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By Ed Venables, Housemaster at Wellington College
Putting aside serious pastoral issues, the most challenging and frustrating issue that I deal with year-in, year-out when running a boarding house is a handful of boys who simply fail to discover or demonstrate any motivation towards academic work. Often they will have no lasting motivation towards anything despite, perhaps, their social lives. In every sense they are wasting a fantastic opportunity but they fail to see this and end up suffering sanction after sanction from the school and from their parents.
It has therefore been an issue that I have been working on this year in conjunction with Wellington’s research group’s work on growth mindsets and resilience. These boys essentially appear to have fixed mindsets with very low levels of resilience. Below, I will attempt to describe how I am using the notion of ‘service to others’ to try to change the mindsets of these boys.
I have experimented with various approaches, from pure punishment to pure encouragement, from direction to coaching, with little sustained success. The pupils appear not to appreciate the bigger picture, they have no goals to aim for and hence really do not see the point of putting themselves out; they lack resilience in this sense. The vast majority of the boys in this situation come from supportive families and so it seems to me to be, in most cases, an issue intrinsic to them. Of course there may be historical factors that I have missed or am not aware of and this may merit further investigation.
Knowing these students as their housemaster I felt that I wanted to experiment with seeking to get them a better appreciation of where they stand in the world. I have therefore changed the way we introduce ‘service’ in the house this year. The main group that I am working with is my Year 11 group, mainly because it was possible to timetable a weekly service session for them and I could also take advantage of the time they have when they finish their GCSE exams in the summer. They are doing two things which I hope will increase their inclination towards a growth mindset and their resilience. As a research project in itself it is not ideal because the evidence gained is only anecdotal this year but we hope to measure the impact more scientifically next year. I hope that I will have fewer boys lacking motivation in the sixth form as a result of this.
The weekly service session has involved them being visited by or visiting students from a local school for children with medium learning difficulties. Ten of my students have got to know personally ten students from Carwarden House School and have designed activities to do with them each week. The learning curve has been very steep for both sets of students. The Wellington students have spoken about being very unsure beforehand and the early sessions were certainly awkward. Two terms later, however, they greet each other as friends and the atmosphere between the groups is relaxed and easy. The Wellington students speak about how they have really discovered the personalities of their peers at Carwarden. Their genuine frustration is simply that time has precluded the Carwarden students really discovering their full personalities. It has amazed me, however, to see how the similar characters in the groups have been drawn to each other – as with any teenage group! The Carwarden students have gained immensely in social confidence and will hopefully come across as such when seeking employment in future. What makes this project different, in my opinion, is the direct relationships that have been built. It has been about seeking to make friends rather than simply ‘serve’ in an abstract way. It has involved the hearts of all involved and this has been so special.
The second challenge – three days climbing the 14 1000m peaks in Snowdonia (aiming to raise a significant sum of money each for their chosen charity helping children with special needs) – was designed to give them the realisation that through their efforts they can change other people’s lives. This walk takes place in late June.
I have gathered feedback and reflections from my students via peer-led video interviews and via a harkness-style classroom session. The vocabulary that they use to describe their thoughts coincides strongly with that expected to be used by students with a growth mindset and I hope that this is an early indication that progress has been made. I haven’t been targeting any particular student this year but my colleague from Carwarden House, Maria Ramsey, has noticed big changes over the course of the year in some of my students – especially those who might be future concerns – and this seems to me to be a good indicator of success.
As above, I hope that this method of grounding my students a little more will have a positive impact on their mindsets and this in turn will help them academically and otherwise now and in the future. Next year I hope to use Simon Walker’s heuristic model to identify and quantify the impact this project (and the fund-raising challenge) has made on both my students and those from Carwarden House School. Ultimately, I hope that we can show that ‘serving others in a wholehearted way’ really can be a realistic and scalable way to help students change their mindsets.
Two recent education news stories, the proposal to introduce ‘base-line testing’ for 4 year olds*, and the argument about whether 40% of PGCE students drop out within a year*, or whether it’s ‘only’ 20%, confirm my growing suspicion that we’re caught in a data trap*, and that much of what passes for educational debate is centred around the benefits, or otherwise, of measuring stuff just because it can be measured. The pre-occupation with data provides an ideal bait and switch: instead of debating educational philosophy or the ideas and ideals that brought us into teaching in the first place, teachers find ourselves arguing over whose numbers are correct, as if defending or disproving the numbers defends or disproves the validity of claims about the meaning, purpose and effects of the way we do schooling. The idea that properly empirical qualitative research can shed some light on seemingly intractable problems is an attractive one for those of us who consider ourselves academics, but in the hurly-burly of popular prejudice, political manipulation and personal preference which attends every aspect of our schools, the latest bit of data all too often just generates more heat.
I have my views like anyone else, and they’re increasingly informed by the realisation that, on any given stage of education from pre-school to post-grad that you care to type into Google, there is already enough data to drown in. Schools of Education, not to mention departments of Psychology, Sociology and Economics, have been crunching the numbers for decades, drawing conclusions and arguing over the ramifications of the studies they’ve set up to explore, disprove or develop whatever great pedagogical innovation or totalitarian government imposition we’re excited about this year.
I’m not implying that subjecting educational claims to at least theoretically verifiable research is necessarily a futile or unhelpful exercise; it’s worthwhile if only to keep us teachers, susceptible to trends, fads and the influence of plausible charlatans as we are, honest and critically evaluative, if not sceptical. Nor would I wish to suggest that anyone doesn’t want ‘what’s best for the children’, even as we accept and impose the latest round of management/government directives in the drive for raised standards through increased accountability. Most teachers aren’t sadists, just as most politicians aren’t soulless technocrats who actively pursue a policy of churning out compliant factory fodder to compete in the global economy. But when the debate seems to be driven by the the complaints of business leaders that our children are not (even) good at the skills (mainly, but not exclusively, STEM) they need to compete in the global economy, and by methodology-focused reactions and in-fighting among the pedagogues, it does seem that a question is being begged. It’s almost as if we accept the at least debatable, if not dubious, premise that what’s best for the children is a process of ‘education’ that renders them ‘fit for purpose’ for lives as working adults in ‘the global economy’, a dehumanised concept carrying ideas of inexorable and essentially competitive striving that appears to bear little relation to everyday teaching experience, but nonetheless looms threateningly over us all – God forbid I might be the teacher whose lack of adherence to a rubric, whether through incompetence or misplaced idealism, condemns my pupils to future lives of being uncompetitive in the global economy! Even if we don’t accept that premise, and many of us don’t, we tend to get so caught up in the ‘hows’ of teaching and learning that we lose sight of the ‘whys’.
What is it all for? (I could just as easily ask who is it all for, because while much that is written purports to be about the children and young people who are the objects of all this ‘educational’ endeavour, there is little evidence that the children and young people themselves are the intended audience: they’re hardly ever consulted and their views hardly ever appear to be required.)
Asking ‘What is education for?’ takes the spotlight off practice for a moment and re-focuses it on educational ideals. It allows us to engage with each other not as methodological adversaries, but as allies in a common cause, having some view about what that common cause might be. It’s not about retreating into an ‘ivory tower’ either (a dead metaphor resting on a false dichotomy, applied to the academic field by those who fancy a world view defined by economic Darwinism to be the ‘real world’): the question ‘What is education for?’ concerns itself precisely with real life; it moves us away from an atomised and mechanistic view of education comprised of component parts like ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ to which other bits like ‘citizenship’, ‘SRE’ and even ‘character’ must be bolted on, in response to a perceived social problem re-framed as a failure of schooling.
Asking ‘What is education for?’ allows us to ask questions about reasoning and critical thinking that inform our practice. It invites explorations of our ability to communicate ideas to our pupils, and of what ideas we may be communicating without intending to. In an election year, it raises awareness of ourselves as citizens with agency in society, rather than mere classroom practitioners with no wider or more general educational concerns than getting through the next batch of coursework marking. Asking the question ‘What is education for?’ compels us to shift the debate away from instrumentalism and towards questions of human flourishing which should be, and (backed up by the relevant research) I hazard, are the reasons most of us became teachers in the first place.
Read more on Denise’s blog here.
Dr Simon Walker is Director of Research at Human Ecology Education, a company researching the contribution of heuristic cognition to the educational outcomes of primary, secondary and tertiary pupils.
Heuristic cognition, from the Greek ‘to discover’, refers to how the brain engages with the real world. For the past 100 years, education has focused narrowly on IQ as the critical cognitive capacity that drives academic outcomes. IQ gives a decent account of the brains’ ability to perform complex computations with knowledge it already has; however, it is less relevant to how the brain tackles novel challenges and real world situations. For example, thinking about going shopping to a supermarket and how to shop most efficiently. To achieve that, the brain has to process many different kinds of data simultaneously- about prices, store layout, people’s movements, signage. It has to track down maybe 100 specific items from a range of many tens of thousands; it has to filter out noise, distraction; it has to interpret offers, judge against budgets; it has to work out when to ask for help, whether an offer is a real offer, how to select the shortest queue…. All this requires heuristic cognition; the cognitive process that directs how we navigate and engage with the world as it comes towards us.
Education needs to prepare young people for the world they will live and work in. That world rarely comes in the form of paper-based tests and long essays. Many employers these days are complaining that graduates are un-ready for the tasks and skills actually required in the work place, despite getting good degrees. Those employers need schools to develop not just student’s academic ability but their real-world cognitive abilities.
We are running a large scale research programme called ‘Measuring the Mind’ to understand the contribution of heuristic cognition to both academic and non-academic student outcomes. For example, from our research, we know that it is a critical and early indicator of mental health risks- an increasing problem in high performing students, especially girls. We also know that it contributes up to 20% to academic outcomes in some subjects at GCSE and A Level. We know some schools are better at fostering it than others. We think there may be a potential dividend for schools by developing student’s heuristic capacity that is currently untapped and unmeasured.
Currently we have 22 schools and 10,000 students involved in a cross-sectoral secondary school study which was endorsed by the Wellington Learning and Research Centre and sponsored by Sir Anthony Seldon. We also have a primary and prep school programme launching in a group of schools in London next year, as well as an international programme. It’s a multi-year study and each year, new schools can get involved. There is a modest annual registration fee and school leaders should get in touch if they would like their school to take part.
I’m very excited about them. My hopes are that schools will recover their confidence as places of learning as well as outcomes. A relentless focus on outcomes have made some teachers forget (or lose confidence) that they too are learners; I see the school-based research agenda as rebuilding teacher’s confidence, curiosity and energy in discovering and learning about their craft for themselves. However, research is always a cost: in time and money. It needs brave school and governmental leaders to recognise the benefit of this investment.
To find out more about whether your school could be part of the ‘Measuring the Mind’ programme go to