By Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington College
Make do and mend. It was my Nan’s mantra. She lived through the shortages of the Second World War, and the rationing that extended well beyond, and she just couldn’t shake it despite living into the 1990s. Make do and mend she certainly did, which is why nothing ever got discarded, no matter how outdated or unfit for purpose it had become. My poor Grandad would thus go walking in the rain looking like Captain Scott, weighed down by a patched-up heavy woollen pullover and canvas smock – all the rage for intrepid adventurers at the turn of the 19th century but, sadly, not fit for purpose in the era of Gore-Tex.
Luckily, my Nan was not involved in the modernisation and improvement of our examination and assessment system, but she might as well have been. Make do and mend seems to have been the principle underpinning successive attempts to fix the system by which our school leavers are judged and ranked. It is time for a dramatic re-think in our approach.
It is not as if the alarm bells haven’t been ringing loudly enough. Rarely, if ever, do we have consensus across the educational spectrum about important issues. This is a glorious exception. Everyone, it would seem, knows that the exams our children take do not support the education we know we need to give nor give them the skills employers value the most, yet we continue to tinker and patch up a system which is now woefully outdated and getting more so as the pace of change quickens.
Throughout human history, the nature of assessment of individuals has been remarkably nimble: adjusting to each era to respond to changing needs. Our early hunter-gatherer ancestors would look for bravery, strength and co-operation. All very important in bringing down a woolly mammoth! Assessment was brutal but simple. If you didn’t have these characteristics – if you happened to be timid, weak and uncooperative – you wouldn’t last too long in the group and your genes would disappear along with you.
During the age of agriculture what mattered was having one skill and doing it well. A ploughman hiring a plough hand would worry only if his new employee could hold a plough straight and true for a day, and it didn’t matter a jot if in the evening he wrote sonnets to his true love or could kick a pig’s bladder clean across the yard! For centuries having a single skill and performing it well was enough to keep you fed and clothed for life.
Then as the age of information dawned and humanity moved from the field to the office, two skills became incredibly important: method and recall. In the absence of computers, the ability to hold large amounts of knowledge or information and then apply this knowledge to a task was paramount to success. The more skilled the job the greater the need to use these two skills and the more important it became to show that you had them. So in 1858, a system of public examinations was introduced in order to assess and rank school leavers in these two aptitudes. Children would go into a large room where they would pen answers to examination which were split into subjects: English Language, English Literature, Mathematics, Geography, Latin, French German, Sciences, Art, Music and Religious Studies. Recognise this? You should, because it is basically the same system that we employ today. Like my Grandad’s de-mob suit, it has been patched up and re-shaped many times but underneath it is still the same old suit. We have made do; we have mended. Children remain valued and recognised largely for their ability to recall knowledge and apply method.
The modern world has changed beyond all comprehension since 1858. A time traveller from the mid-19th century would be discombobulated by almost every aspect of the world we live in but would take comfort from the familiarity of the education system, and even more so from the nature of the examinations that mark the end of a child’s schooling. Should our time-traveller stumble upon an examination room in June, they would feel very at home.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Except it is broke and we need to take a radical approach to fixing it.
Fast forward now to 2015 and a report by Oxford University and Deloitte suggesting that huge numbers of professions and jobs are at risk to automation and digitisation in the next two decades. Robots are in and humans are out! At least, they are in the jobs that require certain skill sets that robots can do particularly well: method and recall. Precisely the same skills that each summer we ask our children to demonstrate during two months of stressful and potentially life-changing assessment.
The good news is that whilst computers are remarkably good at some things, they are also remarkably inept at others. They can’t adapt – at least, not outside of a small range (try asking a robot on the car production line to diagnose an illness). They have no emotional intelligence (you wouldn’t ask a robot to support an employee with a stress). They are incapable of leading (would you want a computer running your company?). Public speaking, critical thinking, creative writing…I could go on. In fact, there are a huge number of aptitudes computers don’t have which in the digital age are becoming increasingly valued and important. The latest study may well prove to be as accurate as an episode of Tomorrow’s World in the 1970s but the core principles strike a chord with me. It is the same message I hear time and again when I talk with employers: don’t send us robots, they say, send us school leavers with skills that are truly relevant.
People like Richard Branson and Michelle Mone are often cited as great examples of success against the odds having left school with no qualifications, but really this shouldn’t be a surprise. Their strengths lie in different areas – areas which matter today. They possess skills like adaptability, leadership and empathy and independence of thought.
It follows therefore that we need an education system that nurtures and assesses these skills, but instead we’re stuck with a system designed for a different era. The very best schools will continue to educate in a way that values soft skills knowing that, despite the lack of recognition in the assessment system, the skills their students learn will hold them in good stead for their futures. Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that this is the norm. Despite the oft-heard rhetoric, most schools – independent and state – driven by the funding imperatives of featuring high in the league tables, adopt a safe and narrow approach which they calculate will provide the greatest chance of success in the summer round of testing.
A good starting point would be to have exam markers who are trained, qualified and have the time to spot truly creative and original thinking. Most importantly, we should take a completely fresh look at our national examination system starting with a vision of where we would like to be before working backwards to create the system that best supports it. It is a huge undertaking but not impossible; the International Baccalaureate, for example, already goes some way to achieving this aim by placing emphasis on skills such as critical thinking, service and independent learning.
At Wellington College we say “do not ask how intelligent is this child, but how is this child intelligent?” Until our examination system does the same we are doing tomorrow’s generation a great disservice. It’s time to stop the make do and mend approach and create a system which recognises and values the skills required for a modern world.
By Robin Macpherson, Head of Professional Learning
This year we’re making a big push on lesson observation as a way of improving professional practice. The bulk of observation in recent years has been done for the sake of ITT, PDR or inspection preparation so was heavily judgmental and, unsurprisingly, fairly artificial. The forms used emphasised box-ticking at a furious rate as if carpet-bombing a piece of A4 was the best way of evidencing good teaching. Whenever observation was taking place outside of the usual auspices it was within departments and in an ad hoc fashion. It seemed we were missing a huge opportunity to develop teaching in a structured fashion.
After doing some digging for info at the end of last term we put in place a framework which would allow us to observe regularly, positively, and with variety. Firstly, academic subjects were grouped into six areas:
- Modern Languages
By pairing the subjects in a rotation, it gives five days across the year for open door observation days. We work on a two-week cycle so varying the day is important; a Monday and Friday from Week A, the same from Week B, and a Wednesday. This prevents staff being caught out by a full lesson day (hence not getting out to observe) each time we do this. On the given day teachers are free to leave their department and head to the paired subject area to find lessons that can be observed. Equally they can see things in their own department if that proves more beneficial for a particular period. The simple rules are:
- If a lesson is fine to observe then open the door, or put a note to welcome visitors.
- If a class is doing an assessment or similar task which is not good for observation, then shut the door (or again put up a note).
- Maximum two people observing at any one time so lessons are not unduly disturbed.
- Stay for at least 20 minutes to get a good flavour of the lesson.
- No paperwork, unless ITT people need to collect evidence (this can be arranged beforehand).
- For the love of God, no ‘show lessons’. Regular every-day teaching is what we want to see, not the lesson plan that gets dusted off when inspectors come calling. Organic is good.
Following an observation staff are encouraged to catch up with those they saw to discuss the lesson. Conversations in departments are vital as sharing best practice and adopting new methods can be done in collaboration.
So after the first day, what were the results? Personally I saw seven MFL teachers (five French and two Spanish) and came away with a sense of the culture of language teaching which I wouldn’t have from just seeing one or two lessons. There is a striking commonality between the teachers despite a diverse range of approaches and individual styles. The use of the body to communicate non-verbally is so essential, and so creative; I’m thinking of ways in which this can be brought to History (without looking too ridiculous). The precision with which language is used (English, French and Spanish) is really impressive. Each word and sentence is weighed in a fashion which I need to build into my lessons. I often do this for source analysis, but it needs to be done all the time. The quality of displays around the room are excellent and provide constructive prompts as opposed to just a bit of wall filler. We have a lot of good decoration around History but some more focused displays and posters that target technique and writing skills would be useful. Finally, the challenges posed by varying levels of language and the shifting of sets (particularly in IB) makes MFL teaching a tough existence. We have a lot less of this in History so I came away feeling rather thankful that I enjoy a simplicity which I had never truly appreciated.
What also proved to be highly beneficial about the day was the chance to see tutees in action. This can go a long way to adding to our understanding of our tutees and shift our perspective of them. This feedback from a colleague (with a wealth of pastoral experience) merits quoting at length:
“I went to four half lessons today; one just to see a teacher and the other three to see my tutees in the classroom. Perhaps it’s because I have a vested interest in their academic performance, but I did find that the three with my tutees in were far more powerful for me… they allowed me to have an insight to my tutees’ approach to learning, understand the kinds of academic experiences they have, match their assessment grades with their demeanour in lessons. I think it has not only strengthened my relationship with those tutees, as they see that I’m taking a genuine interest in their education, but I feel better placed to discuss academic issues with them, as well as feedback to parents about how they’re doing.“
This adds a new depth to our tutoring and can bring so much value to one-to-one conversations. We’ve been advised to see tutees in lessons before, but who could seriously find the time to add lesson observation to all the other things we do with and for them? The open door day allows us to cover two bases at once and can only strengthen the quality of pupil learning – the main aim of doing this in the first place.
Other feedback from colleagues showed what a positive experience this was. Take these comments, for example:
The Harkness discussion was totally engaging – so interesting to listen to, and it was so useful to see the students leading the learning in such an adept way. I loved your encouragement of silence (“silence isn’t ignorance”) and contributing pertinent points, rather than contributing for contributing’s sake.
I very much liked the sheets that they were making notes on – it clearly showed the evolution of ideas and cyclic thought processes. The way that the students articulated their points was exceptionally eloquent – “I’ve noticed that…” and “What’s interesting is…”, alongside the questioning of each other’s’ thoughts and opinions.
The clear sense that the pupils knew exactly what they were heading towards. They are all involved in complex project/portfolio/CW work but they operate within this openness with focus and a clear sense of enjoyment and engagement, brought about by very clear understanding of various exam rules, AOs, outcomes. Once these are established (as was happening) the teacher is free to teach and the pupil to learn.
Mature collaborative work. Pupils are enjoying seeing each other’s pieces and commenting. Exemplar work (in DT, notably) is readily available, inspirational and instructive.
Using space. The use of two sets in two spaces to critique each other was very impressive, not least from a classroom management point of view (!)
What you can learn about your pastoral charges by looking at their work. Seeing their art sketchbook was as insightful as any conversation.
Take-away for me: what all three subjects and lessons gave me was a sense of how the pupils benefit from calm steerage in a calm environment. There was a real sense of (dare I say it) artistic therapy for some of the pupils. I wonder if more of my teaching / classroom set-up / choice of task could, once the curricular parameters are in place, be more … contemplative? Food for me to think about.
What also emerged from the day was that pupils became completely relaxed with teachers in the room. For most of our pupils it isn’t an out-of-the-ordinary experience, but for new pupils (mainly Third Form and Lower Sixth) it might well be. One of my new Lower Sixth asked why we did it, and it led to an interesting conversation. When pupils realise that we do this to inform our own practice they respect our commitment to professionalism and this filters back to parents. I love a good ripple effect.
Judgment-free, form-free, high-quality professional learning, a stone’s throw from your own classroom. Sometimes the best things are simple and free, as this is. Roll on November 16th for round 2…
Round 2 Staff Feedback – November 16th
Update: this is a sample of staff feedback after round 2. The subject pairings were:
- Maths and MFL
- Humanities and Arts
- English and Sciences
Getting up and running first period on Monday, when you’ve been covered the previous lesson, is no easy task! Bravo. The use of OneNote Classroom is clearly highly effective and gathering knowledge in one place, providing continuity between lessons (and teachers if covering) and supporting students in keeping them focused on what is being taught, why, and where to access info. Your use of it as a live document, and projected, is excellent and a big take-away tip me.
It felt like I was walking into a pharmacological work-place rather than school. Quietly self-regulating and focused. The fact that the aspirin samples are quantified off-site by a drugs company is total news to me and must dramatize for pupils the real-world applicability of the subject. Also salient, for me, is the fact that this kind of activity has to be ruthlessly prepared before, during (weekend drying out of aspirin!) and after.
So that’s why Litvinenko died … Peer marking is v.useful. I wonder how we can ensure that they are marking accurately all the time and the checks and balances in place for this? Any tips gratefully received.
It was really interesting experience seeing something so different, though I appreciated the ecological references to animals creeping and the idea of isolating prey. It is a lovely atmosphere reading in the round, with everybody taking turns and seeing reading as a skill. You were very attentive to their language and where they were less confident over terms. Emphasis on this precision of meaning is also probably true for Biology, such as where students will use alleles and genes interchangeably even though they have very different roles.
I was wondering if I should ever have students read through the textbook in class. I’ve had 3rd formers read a few passages from The Road to identify the role of photosynthesis, but wonder if there’s a value to doing the same with the actual textbook, so that we can talk through sections and clarify our understanding. Sometimes I say to read through a section without picking out specific points or checking understanding at regular intervals. I almost use it in the belief that they will have understood the whole context. Students also make their notes in the (text)book, which I feel is probably more valuable than large-scale copying out of notes which some of my students do.
I like the whiteboard mind-maps on the wall, which links texts. There were lots of aspects which set high expectations – the use of language such as promethean and gothic (which I don’t really understand!), the comparative discussions about which is most scary. You also get them to register themselves and tell them that they should be aware of the structure of the course; they have the outline plan so they know where the course is leading. It countered my belief that English teachers might just read for as long as it takes and then write lots of iterations of an essay.
I observed Third form maths and really enjoyed the experience. The students were working very independently on their tasks, and the level of challenge was high. The teacher was very calm and positive and I particularly liked how when a student gave an answer, he asked them to explain how they had got there without saying whether it was right or wrong, allowing them to piece together the steps. We had a brief conversation following the lesson, and it was refreshing to speak face-to-face about the experience too.
I think the Open Day observations are really useful, and it is very encouraging to be able to learn from colleagues.
I was so impressed by how well you had set up the feedback task. I loved the way you allowed them either to do peer review or personal review and comparing their review with yours was really effective. This is certainly something I’ll try in geography. There was a really warm and happy atmosphere in the room, which was lovely to see.
I was so impressed by how brilliantly engaged all of the pupils were in the task and how well they were working in groups. I think the pace and energy you brought to your lesson were excellent and I really liked the use of photos (whist leaving space on the whiteboard to write) worked extremely well.
I loved the collegiate atmosphere and it was lovely to see how passionate you were about both the language and the book that you were studying. This shone through and really affected the pupils’ motivation and engagement. I thought the use of the cartoon images were excellent for aiding the pupils’ understanding and ability to visualize the story. You also clearly had an excellent relationship with each of the pupils.
I was thoroughly inspired by the work you were doing with the girls, which was brilliantly creative and educational. I think that you displayed superb emotional intelligence in the way that you gave feedback to each of the pupils and you were really sensitive to what would motivate them most effectively and what was going to have the greatest impact on their dancing. The atmosphere was extremely supportive, which seemed to give the girls more freedom both to express themselves and to challenge themselves. You are also, clearly, a superb dancer, passionate about your subject and hugely knowledgeable – you were a joy to watch!
I observed an Art History lesson earlier: there was a wonderful conversational feel – focused on the topic but also drawing in all sorts of ideas and historical events, so that it really felt like an education beyond just dispassionately covering the necessary material.
Over the last year we have been working with researchers from Harvard GSE to look at student self-perception, specifically around the areas of Growth Mindset and Grit and are delighted to publish our first working paper on our findings. The preliminary findings were reported here by the BBC but the full report is now available below.
Dr. Christina Hinton, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, notes: “Our results suggest that ‘grit’ does not require pushing yourself at all costs, but rather cultivating healthy emotional regulation skills and effective learning strategies.”
Year 2 of our project will explore the impact of a 6 week intervention around Growth Mindsets in partnership with Highbury Grove school between November and December.
By Julian O’Loughlin. Head of Science
With every new year at school, there always seems to be a new system or other which claims to be better at doing something that didn’t seem a problem the year before. After tinkering with OneNote in the classroom last year, I’m going all in and there seems to be a general murmuring amongst the, genuinely delightful, pupils I teach as to ‘what’s the point’. What was wrong with paper for our prep and writing stuff on a whiteboard?
At its best, it offers the flexibility to teach and support the students in a way that is just not possible with a paper and pen. Here are three examples.
As I write information on the board, I can be wherever I want in the classroom. I’m not the smallest of people so the first advantage is getting me out of the way. But if I position myself at the back of the classroom, or in amongst the students, or sitting next to the student who’s struggling, it gives me the flexibility to adapt my teaching. The latter case is particularly powerful. How often does a student want to ask that quiet question to clarify something, but would rather not ask it in front of the entire class.
The second example is on the speed of feedback. Students can complete homework on the night it’s set and I can mark it before the next lesson. I don’t have to remember to collect it in or give it back, and they don’t have to remember to bring it to the lesson or hand it in. I’m sure every teacher at some stage has tried to get a class to hand in their work the next day, even when they don’t normally have a lesson. I certainly did, and tried nobly for a few weeks before giving up and accepting that I’d have to teach the next lesson ‘blind’ as to what their homework may have shown me as to their understanding. A spin off of this electronic marking is that the students seem to respond to what I’ve written much more, correcting work spontaneously, but its early days to suggest this is sustained.
The third is on the richness of media. It’s easy to paste onto their work a worked example, or a custom made ‘This is what you could do to improve’ stamp, or an audio recording of feedback. They could also record an audio question they wanted to ask, or even record them explaining an answer orally (the prospect for languages here is obvious). From bringing in diagrams from the internet, pasting graphs from Excel – it does seem a very natural way to bring all these things together.
Does it have its faults? Of course it does. The lack of a defined time slots for them to do it and me to mark it means that I mark in dribs and drabs, or start marking before they have finished it. The flexibility of structure means that sometimes a page of work ends up with all sorts of scrawling over it, from my comments, to their corrections but it seems much more organic and more representative of a real conversation that might be taking place, but which we don’t have time do every time. The key thing though is that it allows me to do things that I couldn’t do without the technology, which I think is the acid test of whether something is worth persevering with and so I’ll keep on using it.
Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington College
THE wind is changing. The movement to turn the use of technology in schools into the educational equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes is gathering pace. The hysteria surrounding the introduction of greater technology in the classroom has, it would seem, finally generated a backlash. A hysterical response to the hysteria, perhaps? A new day brings a new report from the OECD about technology in schools with a predictable response from the media. “Computers do not improve pupils’ results says OECD” was the headline take on this report followed by an exposition on why technology is not the answer. Well, here’s the funny thing: nobody ever said that it was! For that matter, neither did anyone suggest that unlimited use of mobile devices in and outside the classroom was a sensible way forward.
It is worth looking behind the headlines generated from the OECD report. Its main finding is that investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance. Well, as my grandad used to say, you could knock me down with a feather! Seriously, have you ever heard a more obvious conclusion? No educator, even the most technically minded, would ever suggest that simply buying and using more kit is going to result in improved educational standards. In the same way that buying more footballs for the England team won’t help us to win the World Cup.
The problem seems to be that all of the ills of modern technology – perceived or real – are being lumped into one giant catch-all argument that is increasingly asking educators to take sides: are you in “Team Technology” or “Team Old School”? This is no way to conduct an educational debate that can, and almost certainly will, revolutionise classroom learning over the next two decades.
The starting point for any nation, school or individual teacher considering use of new pedagogy in the classroom should be the simple question: will the change I am about to make improve the learning process and outcomes for the children in my charge? Notice no use of the word technology here as the question remains the same for any new idea or classroom methodology. In some instances, the answer will be no; in others, yes. The very best examples of the use of technology I have seen have been when schools or teachers have started out by defining what they want to achieve and then they worked backwards in order to ascertain how best to achieve it. In some cases this involved utilising new ideas and technology; in other cases it did not. Cause and effect. Raising the standard of education should be the cause with technology (sometimes) the effect; the Reporting of the OECD report and others reverses this methodology by defining technology as a cause in itself and then states, to the surprise of few, that it has no discernible, or even a detrimental, effect.
Forgive me if none of this seems like rocket science because, of course, it isn’t. Interestingly, read closely behind the sensational headlines and you will find that most of the supposed protagonists have a surprising level of agreement, although the quotations used seem to be carefully selected to engender maximum animosity (and readability). The result is a slow but noticeable entrenchment of respective positions with educators starting to identify themselves in one of the two camps. In the early days of this discussion teachers who were unsure of technology seemed reluctant to state their concerns for fear of being seen as a luddite; these days you are more likely to find teachers enthusiastic about technology who do not like to speak up in case they look naive or, as one expert put it, “dazzled” by the use of technology. This polarising of opinion makes for a good story and seems to capture the zeitgeist of an age in which the massive explosion of technology use in our everyday lives has caused a deepening suspicion. In the process, we are stifling healthy educational debate about the best way in which to imbed new ideas for the benefit of the next generation. And that is a tragedy.
By Denise Cook, English dept.
I’ve been working on all that for the last few weeks, how to turn it into something I can actually use in the classroom. Come the beginning of term, it’s time. I decided to go forward with a general idea of ‘giving them space to learn’: I would provide the scaffolding and technical information, but so far as practical they would take responsibility for their own learning in the classroom space by deciding how we go forward. Once the blanks (lessons) are filled in, which I’m planning to do over the next two weeks, give or take an hour, I’ll print and distribute.
In my four lessons this morning we talked seating arrangements, timetabling and the differences between their learning experience on p.2 Tuesday and p.6 Friday. We discussed having a mobile-free lesson once a cycle. To my mild surprise, nobody raises any objections. Is that a function of them really not minding or being compliant?
But a picture is worth a thousand words, said someone. Here are some from my first morning’s attempts at bringing the pupils on board with social emotional focus for academic progress (sorry: that’s a mouthful. There isn’t a handy buzz phrase available yet).
I asked them to set their own goals for the term/course. (NB: Both offers of a goal for class work-shopping were from boys.)
Yr 11 goal workshopped on the board: ‘Do all my preps by the deadline’
Yr 13 goal: ‘Get A*s’
I gave them these worksheets to help them bring together the information, the feelings/needs and their (self-determined) goals.
Points of interest: the U6th form are most extrinsically focused (unsurprising, perhaps – they’ve been in the system longer, they are looking beyond school…) All very illuminating and helps me to get to know them. We started discussing the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation – we’ll pick up the discussion as we go along.
Lastly I asked the U6 form, whose set I have just taken over, to use the feelings words from the list to give me some anonymous Post it feedback about how they felt at the end of the first lesson – one apparently misunderstood what I was asking them to do and two didn’t hand in their Post its. Those are also forms of feedback.
The basis for several more illuminating conversations over the next few lessons. I’ll keep you posted.
With the hype around growth mindset, it’s no wonder there is more attention being drawn to the ways that students understand their strengths, capabilities and passions. I, myself, am extremely guilty of asking a child to ‘tell me about themselves’, to which I accept vague, absolute statements such as “I am shy” or “I don’t like talking in front of people.” Even in my adult life, a lot of discourse is reliant on an individual being able to assert these statements and they are actually praised for doing so. Think of the plus points achieved for saying things like “you’re a hard worker” and you “feel confident” in an interview – you probably nailed it.
What we rarely bring ourselves back to is how malleable and environmentally influenced these personalities are. In fact, there is no doubt you could take an extremely shy person and, given the right environmental factors (friends, family, relatives, passions), they could instantly become the most confident. Similarly, the most confident could turn to dust if they are thrown into something completely out of their depth. So actually when we assert these so adamantly, we are lying to ourselves.
Which brings me to the classroom. We have all heard these absolute statements “But Miss, I hate reading” or “I’m so bad at mathematics” or “I’m just not arty”. Current approaches to teaching have (rightly so!) started to address this as a ‘fixed mindset’ and the most accepted solution to attempt to coerce the student away from this thinking is Growth Mindset (see: http://mindsetonline.com/changeyourmindset/firststeps/).
Many of us by now have been trained in Growth Mindset as an effective pedagogy to encourage students to believe in their ability. However, I am worried that too many training sessions do not successfully communicate the underlying philosophies related to a child’s (or adult’s) cognition but instead, simplify it by pinning its effectiveness to the word ‘yet’ – which I believe is just as damaging.
While I do not condone the use of the word ‘yet’ in the Growth Mindset phenomenon, I do wonder its effectiveness in motivating the pupil who hears the word ‘yet’ in every lesson. Let’s imagine, as a child, hearing your teacher assert the statement “You just can’t do it yet!” in your fifth lesson that day. No matter how cheerful, or enthusiastically that is expressed, it is bound to be disheartening. For me, hearing it for the 5th time would only reiterate three things: 1) I can’t do it 2) I can’t do anything and 3) It’s going to be a long, hard struggle to be able to do something. Not only this, I also believe there will certainly be a point to which that person will become ‘numb’ to the idea of the word ‘yet’ as a self-motivating philosophy; certainly we, as adults, can see straight through it. What we need is to properly understand is the underlying philosophies – the way we construct our self-narrative – to assist young people in their cognitive dissonance and to train their self-narration into adult life.
So what is the underlying theory? It is simply understanding our self-narrative (note: narrative is the key word here – for all English teachers).
To put it simply, it is the theory that we, as people, have a constructed image of ourselves. This self-fabrication is the assumptions we make of ‘who we are’ and is generally based from previous experience, however, sometimes it can be constructed from nothing at all. To make matters worse, however, we also construct the narrative that what we think about ourselves is accurate. In doing so, we constantly set ourselves up to be our strongest deceivers.
Teaching pupils to understand that self-narration – or absolute statements about themselves – is a fallacy is essential for building their confidence both academically, socially and physically. We have to teach them that their self-narrative is not only incorrect, but a fictional, malleable construction influenced constantly by a plethora of factors. I do not want to be trained in persistently telling students “You don’t like English.. YET!” as though I am some teacher-guru-magician that will enable them, at some point, to reach a liking in English (a final destination in some journey they undertake by being in my classroom). Because that is not the case. The truth is, they have simply formed a narrative bias that makes them think they do not enjoy English based on previous and current environmental factors. And there could be many: perhaps their previous teacher had no longer been inspired by the asceticism of Wilde? Perhaps they had never tried to actually read a book? Perhaps cognitive factors? Either way, it is not that they do not like English, or Science, or Maths. It is that they currently do not have the right environment that enables them to delve into that passion and enjoy it.
So what could be a useful tool in ensuring students are aware of this?
- Challenge any student back when they say “I hate _____” or “I’m bad at______”. Simply ask them: when have you loved English? What book do you love? What famous quote? Coach them into searching for a time where they may have loved that subject or achieved something creative and inspirational in that subject. Allow them to delve into a memory of that subject that really captured their imaginations and watch the way they light up talking about it. There is bound to be one.
- Consider that child in your planning for a lesson. You don’t have to go overboard, but delve into their passions and interests. Enable them to lead. Most importantly, in order to address the self-narrative, you must talk to the student after. Ask them whether they enjoyed your lesson and, if so, make them aware of their own fallacy: their ‘absolute statement’ of “I don’t like English” – encourage them to consider why this statement is no longer valid.
Growth mindset is a wonderful way to enable us to see the ways we can change, stretch and grow. But it does not build a child’s confidence in challenging their own self-deception because it still relies on a lot of telling. If you can get a student to discover their own narrative, it acts as a counter to the story they have constructed. It provides another preposition that makes their original statement a fallacy. They can, in fact, love all subjects. They just need to change their mindset and potentially one or two factors to achieve this more consistently. Of course, this is not new to us as educators. It’s simply another way to look at it.
One of the things we were keen to do this year in setting up an in-house research centre at Wellington College was to have a small number of students partner with us on our project with Harvard faculty on Growth Mindsets and Grit. A key point for us was what does this research actually look like in the classroom and and at the level of the student? Another goal was to have them help us in designing a survey by having them pilot test some of the more problematic questions so we could get as reliable data as possible. We asked the students to read some of the literature and research in these areas and then had a series of group discussion with them where we discovered a huge range of things that was really helpful in helping us understand Growth Mindsets from multiple perspectives.
At the education Festival this week we were hugely fortunate to have Carol Dweck as a speaker so when I met with her I was really keen that our student research council interview her and put some of their own pressing questions about student motivation, assessment and Growth Mindset to her from their own perspective as students. She was incredibly generous with her time and was really eager to meet with them.
This year we appointed a student research council to help us in a number of areas:
– To provide us with a student perspective in the research we were engaging with.
– To co-design and pilot test surveys and data collection.
– To inform the school leadership about implementing new approaches.
These students have been a revelation on a number of levels but their enthusiasm and dedication in working with Harvard faculty has been invaluable in helping us understand the impact of this research.
These are their words.
Being part of a Student Research Council
by Alexandra Russell and Edward Caffyn-Parsons, 6th form students at Wellington College.
Over the past year, both of us have been involved with the Wellington Student Research Council. In collaboration with Harvard University, the group has investigated the impacts of Growth Mindsets and Grit on individual academic performance and emotional wellbeing. In January, we conducted a survey that gathered data from the entire school regarding conscious attitudes towards these areas, the results of which proved to reveal a great deal in terms of the influence of character on achievement. Among the content we learned from participating in the programme itself lay a variety of established ideas, including those presented below.
From the research that we conducted, it has become evident that an effective method of creating a growth mindset attitude within a student (in the context of Wellington) is simply to encourage discussion regarding neuroplasticity, further reading of the relevant pieces of literature, and then engagement in active debate with other students over the topic matter. The pure appreciation for how the brain functions can induce a greater growth mindset, without a conscious focus on whether or not one has a growth mindset in reality. The inherent ability of any one individual to change their own “mindset” as such is subjective, and varies from person to person. Thus, the possibility of universalising and intervention in which the stated goal is an imperative seems highly unlikely, as per:
“You are going to get a growth mindset, and we are going to help you in realising the oasis that lies ahead.”
If the students are aware that their perception of their own ability is being directly “targeted”, the majority will refuse to accept the concept in any quantity. A particularly significant idea that arose from our research demonstrated that many students achieve very high levels of academic success, but possess fixed mindsets. Since such pupils achieve consistently good grades, they feel comfortable with the manner in which they are working, and deem it appropriate. Education has been one of the only ‘constants’ in the lives of students, so to admit that one has not been learning as well as they potentially could have for a number of years will be unlikely to yield an effective response. The very patient nature of what growth mindsets appear to be may, in some cases, cause a student to lose focus as their final aim does not seem instantly achievable. This is where the idea of ‘grit’ becomes a necessity. Perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity combined with a positive attitude towards learning (as demonstrated by the Growth Mindset) will bear for greater individual performance, and thus also higher levels of personal satisfaction and feelings of achievement. This is likely to be one of the most encouraging factors in the development of a student, both academically and emotionally.
The ‘Disease’ of a Fixed Mindset.
by Gianni Fortes, Lower 6th form
You’ve just completed an excruciatingly difficult task: in fact ‘completing’ is the wrong word in this case. You’ve sulked your way through a set of questions, your head slumped against the table, mumbling some nonsense about “your teacher short changing you”, as your brain tries to ignore the ‘tick tocks’ of an obnoxious clock. This particular person is one of two people: Either someone who has been lauded their whole academic life with praises like “you’re so smart” or “what a genius”; or someone who has impressed their teachers through their “strong work ethic” and “perseverance”.
Can you guess what type of person this student is?
According to Dr Carol Dweck and many psychologists in the field of education, the answer is the first person. Surprisingly, the so called “genius” isn’t as smart as they think; but then again who is?
“Robert” as we will affectionately call him is one of many students in Britain that suffers from the “fixed mind-set” disease. I say ‘disease’ for three reasons: One it is a very serious and dangerous problem; two it is a nation-wide epidemic and thirdly, and most importantly, it can be treated, like most others. Before I elaborate any further I would like to make it very clear, as my fellow students at Wellington College and Harvard colleagues have discovered, throughout the course of the year, through studying the “power of the mind-set in education” is that this is neither Robert’s, nor his teachers, or his parent’s fault. In fact, no one should or could be held accountable for such a disease.
I wonder how you could blame the proud mother of Robert who has enjoyed her son’s past academic successes; how you could you blame the teacher who’s been proud of her star student’s academic progress in a class where she’s focusing most of her teaching abilities on obtaining her student’s a grade C in GCSE; you get the idea? Surely their good intentioned praise and admiration for such an intellectually curious student is justifiable? The answer to that question is “yes”, “yes” and… “Yes”. The only problem that Dr Dweck and Duckworth, behavioural psychologists, Harvard University and Wellington College have is the ‘overdose’ of praise. It is ill-advised and unwarranted. It may seem harsh, and I do predict that some parents will cover their children’s ears as they read this now, but the truth has to come out.
Fixed mind-set children are less resilient to problems. Fewer are motivated to overcome difficult challenges in the short and long term, and more are inclined to ignore their weaknesses. By that definition, I agree, I am a fixed mind-set football fan (I support Tottenham), but on a serious note, the evidence is extraordinarily scary. In, one of many rigorously carried out experiments by Dweck, it showed that 67% of growth-mind-set children (children who believe that success is through hard work rather than a predisposed ability) chose to set challenge-learning oriented goals. This in stark contrast to 8% by fixed mind-set children. Fixed mind-set children spent ton average 3.2 minutes on a problem they were rigged to fail compared to 4.5 minutes from the growth mind-set students.
Before, I’m drowned in uproar and outcry such as these results being “isolated to a certain area, city, demographic, religion, gender…or that particular day”. Allow me the pleasure of informing you, such studies were carried out for students of mixed gender and of Caucasian, Black, and Hispanic and Asian descent all between primary school and middle school ages (ages of concern in social development). There can be no doubt that such findings should garner more attention and be applied to educational reforms as soon as possible.
A person with a growth mind-set is someone who shows key features: Tenacity, resilience, open mindedness, curiosity and grit. The only problem of implementing more “growth mind-set” students into an already rigid educational system is the problem of measuring it. At Wellington College we have scoured through pages of research papers and studies aimed at finding a method to measure this important cognitive tool. Indeed the usual arguments that “mind-set” is subjective and recordings of such behaviours will differ from observer to observer will arise, and I am not denying their truth. It is hard to measure a person’s character. Not solely because of the instability of operational definitions but also because, like any normal person, our attitudes and perspectives of life differ on a daily basis (especially us teenagers), depending on situational factors like the classroom climate and the cumulative interactions with people over the course of the day. It is here where one major problem, regarding measuring features like perseverance develops. Is perseverance a dispositional or situational factor? Is it to do with a set of continuous processes that occur on a daily basis or a part of a person’s character? This is important because, through answering this question we can find the optimum set of methods to use in measuring and understanding behaviours like ‘perseverance’.
For example if we were to take the stance regarding perseverance being dispositional we could then collate a set of self-reports, taken by the students themselves on a daily basis, on their pursuit of their long term goal, academic performance and how they feel their progressing.
If we were to theorise perseverance as a set of processes, however, we would have to do more observational studies carried out by teachers, with the intent of recording and noting down a series of behaviours, physiological reactions and emotions performed by the students struggling to answer difficult questions.
All in all, it wouldn’t be sensible to invest in one approach, and then abruptly change tactics
over the course of the “implementation” period. That would be detrimental and psychologically harmful for the students, not to mention a waste of time and resources. This is solely my opinion on the matter, not of the Wellington or Harvard faculty, but it makes sense that a clear conscientious approach to our understanding of “perseverance” would go a longer way than our rigid British culture of a “wishy washy” ambiguous approach. The more focused and analytical we are, the clearer our results will be.
Therefore to overcome the first barrier of the implementation period there needs to be an acknowledgement of what the methods are for measuring perseverance. Over the course of the year Wellington College has looked at four possible methods: Self reports; informant reports; the use of technology and school records. Each idea thrown and ripped to shreds around the Harkness table of a small but cosy room in Wellington’s Mallinson Library. Yet all commendable for their practicality; in conjunction with developing behavioural theories, being easily implementable; being indicative of a student’s traits such as tenacity and grit and finally being flexible within its mechanisms, so that such their structure can allow room for slightalterations.
At Wellington College we have spent a long time in that calm room snugly tucked amidst the first floor of our library, debating about the idea of Growth Mind-set. Make no mistake, however, that we haven’t experienced the struggles, first-hand, of being a British student, and dealing with teacher expectations, parent expectations, university expectations and most importantly our own. Having now enrolled at three different type of schools ranging from a small inner-city state school in London, to the imposing independent boarding school that is Wellington, I have experienced the different approaches teachers, administrators and other students have used to motivate students not only to continue learning but also to acknowledge their weaknesses and ‘gaps in knowledge’. From what I’ve seen there needs to be a time for change, a time of certainty, and a time of action. A new wave of growth mind-set like children, need to outnumber their fixed mind-set counterparts. This cannot be done today, nor cannot it be done next week, however it can be done for my generation, installing a new culture in the way we approach education, praise, criticism and failure. In a time where innovation and imagination appear only to be confined in the world of technology and thee adult world, we need to break out of such pretences, and drag ‘innovation and imagination’ to the world of teaching; where it is needed the most.
That is what ‘Robert’ needs; wants, requests. It is now our duty to listen.
Alexandra Russell, Edward Caffyn-Parsons and Gianni Fortes are students at Wellington College