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A key determinant in student success is the inherent beliefs they have about themselves in terms of their ability and how they learn. The two major areas to consider here are Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset and Angela Duckworth’s on Grit. However we might also pause to consider the broader areas of engagement and motivation and whether they are even a good proxy indicator of learning at all, and whether these approaches can be taught explicitly or whether they should be seen more as a overarching philosophy as opposed to an intervention.
Carol Dweck’s work over many decades claims that some students have an ‘entity theory’ of intelligence, more commonly known as a ‘fixed mindset’ which means they believe ability to be set and that no matter how hard they work they are simply stuck with their level of intelligence. Other students have an ‘incremental theory’ of intelligence, known as a ‘growth mindset’ which means they believe intelligence to be malleable. As Dylan William notes, “smart is not something you are, smart is something you get.”
We were lucky enough to have Carol Dweck speak at the Festival last year and she kindly gave an interview to some of our student research council which you can listen to here:
Angela Duckworth’s work over the last decade on ‘grit,’ which she defines as “passion and perseverance towards long term goals” seeks to ask an important question, namely why do some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods despite negative experiences with failure and adversity. One of the interesting assertions by Duckworth is that this facility of grit is more predictive of long term success than intelligence. While there are some issues with the very definition of this trait, it does raise the question of how we might affect that disposition in students.
Two years ago we worked with researchers from Harvard graduate school of education to explore the extent to which students at Wellington had ‘grit’ and to what extent they felt they were able to persevere towards long term goals. You can read the published working paper on that study here.
Working with the student research team and Harvard yielded some unique perspectives, not least how both growth mindset and grit can work synergistically to great effect and also how students can ‘switch off’ to direct attempts to try to motivate them. If students are taught explicitly about the value of Growth Mindset, Grit and the notion that ability is not ‘fixed’, does that cause a cognitive dissonance in the face of a culture of fixed target grades and league tables? As one student wrote:
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 problem with ‘engagement’
So how might we gauge whether students are indeed motivated and persevering towards long term goals? One of the most common signs of motivation and learning is seeing that students are ‘engaged’, however there are some real problems with this as a proxy indicator. As Rob Coe points out, engagement is one of the most misleading indicators of learning.
Now these all seem like key elements of a successful classroom, so what’s the problem? and more specifically, why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning?
This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007) in which he writes:
“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.” p.24
Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. A good example of this as Alex Quigley has pointed out is that engagement in the form of the seemingly visible activity of highlighting is often “little more than colouring in.”
The other difficulty is the now constant exhortation for students to be ‘motivated’ (often at the expense of subject knowledge and depth) but motivation in itself is not enough. Nuthall writes that:
“Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning.”p.35
Motivation and engagement are vital elements in learning but it seems to be what they are used in conjunction with that determines impact. It is right to be motivating students but motivated to do what? If they are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge then the whole enterprise may be a waste of time.
Learning is in many cases, invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds us, ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’ but unfortunately there is no easy way of measuring this, so what does he suggest is effective in terms of evidencing quality?
Ultimately he argues that it comes down to a more nuanced set of practitioner/student skills, habits and conditions that are very difficult to observe, never mind measure. Things like “selecting, integrating, orchestrating, adapting, monitoring, responding” and which are contingent on “context, history, personalities, relationships” and which all work together to create impact and initiate effective learning. So while engagement and motivation are important elements in learning they should be seen as part of a far more complex grouping of factors.
A key question to consider then is whether students can be taught to have a growth mindset or grit by teaching those concepts explicitly and whether students are motivated at all if they are merely doing ‘busywork’ that they already know how to do, or the kinds of activities that learn to superficial understanding. Are students engaging in the kinds of ‘desirable difficulties’ such as spacing, interleaving, self quizzing and the broader aspiration of intellectual curiosity that might be more difficult in the short term, but lead to greater mastery and motivation in the long term? The paradox of this field is that mastering a difficult concept through hard work, failure and eventual success may well motivate a student far more effectively than ‘motivation’ itself.
- Encourage students to see mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than as a lack of ability.
- Praise effort rather than ‘cleverness.’
- Encourage them to view intelligence as something that can be affected by hard work not as a fixed entity.
- Emphasise current progress rather than past performance.
- Encourage students to view grades as temporary performance indicators not measures of fixed intelligence.
- Discuss student’s long term goals as intrinsic rather than extrinsic.
In outlining some of the problems with contemporary assessment at the Festival of Education 2016, Daisy Christodoulou noted that the concept of assessment for learning has in many cases, merely become assessment of learning. This summative approach has focussed on things like students simply knowing what grade they are working at and being able to reference abstract exam board criteria without any real practical sense of how to move forward. Valerie Shute defines effective feedback as not just a diagnostic tool but rather as an ongoing conversation primarily focussed on improvement:
In seeking to help students become more independent and have more ownership of their progress, we might pause to consider the difference between marking and feedback, and whether they are the same thing at all. In some cases, marking a a set of books can mean a huge amount of effort with little reward in terms of students knowing how to progress. In addition, the opportunity cost of marking several sets of books in this way is worth looking at in light of recent concerns about teacher workload.
Students need to know where they are going wrong but by simply identifying the deficiencies within a piece of work and linking improvement to abstract assessment criteria not linked to actual examples, students are are not active stakeholders in their own improvement and can become frustrated. Feedback should ultimately be productive but as Douglas Reeves reminds us, sometimes this process is not so much a medical as a postmortem.
Furthermore, although research on feedback shows that it is one of the most fruitful ways of enabling student progress, not all feedback is the same and some of it can even have an adverse effect. The Education Endowment Foundation notes that:
In terms of thinking about independent learning and engendering students to take a more proactive role in their own progress, it is worth considering Dylan Wiliam’s assertion that this process is more effective when students are working just as hard, if not harder than the teacher:
In that sense, we might consider the use of exemplars in encouraging students to take a more metacognitive approach to their own work. A lot of research has shown that students often receive a piece of marked work and simply look at the grade without considering how to improve. One way of addressing that issue and facilitating more independence might be structuring a feedback lesson after an assessment where students have time to properly reflect on their own work against exemplars and common errors pointed out by their teacher. That process might look like this:
1. Mark work correcting any errors making a note of common misconceptions.
2. Give students the best three examples of that particular task from the class.
3. Explain common misconceptions to the class.
4. Give students time to evaluate the exemplars and reflect on their own work.
5. Students write down ways to improve with concrete examples from exemplars.
6. Teacher reviews the students reflection to inform future planning.
This excellent example from Denise Brown features a form where students complete a range of tasks based on a assessment. After looking at how well their answer fulfils assessment criteria, students then look at the best examples of that task from the class and complete the following tasks:
Now, compare your answer to the exemplar response.
Exemplar response mark out of 20:………. Your mark out of 20:………..
Choose TWO examples that worked better* than your essay, and use the language from the assessment grid to say why and how (e.g. ‘Technical term “X” is relevant and supported by an integrated quotation’):
How this works well:
How this works well:
Now, apply what you have learned about better* writing to RE-WRITE ONE PARAGRAPH from your own essay:
Of course, a vitally important aspect of marking work is not just that the student knows how to improve, but also to provide the teacher with vital information in order to inform future planning. However in moving towards a more independent learning environment we might consider the notion that students should have a more proactive role in the process of feedback where they can see their work as being something fluid within a continuum of progress rather than as a fixed point on a scale. As one colleague eloquently put it, when receiving a piece of marked work, students should be looking in a mirror rather than at a painted picture.
Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1) pp. 7-71.
Reeves, D. B. (2008). Leading to change: Effective Grading Practices. Educational
Leadership, 65(5), 85-87.
Wiliam, D.B.(2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. Solution Tree Press: Bloomington, In.