Character development, education and growth mindset

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC) made significant and lasting contributions to nearly every aspect of human knowledge, from the intricacies of logic to the nuances of biology, ethics and aesthetics. At the core of Aristotle’s philosophical inquiry lies a fundamental question: what constitutes a good and fulfilling life? He observed that it entails the acquisition and cultivation of particular virtues of character.

Aristotle delineated virtues such as courage, patience, generosity, friendliness as important characteristics that would benefit not only an individual’s wellbeing, but society as a whole, epitomising the age-old adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. The unification of the behaviour of disparate parts can be seen within our school community.

At Northampton High, we have designed a coherent approach to nurturing pupils’ academic and personal development, exemplified by our well-respected ‘Northampton High Approach’ Learn-Reach-Coach programmes. Across the whole school, our pupils know and can explain the educational ethos of this programme; collaboration, curiosity, perseverance, independence and risk taking, recognising these intellectual characteristics serve as guiding beacons, helping to keep them focused throughout their school career.

The ‘Northampton High Approach’ lies at the heart of much that we aim to do in our curriculum, classroom and culture. Here, our pupils develop their self-worth, self-confidence and self-knowledge, evidenced through active participation in competitive events, group participation (a shining example being the recent Year 3 and 4 ‘Ocean Commotion’ production) and by presenting to fellow pupils in assemblies.

However, Aristotle also recognised that we cannot change our behaviour just at the drop of a hat. But change is possible, eventually. Moral goodness, says Aristotle, is the result of habit. It takes time, consistent practice (like mastering a musical instrument), encouragement and good role models from whom to learn. Aligned with this philosophy, our ‘Northampton High Approach’ instils a set of dispositions and behaviours that empower our pupils to successfully approach problems and challenges in the classroom and everyday life. The overarching goal for the whole school is to ensure that these intellectual characteristics are developed. Thus, when pupils are faced with an answer that they do not immediately know, they display these characteristics in order to manage the situation intelligently.

Coupled with our emphasis on fostering intellectual characteristics, we also aim to develop pupils with a growth mindset. This is a mindset that we can grow and improve our abilities over time, the opposite of a fixed mindset which may stop us from even trying. If we have the belief that we can improve (which we can), we are more likely to put in the effort actually required to learn and grow. That does not mean that everyone has the potential to achieve top grades in everything with the right amount of effort (a damaging mindset), but that from whatever our initial skill level or starting point we can make meaningful steps forward in learning and our personal development.

This is of course good news! And it is also backed by science researcher and writer David Robson in his recent book ‘The Expectation Effect’. In this he makes a clear case for how expectations shape our experience in many aspects of life and can be self-fulling prophecies, for better or for worse depending on those expectations. We can bring about change, not through ‘magical’ thinking but by reframing our thoughts which change our habits and behaviours.

The challenge we all face is to develop a more ‘can do’ as opposed to a ‘can’t do’ attitude particularly in those areas we may find more personally challenging. If our young people at Northampton High can cultivate good habits of minds now, it really can make a difference to their ability to learn and develop greater resilience in an ever changing world.

As Carol Dweck aptly puts it, ‘People with a growth mindset know that it takes time for potential to flower’. It is not about immediate perfection but rather the steadfast commitment to confronting challenges and effectuating incremental progress. This philosophy resonates deeply with the enduring ethos of learning and growth that permeates every corner of life at Northampton High.

Dr Lee