores, particularly independent bookstores, like ‘Riverbend Books’, are excellent sources of information about boy friendly books.
As important as the question of ‘what should my son be reading?’ is the reading culture itself. How regularly are boys walking into book stores and choosing books? How often do they have an opportunity to discuss what they are reading with members of the family? How often does this conversation relate to the intentional language used by authors, or the message of the book? Is there an opportunity and expectation for boys to ‘disconnect’ from television, internet, I-phone, in order to read for a period of time each night or each week, in a family reading hour?
In some ways the most important thing parents can do is to build a growth mindset in their sons. Carol Dweck (an educational researcher) has written extensively about growth mindsets. Her basic argument is that we shouldn’t promote an idea that intelligence is fixed. When we praise our sons or daughters, we should praise their effort rather than their intelligence. We should be mindful to emphasise the relationship between strive and reward. We should be conscious about identifying the dispositions that build success. We should also be prepared to challenge effort which we know to be half-baked. Accepting less, when we know boys are capable of more, invites an alpha mindset. At times, we need to defend beta thinking, with relentless persistence, insisting on what we know people are capable of.
Miss Kath Little, Dean of Learning