Collaboration, feedback and a growth mindset

Planning, conducting and evaluating the impact of school-based action research can be a daunting prospect for classroom practitioners. Collaborating with researchers is one way to bring in additional expertise to help you through the process.

Associate Professor Jane Mitchell and Dr Sara Murray are lecturers in the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University, New South Wales. They've been working closely with the Bathurst Catholic Education Office for several years and, more recently, with one school in particular - La Salle Academy in Lithgow, 150 kilometres north-west of Sydney.

The project has involved the academics partnering with school leaders and staff across eleven curriculum areas to develop feedback strategies to promote a growth mindset in students.

The team shared details of their work at the Excellence in Professional Practice Conference, presenting an overview of Carol Dweck's work on mindset and how that formed the theoretical basis for the whole-school initiative, and sharing the results of the project.

'... each curriculum area designed their own feedback strategy that they then researched. So it was fully developed. An evaluation strategy was put in place and data were collected and analysed to assess the value of the project,' Mitchell explains.

The academics will be outlining the strategies and the impact on student outcomes in forthcoming Teacher articles.

Reflecting on the benefits of university-school collaborations, they say it's a win-win situation for everyone involved. 'First of all there's the expert knowledge that the university brings - so, I think that adds an important dimension to the school,' Mitchell says. 'The other thing was we worked closely with the teachers to design [and evaluate] the project ...we had regular checks along the way so that we were consistent and rigorous in our collection and analysis of data. I think that meant we were able to talk with much more authority about the value of the strategies that the teachers developed.'

'On a personal level I think Jane and I have just learnt so much from the teachers and have been so impressed by their skill and expertise - I think it's been genuinely motivational for us and I think we've learned a great deal more in our area in the research interest,' Murray adds.

This particular partnership received funding from the Catholic Education Office, which Murray says allowed the academics to make a two year commitment. 'But, more importantly [the Bathurst diocese] has been very generous in their allocation of teacher time. So, there have been a lot of professional development days set aside.

'Apart from designing these [feedback strategies], Jane and I were regularly in the school and we might have a day or a half day where we worked on other aspects of Dweck's theory or the teachers showcased their work to each other.'

However, she adds it doesn't have to be a system-level initiative - schools can develop individual relationships with universities that don't require a big funding commitment. 'Sometimes you can make do with existing resources. Schools do have allocations for professional development ... and they can just choose to allocate those to work with community partners.

'Jane and I have always worked with many local high schools where the principals or the executive have just approached us. ... I think [as researchers] it's really important to stay in touch and see what day-to-day issues teachers are dealing with because I think otherwise we can be overly theoretical.'

The academics say the school executive at La Salle Academy was incredibly supportive and flexible, ensuring the timetable allowed staff to attend drop-in sessions about the project without disrupting their own classrooms.

'The teachers themselves obviously had a lot of expertise but sometimes Jane and I could actually do a lot of the leg work,' Murray explains. The researchers entered the data, did a lot of the analysis and helped design instruments to measure the outcomes of the project.

'So, teachers would say: "I'd really like to know whether the students' mindset has shifted as a result of this, have they become more growth mindset?" And [we'd] design a questionnaire then for the teacher to use. 'Or they'd say: "I've designed a class discussion around mindset, would you and Jane have a look at it for us?"

'[We could also] help teachers interpret the data - that's not to say that they didn't have a lot of skills themselves. But, I think too just having us there, it kept some momentum going because we were a sounding board and genuinely thrilled about the sort of work that they were doing. It was really motivational for both sides to have that partnership.'

Mitchell agrees, noting the most satisfying part of the process has been the relationship with the teachers, built on trust.

'You can see we're working toward a common goal and we're getting some valuable outcomes from the work that we're doing. We're now looking to disseminate those strategies widely.'

  • Stay tuned: Jane Mitchell and Sara Murray will be sharing further details of their work with educators at La Salle Academy - including the feedback strategies used in the school action research project and the impact on student outcomes - in forthcoming Teacher articles.

Are there opportunities for your school to develop a partnership with a local university?

When introducing a new teaching and learning strategy in your school do you consider: What are you hoping to achieve? What data will you collect? How will you assess the impact?

This year's Excellence in Professional Practice Conference (EPPC 2016) will be held in Melbourne on 19-20 May. The theme is Collaboration for school improvement. Click on the link to find out more, including how to register.