Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Transformational Leadership to introduce a ‘Positive Mindset’. Allana Taylor LDC1, 2016

In this essay, I will set out to demonstrate how elements of transformational leadership contributed to the success of a change initiative that I have led within my classroom. This initiative was to develop a ‘positive or growth mindset’  (Dweck, 2006, 20015) amongst students faced with learning challenges and develop the skills of reflecting deeply on the learning involved, while being supported by digital tools.

Reason for the initiative:
The selection of this initiative was determined by class need as I had lots of anxious students who gave up or cried when faced with challenge. One student was so anxious that she cried every morning on arriving at school. There was an obvious need to build resilience and give the students tools for coping with challenge. I needed to build up their confidence, self belief and to develop a learning environment in which failure was valued as an opportunity. Introducing Dweck’s (2006, 20015) concept of ‘positive or growth mindset’ was an obvious choice. Dweck suggested, (2015) that our mindset can be changed as it is a ‘teachable attitude’. This was our opportunity to develop resilience as a community of learners, both teacher and student.

The second aspect of this change initiative would become the mechanism for measuring effectiveness. Could students reflect at a deep level on their learning, identifying challenges, their feelings, mindset, the strategies employed and next steps in their learning? The use of Easy Blogger (1)  and the iReflect Sheet (2) would provide scaffolding tools (Vygotsky, 1978, pg. 33), that enabled struggling writers to reflect without the barriers of written language.

Evidence of leadership through the initiative:
The leadership theory I employed was Franciosi’s (2012 p.5) transformational leadership. It is characterised by a caring for students and inspiring them towards a shared vision. It is nothing to do with the rewards or close monitoring of transactional leadership, as this does not develop self management. My focus has been in transforming our classroom and building strong learning relationships.

According to Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, (2002), there are a range of styles in which a leadership theory can be applied and I will unpack these as we work through the steps taken during this initiative.

As the teacher I knew where I wanted to take the class based on their learning needs and my professional development. The leadership theory I employed was ‘transformational’ (Franciosi 2012) but in the style Goleman (2002) would call visionary. My goal was to develop a class vision of how a ‘growth mindset’ could help us cope with challenges and make us more successful in our learning. (Dweck 2006, 20015)

Initially I introduced speech bubbles filled with either growth mindset or fixed mindset responses. The class worked to unpack where each response fitted on our co-constructed display. This teacher directed approach created a shared understanding of the vision, but might have developed more initial ‘buy-in’ if we identified characteristics of a successful learner in more of a ‘democratic’ (Goleman, 2002) way, rather than being given the information. However, this would have taken more time, more teacher preparation and might not have resulted in such a clear understanding of how having a ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck 2006, 20015) would help learning.

Image 1: ‘Mindset’ display from class, 2015

Once that concept of having a ‘growth mindset’ when faced with challenge was effectively gained, (Dweck 2006, 20015) students could articulate the concept as shown in their daily lives, but they still struggled when actually faced with challenge. They needed to know that struggle is an important part of learning and that there are a range of strategies to help in the journey. The next step was to make their thinking visible so we unpacked a clear image of this learning 

process in the form of Nottingham’s (2013) ‘learning pit’.  While Nottingham used this as a visual to explain what happens when students are faced with deep concepts, I applied it to the challenges of daily learning.
As the ‘transformational leader’ (Franciosi 2012), it was my job to recognise the need, look for ways to adjust our learning environment and scaffold the next step for students. My focus was on encouraging and supporting students to achieve their best. I was able to do this because I spent time researching and unpacking what this might look like in our classroom. I felt there was some contradiction between Franciosi’s (2012 p.5) concept that the ultimate goal of the transformational leader is the success of the organisation, while that of the servant leader is the well-being of students. I believe that the wellbeing of students is a prerequisite to their success in learning, so the ultimate goal of both leadership styles are firmly linked in my classroom.

To unpack the process of coping with challenging learning, we co-constructed our own ‘learning pit’, discussing how it felt for us in our learning experiences. This was firmly in the ‘democratic style’ (Goleman 2002) giving students a firm sense of ownership of the concept as it was constructed from their own reflections of learning. We added a basket of ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck 2006, 20015) strategies for students to select from which included ‘positive self-talk’, asking for help, learning from mistakes, trying again and never giving up.
This visual display of ‘the learning pit’ (Nottingham, 2013) was referred to frequently and identified by students as the one thing that helped them learn best. I believe this is because we took the time to unpack the process. This took time and required the teacher to ask the challenging questions, rather than giving the answers. The leadership within this aspect has my ‘visionary style’ as the overview but was strongly ‘democratic’ in the co-construction of our ‘learning pit’ (Nottingham, 2013) to make thinking and learning visible.

Image 2:Learning Pit’ display co-created by students, 2015

Goleman’s (2002) leadership style of ‘coaching’ was employed as I supported a gifted student who had given up during a maths test. In looking at our ‘learning pit’ display and discussing the options open to him, we went back with the understanding that giving up was not an option. He needed to select a strategy from the strategy tool box. This resulted in his completing two more questions. This was a clear example of coaching. There was no suggestion of expectation forced by Goleman’s (2002) of style ‘pacesetting’ or even any consequences as would be seen in Franciosi’s (2012) transactional leadership’, as these would lead to a sense of failure and a negative classroom climate. This was an opportunity to remind a student of our shared vision then encourage and support him to achieve what I believed he could do. This approach was firmly based in caring for the growth of the individual and their learning rather than just performance.

At the end of every learning session or day, as a learning community we shared evidence of where  the ‘learning pit’ being used by others, where we struggled in our learning and what strategies we used. This was building a safe learning place where students were motivated and affirmed by both their peers, themselves and the teacher who also reflected on her journey through the ‘learning pit’. This was a clear example of having an affiliative leadership (Golman 2002) style where building relationships develops a safe environment in which students are prepared to take risks as learners.
Personal weekly reflections were supported by our iReflect plan(2)  which was a great scaffolding tool (Vygotsky 1978, p.33) as it supplied rich language in the form of a series of possible sentence starters under the categories of learning, evidence and next steps. There was no need to edit these plans or even check for spelling errors, as the focus was metacognition – thinking about their learning, rather than thinking about the mechanics of writing. Reflections were then shared on the class blog using ‘Easy Blogger’ (1) a voice recording behind a photo of the learning. This oral reflection was a weekly expectation and formed the evidence of student understanding of the ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck 2006, 20015) as applied to their daily learning. The progression of understanding shown in these reflections has helped me gauge the success of this initiative.  Using this digital tool enabled less confident writers to share their learning journey. Franciosi (2012 p. 4) identifies this as one of the roles of a transformational leader: to model, motivate, communicate and facilitate.

Prior to the initiative, an initial survey about having a ‘positive mindset’ showed the average of class answers from 10 questions at six growth responses to four fixed responses. This was not a true reflection of the baseline as there was an element of confusion caused by very limited understanding of the terms used. After six months of using the language and reflecting on having a ‘growth mindset’, the survey results increased to a total of 8 growth and 2 fixed responses. This limited change can not be the only measure as our progress was not of a statistical nature but was seen in the form of student reflection, use of language and attitude towards challenge. 

Student comments in their reports were a clear reflection on the impact of this initiative:
‘I found that ‘The Learning Pit’ strategies were really helpful for my learning because when I used ‘self talk’ I had encouragement from myself and I remembered to have a positive mindset.’ (Year 4 Student, 2015)

‘I found that learning about ‘The Learning Pit’ helps me when I get stuck on hard learning. I can choose a strategy like ‘self talk’ or breathing exercises to help me finish the task. I can do it!’ (Year 4 Student, 2015)

It was this positive mindset that I heard students recognise in each other daily and the evidence of significant changes when facing challenge with reduced anxiety. A significant change was in the attitude of my one tearful student when she came to school. No longer was she in tears but bounded in ready for a great day. 

Parent response….
  Image 3: E-mail quote from parent, December 2015

Past student reflections on learning focussed on how well they coloured things in or failed to identify the strategies used. This can be seen in a reflection from before the intervention where the student just identified an increase in ideas. (3)   After the intervention, student reflections identified aspects of the ‘learning pit’ and how they might use a positive mindset to improve. This can be seen in the same student’s next steps of ‘always try again, keep practising and ask for help’ as she believes she can get better.  (4) 

This initiative has resulted in students who are now aware of the valuable struggle involved in learning, strategies they can use and understand that mindset has an impact on personal success. It has been effective because I employed the transformational leadership theory, applied in Gorman’s (2002) four leadership styles which were positive and constructive: visionary, democratic, affirmative and coaching. They were employed and adapted in different settings to meet the needs of the students, all within our team vision of having a ‘growth mindset’, (Dweck 2006, 20015) both in our learning and every challenge we faced. We made the change together as a learning community, led and supported by the teacher rather than having it ‘done to them’!

I believe that being an effective leader is all about building relationships that improve learning.


(1)  Easy Blogger: an app that allows voice recordings to be made over an image.

(2)  iReflect sheet created by myself to scaffold deep reflections. Highlight the sentence starter and add the details.

(4)   Reflection incorporating ‘the learning pit’


Dweck, C. S, (2015). Christchurch Conference: Personal notes retrieved Janurary 8, 2016, from the World Wide Web:

Dweck, C. S, (2006). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd
Franciosi. S, (2012), Transformational leadership for education in a difital culture. Digital Culture and Education.Com, pp. 235-247. Retrieved Janurary 8, 2016, from the World Wide Web,
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2002). The new leaders: Transforming the art of leadership into the science of results. London: Little, Brown.
Nottingham. J, (2013), The Learning Pit, in Challenging Learning retrieved Janurary 12, 2016, from the World Wide Web:
Vygotsky, L. S, (1978), Interaction between learning and development, in Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, pp. 79-91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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