Empowering students – the mirror and the lighthouse

Nicky Horn, Associate at Sport and Beyond, says self-awareness and resilience are key for students to reach their full potential

Schools are now doing so much more than enabling students to reach the best grades at GCSE and A-levels from sport to drama, music to DoE. There are open days, careers fairs and role model visits and more.

So, how can we improve our education to young people? How can we better prepare our students for adulthood? How about self-awareness, mindset and resilience? Self-awareness enables students to look into a mirror and reflect on their strengths. Mindsets are beliefs – beliefs about you. Resilience enables students to stand strong like a lighthouse when faced with a storm.

The mirror

What do I mean by self-awareness? Here is a practical example when I was Head of Year 10 at Ampleforth College. I asked my students to write down their strengths and immediately the girls were uneasy, preferring to write about the strengths of their friends than their own. The boys were more forthcoming – “I like sport,” was typical.

Taking in all the answers I mixed them up and asked them to identify theirs – they couldn’t. Yet I knew each student had strengths. The students were not self-aware and consequently could not identify their strengths. This meant it was not easy for them to write their CVs or personal statements.

It also explained some behavioural issues in the classroom. The students tended to copy and follow the behaviours of the students they wanted to be like. Rather than acknowledging their own strengths and ways of working, they followed others.

To help the students I started researching. At the base level I wanted to start with values. Much current thinking suggests this is a good beginning. So, for Year 9s we led a workshop on values. 

In Year 10 we needed to go further. We looked at personality and careers testing. Many ‘personality tests’ are on the market. Many were free, but inaccurate. Personality, though, was not the answer to the situation, because it is who you are, not what you do. Behavioural strengths are what you do, for school work, for career paths.

Many careers tests take over an hour and the students become disengaged. I was also aware of my own personal problem – I could not have predicted my career journey to where I am now, I couldn’t even have predicted where I would be at 25. As the future unfolds, so will new jobs and opportunities. I did not want to tie a 15-year-old student into a role for life.

We sought a solution that enabled my students to be aware of their strengths at school to add to their CVs, empowered them to think of a direction for their future, but not necessarily their future job, and a mindset which encouraged effort and diversity.

Eventually we identified a solution and the effect on the Year 10s was astounding. It took each student less than 10 minutes to complete on a computer, and they each received a two-page report articulating their strengths and their differences in their peer groups. It gave each student more confidence, greater self-awareness and an understanding that they can be different to their peers.

This has led them to create higher quality CVs for work experience. It has helped students in their homework and revision patterns by articulating the pace at which they work, and their behaviour under pressure. In turn this has helped them assess their future career options on a broader basis than most career systems. It helped me as a teacher to emphasise diversity and to treat each person as unique.

We may start to avoid failure because of social pressure but this is a dangerous road if we want to continue to grow


Embedded into the solution is the importance of a growth mindset – the belief in growing and learning – as opposed to a fixed mindset, which suggests that your intelligence is inherited. Teaching a growth mindset encourages effort.

James Anderson, an Australian practitioner in growth mindset, cites a story of Picasso sketching a portrait of a young girl. It takes him two minutes; the girl loves it and asks how much. He says £1m. She says, it only took you two minutes. He answers, it took me a lifetime.

For those students who say they can’t do maths, we need to take them back and reflect on where they are in maths now, compared to where they started at the age of five. With this they can see how they have grown, and rather than compare their results to their peers, reflect on how much they personally have learnt.

The lighthouse

Completing the picture is resilience – the ability to cope with, and rise to, occasions of challenge. Often, we learn by trial and error, for example walking and talking.

As we get older we become more conscious of failure especially in the company of others. We may start to avoid failure because of social pressure but this is a dangerous road if we want to continue to grow. As role models to students we need to show how failure helps us to grow.

I have seen the difficulties some young people face at 16 when they have no memory of failing – it creates students who are averse to taking risks in all they do, and this can’t be good for their future. We all have to embrace failure in order to reach higher.

There is so much good about education in the UK, let’s build on it and enhance it with the mirror, mindsets and the lighthouse.

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