At the end of 2009, Daniel H. Pink wrote a book entitled “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”. You can find him talking about his vision here. Within this book, Pink argues that businesses are not acting upon what we know about the human brain and what psychologists have known for a long time about motivation. The key message being that rewards and extrinsic motivators only increase productivity for straight-forward tasks. In other situations, these motivators may actually inhibit creativity.
It is impossible to read the book as an educator without thinking about its impact upon the classroom and the little things we do in order to create an intrinsically motivated culture. I am particularly interested in this to discuss the impact that written and oral feedback can have as well as our questioning in the classroom.
Pink proposes there are three things to strive for in order to promote intrinsic motivation:
AUTONOMY – “the right or condition of self-government”
MASTERY – “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular activity”
PURPOSE – “the reason for which something is done”
In the classroom, students will be motivated if they focus on these three areas. In particular, teachers can direct student focus to these three things through their feedback and questioning. Sarah Donarski has written a blog relating specifically to feedback and its motivational responses – I will try and take some ideas further, specifically in the context of Pink’s trio.
Autonomy in the classroom can take multiple forms. Pink argues that autonomy will improve engagement and will take over from compliance in the workplace – the same can be said of the classroom. With a truly autonomous student, a teacher can be confident that there is a prominence of engagement and a desire to carry out actions because they want to do them. Jang, Reeve and Ryan found in 2005 that high autonomy was one of the most important characteristics of a “satisfying” learning experience and low autonomy had an even more negative effect on the experience.
The question then remains – how do we promote autonomy in our classrooms? Educators can create situations which require autonomy as much as possible. For example, an activity might require students to make a choice at the start and justify. We also must ensure our tasks are challenging enough that students want to engage with them. As students progress through school and are more skilled at making decisions, we may also set tasks which allow for preference and encourage students to think about why they are making these decisions to choose which activity. We cannot let the classroom become a free-for-all but we can slowly introduce these ideas as students are ready for them. The same can be said for classroom dialogue. Teachers can be flexible and allow a more “free” classroom.
With a feedback hat on, which feedback allows autonomy to grow? Specific feedback with some ideas on how to improve on these specific topics in the classroom give this chance. Darren Carter (@mrcartermaths) has spoken previously about his homework (or lack thereof) “policy” and it strikes me that this is a great way to inspire intrinsic motivation. Of course we know better than the students about what they should improve and how they can go about doing this. This information should still be shared but we are allowing them to decide what to do and explaining why (which encroaches upon number 3). Spend time with students showing them excellent online resources; picking a specific chapter in a specific book or write some feedforward questions which allow immediate improvement. There is no expectancy of completion but all students realise that being active with feedback will result in improvement. Thus an intrinsically motivated action has some extrinsic reward also.
This is particularly prevalent at the moment in the mathematics world but in this discussion, we are not talking about deeper knowledge about less subjects – we are interested in the idea that students feel better at a specific discipline. All children want to be really good at stuff – this is not up for debate – whether it is maths, English, sport, dance whatever. Everybody wants to be good. Teachers must tap into this innate part of a student’s make-up. How can we do this through feedback? We must be positive and we must be specific with this praise. See below for a tweet from Ben Ward I saw this week (@mrbenward).
“We remember criticism because it is specific and personal.
Whereas encouragement is general [so it] washes over us.
Aim for ‘precision praise’”
I love the idea of precision praise. It is a big part of sports coaching and every course I have been on in this domain has focused heavily on generic praise and its pitfalls (namely that nobody acts on it and it is wasted energy). Precise praise can mean a student knows they are further along the journey in mastering a topic than they were before. Specific praise on something you have asked them to improve in the past will have the added bonus of showing them that their choice of work has worked and been recognised (their autonomy is improving too). Too much praise can be a negative but using praise in the right scenario in a very specific context will improve student’s internal motivation and reaffirm their belief in themselves.
In Sarah’s blog, she examines the idea of a positivity bias in which students focus on the good things you say or see overly positive messages in circumstances which might not be wholly positive. She proposes that this can be a good thing for students and again specific, precise praise can let a student know that there is positives in what they are doing. This can only be a good thing at all ends of attainment.
How many times have we heard “When will I ever use this?” about almost everything taught in the maths classroom? The answer of course is that almost everyone will not use the sine rule nor the area of a trapezium nor differentiating trigonometric functions from first principles outside of their maths lesson. In much the same way that students will not analyse the meter of a poem many times after GCSE English nor testing the pH of something. The point that students aren’t getting is that all of these should be ends in themselves. Carl Hendrick (@c_hendrick) has written a piece recently looking at the idea that education should not be a vehicle to prepare us for what comes after school. At the end he writes,
“Students should study Shakespeare not because of what job it might get them but because it’s an anthropological guidebook that tells them how to live.”
This same sentiment should be held by teachers in all subjects. You are not learning about pi because it will help you in some 21st century job yet to be created, you are learning about pi and its place in history because it shows you something remarkable which was at one point undiscovered. Yes, you will be able to use google maps to tell you how far away something is – that isn’t why we teach triangles but you should have some appreciation of size, number and shape. It is important that teachers highlight this purpose throughout all of their feedback and discussion. Teachers must live the idea that everything taught is purposeful and should not find themselves justifying existence.
Moving forwards, I aim to incorporate these three ideas of internal motivation through all my student interaction. Any feedback given should look to promote at least one of these areas. Remember that feedback should be more work for the receiver than the giver.
In the lead up to examination season, it is interesting to see different mindsets and ‘self-perceptions’ developing amongst the pupil body. Most notably, patterns of cognitive dissonances seem to appear into our students’ narrative: fragile students perceive themselves to be worse than they are; confident underachievers assert they are ‘fine’; and confident achievers seem too modest to admit they are making adequate progress. As the only feedback they get on their academic progress is through their teachers, it is interesting to consider the ways that our feedback can alter our students’ awareness of their ability. Such thinking has led me to (quite a lengthy) exploration into this question:
To what extent does feedback affect a student’s mindset and, as a result, their motivation – or self-regulation – of knowledge?
Or in other words: How does what we tell our students impact what they believe about their own ability? What I have found is that we need to start reconsidering the ways we give feedback depending on the ability of the pupil and the time of the academic course.
Processing Negative and Positive Information
It is important firstly to note that we process negative and positive information differently. Positive information enables us to affirm our beliefs about ourselves, and it is the information we often pass on to people that we want to see us as ‘our best selves.’ More complex than this, is that – depending on our emotional state – we have moments where we would much rather receive information or compliments that are positive or self-affirming.
Moreover, avoidance tendencies towards negative information or threats are often ‘dominant’ and ‘hardwired’ as undesirable information usually coincides with undesirable emotional responses. Elfers and Hlava (2016) put this clearly in their book ‘The Spectrum of Gratitude Experience’ as they assert:
“Information coming into the central switching station of the thalamus is also processed through the amygdala to scan for potential threat or danger. Any hint of threat triggers an alarm bell”.
Over time, these avoidance tendencies may lead pupils to develop a positive or negative bias about their ability.
The self-deprecating (re)action to negative information is to draw emphasis to it. According to Elfers and Hlava (2016) this forces the individual do develop a false positive:
“There are a lot of false positives to the negativity bias, meaning that we are likely to see a lot of threats where none exist. False positives are an error that our ancient threat detection system is primed to take and so it operates on the principle that it is better to be safe than sorry. One false negative – that is, not seeing a threat when one is there – could have fatal consequences. Uncomfortable experiences have longer shelf life in memory. Learning occurs faster from painful experience, dislikes are learned faster than lines, and it the world of relationships, trust is easily lost but challenging to regain”
If a student has invested a considerable amount of time and energy into their work, it makes sense that they may focus on the negative feedback you give them. It could feel uncomfortable and, as a result, be more quickly stored into their longer-term memory than their short term. It may explain why our studious students begin to develop the fixed narrative: “I’m rubbish at English” or “I’m never good at maths.”
However, why is it that students may feel over-confident or self-assured in a subject even when their grades suggest they are significantly under performing? The self-protective (re)action to feedback can cause the individual to develop (bear with me while I use the term) ‘illusory superiority’ – or, that an illusion that they are doing better than they are.
The pupils who subconsciously ‘flee’ from negative information can develop illusory superiority; they avoid targets and will not remember our ‘critiques’. For them, it appears easier to focus on the positive information.
But here’s the catch: having this positive bias may also actually be helpful in motivating some of our students to achieve as well.
A recent study on illusory superiority – or positivity bias – found that it can be internally motivating. A study by Wehrens (2008) that explored how self-perception and bias may affect an individual’s motivation suggested the following:
As you can see above, positivity bias may affect students two fold. Figure 1 shows Student A (with positivity bias – and having repeated an academic school year) still under performing compared to Student B who has a greater understanding of their class ability. On the other hand, Figure 2 reveals the outstanding academic improvements that can be made through illusory superiority for students at the bottom end. In Figure 2, Student A engages with the same level of positivity bias as student B, however, was significantly more motivated by their positivity bias than a pupil who already has good academic performance.
How this affects our feedback?
Given the tedious and grey line between altering, building or affecting a pupil’s self perception, it seems the most effective way to give feedback has been propelled into the ether. However, I suggest the information above contains three clear implications:
For reflective thinkers at the top-end, clear instructive feedback can be enough.
Spending a long time on positive and encouraging comments may only be required in younger years, whilst more mature thinkers may ignore and/or be discouraged by vague, positive remarks. If we explore the same illusory superiority picture as earlier, it was clear that a ‘top-end,’ successful pupil was not as encouraged by positive comments and worked just as effectively with clear feedback.
In fact, with some of my A Level and HL IB Learners, there seems to be a real thirst for clear feedback; they often skip the vague: “Wow! Olivia. What a fantastic essay! You’ve really shown a strong understanding of sophisticated language and writer’s craft.”
I am not saying do not compliment them on their efforts. Of course, we have seen the detrimental effects that can occur when a student (or individual) begins to perceive that they are doing “nothing right”. However, perhaps we should reconsider how much time we are investing in these comments when all pupils want is intellectual, clear and instructive feedback; perhaps ‘2 stars and a wish’ becomes less relevant for our more academically minded pupils.
For vulnerable learners, you might need to help develop some positivity bias to drive their internal motivation.
The second implication is that it might be worth being more positive to our more vulnerable pupils. It is why articles like this exist. It is also how Dijk and Kluger (2011) ended up concluding the diagram below. In their study, they found that a student’s ‘Intention to Exert Effort’ was significantly impacted by the positive comments they were receiving. Pupils seemed to generate more ideas – significantly impacted by the level of positive information given:
Interestingly, of course, is that a pupil’s ability to notice when they were making errors decreased. This is where clear, instructive feedback is also important.
All feedback must be engaged with.
Most importantly, feedback must always be something that our students engage with. This is to stop more vulnerable pupils, and indeed, sometimes our top end pupils, from ignoring feedback and developing any bias at all.
Pupils see a target as encouragement rather than a threat when they engage with it. It changes how they think about your feedback – it becomes a goal rather than a critique.
In the paper ‘Making Sense of Assessment Feedback in Higher Education,’ Evans draws on the importance that Braksick (2000) places on ensuring that there is clear delineation between positive, negative and constructive feedback.
Braksick (2000) proposed that positive feedback is used to encourage desired behavior whereas negative feedback focuses on the “bad side” and does little to improve performance (p. 146). In this sense, negative feedback is likened to a form of criticism and is often directed at the individual rather than to the undesired behavior of the individual. As an alternative to negative feedback, Braksick (2000) suggests the use of constructive feedback. She asserts that constructive feedback is intended to, “discourage an undesired behavior and replace it with a preferred behavior”
“When feedback merely indicated that a response was correct or incorrect; it resulted in a lower effect than when the feedback in some way informed the learner of the correct answer” (p. 232). The basic feedback and elaborate feedback manipulation implemented in this study closely parallels Bangert-Drowns et al.’ s (1991) definitions of feedback that was corrective and explanatory, respectively. Results from the current investigation suggested positive effects in both the basic and elaborate feedback conditions for each group. That is, improvement was observed on subsequent attempts regardless of the feedback type received suggesting possible practice effects. However, significant differences were identified between the BF Group and the EF Group. Overall, there was a significant difference in performance and learning gain for individuals who received elaborate feedback relative to basic feedback.
Moreover, there are numerous more articles that confirm the claim that, unless interacted with, feedback can be forgotten. This is most likely due to a student’s reaction to negative information; their need and/or want to develop a positive bias.
It seems that feedback is not only crucial for ensuring that our students to not develop any positive or negative bias but can further assist the motivation and self-regulation of our students. Biases that occur are a natural reaction to the way we receive negative information; some people will ignore it, and others will reflect too strongly on it. As a result, it becomes increasingly clearer that the level of positivity or negativity we use in feedback may differ depending on the ability, age and emotional maturity of our class. Most vital, however, is that feedback is engaged and interacted with as may assist all students in developing a more accurate awareness of their ability.
Making Sense of Assessment Feedback in Higher Education Author(s): Carol Evans Source: Review of Educational Research, Vol. 83, No. 1 (March 2013), pp. 70-120 Published by: American Educational Research Association
The Role of Student Processing of Feedback in Classroom Achievement Author(s): Ellen D. Gagné, Robert J. Crutcher, Joella Anzelc, Cynthia Geisman, Vicki D. Hoffman, Paul Schutz and Lloy Lizcano Source: Cognition and Instruction, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1987), pp. 167-186 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
The nature of feedback: how different types of peer feedback affect writing performance Author(s): Melissa M. Nelson and Christian D. Schunn Source: Instructional Science, Vol. 37, No. 4 (JULY 2009), pp. 375-401 Published by: Springer
Task type as a moderator of positive/negative feedback effects on motivation and performance: A regulatory focus perspective Author(s): DINA VAN DIJK and AVRAHAM N. KLUGER Source: Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 8 (NOVEMBER 2011), pp. 1084-1105 Published by: Wiley
Wehrens, M. J. P. W. (2008). How did YOU do? Social comparison in secondary education s.n
Data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which has tracked the ups and downs of 40,000 households since 2009 claims that children are happier when at school than during the holidays with the Easter break being the gloomiest time of the year.
A somewhat alarming study that suggests children who spend more time on online social networks feel less happy in almost all aspects of their lives. It may well be that unhappy students are more drawn to social media but the levels of use are concerning. Additional findings reported that girls suffer more adverse effects than boys.
Students learn more effectively between 11 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. than at other times of the day; “The basic thrust is that the best times of day for learning for college-age students are later than standard class hours begin.”
A recent study by North Carolina State University researchers finds that teaching critical thinking skills in a humanities course significantly reduces student beliefs in “pseudoscience” that is unsupported by facts.
This study looks at a range of methods used to ‘flip’ learning and finds that aof all the methods evaluated from student presentations to video lessons, “the benefits of testing are robust and likely to enhance performance regardless of how it is carried out—something difficult to say about many techniques.”
This piece from Becky Allen at Datalab suggests that the new government consultation on ‘ordinary working families’ actually undermines its own argument that grammar schools are a viable vehicle for social mobility.
29 March 2017 – The Rev. Tim Novis, Senior Chaplain
Human beings are ‘meaning-making’ mammals who tell each other stories. We ask not only ‘how’, but ‘why’. Some of these stories on one end of the spectrum are life-giving, whilst others are counter-productive and odiously evil at the other.
Stories were told in Bosnia in the 1990’s, and earlier, which led to the massacre of over 8000 innocent Bosniaks. This was Genocide. Considering the fire-bombing of parts of Sarajevo, it was also Urbicide – the attempt to wipe out even any trace of a people’s culture and history.
Rather than ethnic difference and attempts at insisting on the supposed superiority of one group of people over another, an alternative narrative is the only hope for this little Balkan country with so much potential, yet chronically standing in its own light, with politicians exploiting pointless yet centuries-old differences among the people.
The Wellington College Peace and Conflict Institute (WCPCI) was established with a robust rationale rooted in best educational practice, and this paper offers four reasons why we recently took a group of 12 pupils to Sarajevo and Srebrenica from the 25th to the 28th of March, 2017.
1/ One story often heard about pupils at high fee-paying independent boarding schools like Wellington College is that they are ‘cossetted’ from the real world. Wrapped in cotton wool, their academic and professional journey takes them from Wellington to Oxbridge to a seat in parliament with a political party whose ideological flavour I will leave to your imagination. ‘Out of touch with reality’, disengaged from the ‘real world’, these people are modern-day Marie Antoinettes. The cake served in the memorial ground at Srebrenica was bitter to the taste and hard to swallow although painfully true. In one case, a pupil counted over 280 of the same family name on the stone monument – ‘ethnic cleansing’ carved in stone.
2/ Pupils engaged with our educational trips see, as close to first hand as possible, ‘the evil that men do’. With the power that these pupils will have as future leaders comes an enormous responsibility. Knowing how badly wrong leadership can go, the lessons of Srebrenica are targeted at a group of young people who will make an enormous difference in our world. Gone badly wrong, these same leaders could lead our world yet again into the darkest places. This is a lesson from the past with immediate, tangible and tactile impact. Looking out across a football pitch where the father of one of our hosts was executed for political reasons by Chetniks will not soon be forgotten.
3/ In an educational sector where pupils generally come from backgrounds of substantial economic means, the trip highlights their ‘1st World Problems’ of such limited consequence and whose significance quickly recedes whilst listening to one of the ‘mothers of Srebrenica’ whose own child was torn from her arms to be executed with her husband, the child’s father, in some field or at some quarry, and whose body would be buried, then exhumed, then buried again by a people desperate to deny the atrocities they committed.
4/ In terms of the aforementioned denial of the Genocide, having taken 12 pupils on the trip, the world now has 12 more voices to add to those who would counter the narrative of denial that this Genocide, or indeed any of the Genocides proceeding or following it, never happened.
Without a doubt, the WCPCI ‘does what it says on the tin’. We encourage pupils to engage with the past, to contemplate life for people today, and to look to the future with hope. We are meaning-making mammals who tell stories, but we can also be darkly destructive. Sigmund Freud was wrong about many things, but sadly accurate when he wrote of ‘Thanatos’ – man’s impulse to destroy. The WCPCI ensures that only after having had a cold and boldly brutal look in the eye of evil can students begin to build something upon a foundation of the very best that humanity can offer itself.
This blog is based on a talk given at the Wellington MAT inset day on February 10th, 2017, at The Wellington Academy. Robin Macpherson (@RJAMWC) uses the experiences of the Wellington College Peace and Conflict Institute to explain what the value of a super-curriculum is, and how to construct one.
Wellington, like many other schools, puts a lot of emphasis on extension, enrichment, societies and guest lectures. This is intended to add intellectual value, and provide additional stretch beyond the regular curriculum. The fact that most schools feel the need to provide this – thus demanding a lot of teacher time and effort – says a lot about the limitations of the regular curriculum.
However, providing multiple additional sessions doesn’t necessarily add up to a coherent whole. In fact, it may even confuse and demotivate if pitched at too high a level. We can also learn a lesson from our professional learning philosophy here: one-off, centralised sessions do very little to change practice or enhance skills. What does make a difference is an extended period of learning with a specific focus and outcome in mind. Take the analogy of learning to drive a car. You wouldn’t expect to be a safe driver after a one hour lecture, or a one day course. You would practice for around 40 to 50 hours for several weeks before even thinking of taking the test. If we want to learn something of meaning and worth, we need to commit to it over time and tackle it in depth.
This is where I question the value of a scatter-gun approach to extension. Can we expect pupils to learn something of meaning from ad hoc talks and seminars? Looking at school websites that boast of guest lectures and one-off events, I sometimes wonder whether these are designed more with marketing and a prospectus in mind, or perhaps as a way of filling up their pupils’ UCAS personal statements. Extension should mean a lot more than boosting a school’s university entry stats.
This even applies to school trips. Fun as they are, do children learn a lot if they have little prior knowledge of where they’re going or what they’re doing? A colleague in the History Department, Jamie Bough, did a lot of research on the value and purpose of trips and her thinking led us to reshape how we approach them. Much like a good Harkness lesson, you need to know something first, otherwise you end up a passenger. Preparing the groundwork is essential, as is the follow up on return to check pupil progress. After all, a trip is a series of lessons – just in a different location.
This is where developing a purposeful super-curriculum comes into play. Real stretch and learning can be provided if we prepare extension the way we plan and deliver a scheme of work. Importantly, stretch and challenge also applies to teachers. I firmly believe that for pupils to be inspired, teachers need to be inspired first. This is a great opportunity to teach something that you are passionate about and perhaps don’t get the chance to address in your regular teaching. It also taps into a school’s greatest resource: the collective subject knowledge of all the teaching staff. How much of what we collectively know, as educated and skilled professionals, goes into the delivery of the regular curriculum? This leads to another consideration, which is the opportunity to wrest back control of what is taught in schools from politicians and universities. This is a great opportunity to develop teacher autonomy.
My final axe to grind here is that most schools speak of holistic education in the sense of creating rounded individuals, and imply that this means more than a narrow focus on academia. We then tend to see lots of pictures of pupils engaged in non-academic activities to underscore this point – here they are, becoming better human beings. I argue that academic and holistic are not antithetical. If we want rounded people, we need to start in the classroom, and we need to consider what values we put into the curriculum. This is not considered enough in my subject, history, and I doubt whether other subjects like science and maths cover values and decision-making much either.
So how to do it? The first important question to ask is this: in your area of expertise, what does the regular curriculum not cover that it should? If you can identify an obvious need, then start with that as your focus. Secondly, how can you turn this into a programme of study that will lead to deep-seated understanding of concepts, content and skills? Finally, how does this fit in with the context of your school? What ethos and values do you espouse that can be strengthened in your bespoke programme of study?
The problems you face are usually two-fold: time and resources. Of these, time is the bigger issue. Your working week will already be packed, as will that of your students. However, if you’re asked to lead a co-curricular activity, seize this as an opportunity. Also, most resources are free and it’s amazing how people outside of your school community will gladly give of their time if you are promoting something which they consider vital, and have never been asked to come into a school to help with. There are also a lot of educational charities with outreach programmes that are ready to support you. To give two examples, I have worked with Facing History and Remembering Srebrenica and have found them to be outstanding.
The experience I’ve had with the WCPCI has been superb. I set this up with two colleagues, Tim Novis and Rob Murphy, after a Holocaust Memorial Day talk a couple of years ago. We realised that trying to teach a massive and important concept like genocide by a one-off event each year was ineffective. In fact, by giving it such limited treatment it may even be damaging by downplaying its significance in the minds of pupils. Our discussion moved on to the absence of peace studies in the curriculum. It’s easy to look at the causes and impact of war, but what of peace processes? We only tend to look at these when they fail – see the ad nauseam teaching of the Treaty of Versailles. We therefore decided to set up an institute which would study a conflict and subsequent peace process in depth, and then visit that place to apply what we had learned in the classroom.
In 2015-16 our focus was the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which culminated with a visit to Belfast. There we met with former terrorists from both republican and unionist sides, and also spoke with people who had lost loved ones to terrorism. We visited Stormont and various museums (such as the Crumlin Road jail), and took a walking tour of Belfast to look at the memorials and murals that mark the city. A particular highlight was observing an Orange Order parade that was refused entry to a Catholic area by riot police. After returning, we spent time with pupils reflecting on the process and they presented at the Telegraph Festival of Education. Overall it was a powerful experience, and seeing pupils put difficult questions to people who had killed for a cause was something new for me. It resonated on a level that told us we were doing something right.
This said, we made several mistakes. There were two main ones. Firstly, we forgot to set up meetings for our pupils with people their own age. The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the Troubles, but the future is problematic as most of Belfast’s schools are de facto segregated by religion. How do young people, who grew up after 1998, see their future? Secondly, we realised that we had spread the learning element too thinly across the year, with sessions every two or three weeks. This meant some pupils, who attended all sessions, were very well versed in the Troubles and Good Friday. Others, who missed one or two sessions, had long gaps without focusing on the major concepts. Some were therefore less secure in their understanding and found it too challenging.
This year we have been studying Bosnia and will visit Sarajevo and Srebrenica in March. The charity Remembering Srebrenica is helping us with the trip, and I went on their educators’ tour last year, which means I know the trip logistics and risk assessment side of things very well. To address our mistakes we condensed the programme of study, with some reading and viewing materials given in Michaelmas and then weekly sessions in Lent. On the trip our pupils will spend time at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology to meet with Bosnian teenagers to see what life has been like for them growing up in the post-Dayton world. We also hope to be able to film our experiences in a video essay, which will enhance the presentation at Ed Fest.
In 2018, we are looking to work with Sandhurst School to take a joint trip to Rwanda. They are experts at this and very far ahead of where we are in terms of a whole-school approach to a super-curriculum and ethos. Working with them will be an education in itself for our staff, as well as the pupils. The future is very exciting and will, I hope, give our WCPCI pupils the best experience of their educational career.
I hope this has given food for thought. We do need to add value and enrichment beyond the curriculum, but how we do this matters a great deal. As teachers we don’t have time to expend on preparing things that have minimal impact. If we structure what we offer it will make a massive difference, to both ourselves and our pupils.
If there were a competition to find a concept most consistently misunderstood or misrepresented in education, independent learning would have a good chance of a gold medal. Until recently, coaching might well have beaten it.
So what do we mean by independent learning?
Firstly, it is far, far wider than just learning. Narrowing the focus simply to learning is self-defeating. It is about becoming more independent and able to be self-sufficient in all parts of life: independent thinking and coping as well as learning. The concept of independence per se, or independence in a more holistic sense, seem far more realistic and productive ways to view it.
Secondly, the development of that independence is a carefully supported but often unpredictable journey. It requires teachers, tutors and leaders to be trusted to have a significant degree of autonomy, making decisions moment by moment in their classroom or in the way that they support those whom they lead, how best to help them both short and long term.
It is not pupil-led enquiry, “go off and learn it yourself”, making the teacher redundant, or the utterly fatuous idea that, since most have the entire world in their pocket (the internet on a smartphone) they don’t need to “know” anything.
What do we mean by coaching?
The terms coaching and mentoring were almost interchangeable for many until even 2 years ago, and while many still don’t know the difference, there seems now to be a growing appreciation of the role of both. Coaching is a dialogic process in which coaches raise awareness in coachees, shift their perspectives and enable them to take action. This happens via excellent listening; effective, powerful, open and often challenging questions; and intuition. Coaches hold their coachees accountable to themselves in completing those actions. The shift, change, progress or transformation is powerful and lasting by being fully connected to the coachee’s own motivations, values, dreams, fulfilment and passions – what is, in other words, important to them. There is no advice given, and the coach must often consciously leave aside their own experience in order to be most effective. Indeed, it can often be helpful for a coach not to be an expert in the area that their coachee wants to improve.
Mentoring is also dialogic, supportive, respectful and developmental, but it requires the mentor to be able to pass on useful suggestions, advice, wisdom, experience or idea. It is valuable in many spheres, and it is successfully used for new teachers, new subject leads, and new heads. In some organisations, especially tech companies, reverse mentoring is used successfully too. This is so that the young newcomers with fresh ideas educate those at the top of the hierarchy who might otherwise be out of touch with the newest trends.
How can coaching help?
There are three obvious ways in which learning how to coach effectively can improve practice and develop independence:
You arrange to coach someone in a formal or semi-formal way. That person has something that they would like to improve or move forward, and the conversation may take anything from 5 minutes to 2 hours. Being able to unlock untapped potential in your peers or students is of great value to them, to the school, and ultimately a big part of the reason why many teachers even entered the profession: they believe in the capacity of others and want to make a difference. Beware of hearing things like “S(he) needs coaching to improve X” this might be mentoring, or it could be telling with a couple of questions thrown in to make it appear less directive, but it’s not coaching.
You have more coaching interactions, where rather than telling people things, you learn to ask questions so they go off and do it themselves. Seeing a student around school and having a moment to ask one question, listen to the answer and ask one more question takes no longer than telling them something. The impact is greater if they are beginning to think more effectively for themselves.
You become more coach-like in what you do. Your heightened sense of the nuances of language when asking questions, your appreciation of the impact of silence, and your intuition about what is unsaid, become significant assets in interactions with parents, students and colleagues alike. This is, for most who learn how to coach, the way that coaching integrates into their classroom practice. Harkness teaching is one of many areas where the quality of questioning has a direct and obvious impact, but, as a Biology teacher, the benefit of coaching to the interactions I might have with a group doing a practical on enzymes is equally significant.
The helping continuum
In improving our coaching training of hundreds of teachers and leaders, both at Wellington and in many other schools, we have made explicit a notional continuum of human helping. On one end, there is pure directional instruction – “this is what you do”. At the other, would be coaching in its cleanest form, where there is no advice or guidance, but only questioning. The best teachers and leaders are to some extent intuitive about where they are along that continuum at any one time, answering for themselves the endlessly repeated question “what do I need to do for this person/group/class right now that would help them the most?”
To illustrate this, the analogy of learning to drive a car works for many. Drivers need to learn to control the car, the laws of the road, how to read the enormous number of fleeting stimuli every second, and how to respond safely and appropriately. There is a reason why we learn from a driving instructor: at the beginning, we must know some seriously important information. The consequences of getting this wrong are so serious that we must have it explained very clearly, and good instructors bring clarity and simplicity to something very complex. They know when to give which information, how to relate things together, when to slow down delivery or add more detail.
However, the number of possible situations that you can encounter while driving is infinite, because the number of variables is so high and almost all of those are continuous. Therefore, to rote learn responses is impossible, and the best driving instructors navigate seamlessly into asking questions to enable their pupil to start learning the skills of self-sufficient driving proficiency. They also – and this is a critical parallel with what we might hope to achieve in schools – instil a desire and humility to want to learn further once the test is passed and the ties are cut.
If the analogy is valuable, it shows what we know to be true about education. It is a lengthy and complex process, in which huge quantities of important knowledge and understanding are developed, and strung together to make connections. The ways in which we do that must be relevant to the learners in front of us, and we have a desire and responsibility to help them become more self-propelled beyond that as well.
Teacher-led approaches are a vital step in a pupil’s learning process but they should not be our sole focus in the classroom. As educators, we also have to enable our pupils to develop skills that help them to adapt, manipulate and actively apply their information; we want to encourage higher levels of thinking and allow them to gain accessible, long-term understandings of academic material. Our classrooms must be tailored to promote these learning behaviours and the dialogical classroom – Harkness – plays a fundamental role in this.
In a comprehensive study on the ways dialogue enhances a lesson, Gillies (2015) asserts:
There is no doubt that talk, albeit by the teacher or peers, has the capacity to stimulate and extend students’ thinking and advance their learning. Teachers do this when they encourage students to engage in reciprocal dialogues where they exchange information, explore issues, interrogate ideas, and tackle problems in a cooperative environment that is supportive of these discussions. In turn, students learn to listen to what others have to say, consider alternative perspectives, and engage critically and constructively with each other’s ideas by learning how to reason and justify their assertions as they cooperate together. (Gillies, 2015)
In fact, there are many articles stemming across the International Journal of Educational Research (Alexander, 2008; Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Webb, 2009) that demonstrate the importance of dialogue in the classroom. All of which prove the following 3 benefits of implementing dialogic strategies in lessons:
1. It encourages pupils to apply their judgements explicitly and logically.
2. It encourages pupils have to make effective arguments; this involves using subject terminology correctly.
3. It promotes engaged and sustained interactions where knowledge is challenged, altered, shifted and confirmed.
Therefore, knowledge in the dialogic classroom does not become something that is a fixed or transferred entity. Rather, it is a process of learning that is both fixed (core knowledge) and adaptable. A dialogic classroom and pedagogies such as Harkness can actively encourage pupils to explore learning gaps and systematically close them.
Moreover, pedagogies such as Harkness further enhance subject memory recollection and higher-order thinking, as pupils must manipulate knowledge immediately to take part in Harkness style discussion. It was cited by the Consolidation Guidelines FNQ Explicit Teaching Team that:
Students demonstrate understanding by applying [knowledge] to other contexts. ‘Information learned and processed through higher-order thinking processes is remembered longer and more clearly’
(Brophy, Jere. “Probing the Subtleties of Subject-Matter Teaching.” Educational Leadership (April 1992).
Our pupils are given a greater chance to master subject knowledge if Harkness and other dialogical approaches are implemented in our practice. Without dialogic pedagogies, we risk that a pupils’ knowledge may become limited to knowledge regurgitation, as they have simply learned to transfer information without developing a coherent or holistic understanding of it. A teacher must deliver outstanding content but should also seek lesson time to promote conversation, questioning and discourse. This gives pupils a greater opportunity to remember information and to strengthen their ability to use and adapt it successfully.
How to Harkness
Strategies and Advice to Assist in Implementing Harkness into Educational Practice.
Without dialogic pedagogies, we risk that a pupils’ knowledge may become limited to knowledge regurgitation, as they have simply learned to transfer information without developing a coherent or holistic understanding of it. A teacher must deliver outstanding content but should also seek lesson time to promote conversation, questioning and discourse. This gives them a greater opportunity to remember information and to strengthen their ability to use and adapt it successfully.
So, how do you effectively implement Harkness? When do you start it and when is the best time to trial it? This blog simply takes you through these questions.
When do you effectively implement Harkness?
The following diagram is something I have touched upon in a few of my pedagogical talks. It is a summary of our purpose in the classroom and presents a visual map of how our methodologies must change as our pupils aim to master their subject knowledge. Harkness is a teaching strategy that can be implemented effectively into practice when you become a coacher (stage 3) and/or a facilitator (stage 4) of your pupils’ understanding. It is not always effective earlier as modules and topics may require a basic understanding of core material which you might have to explicitly teach them.
I initially felt most confident implementing Harkness when pupils were consolidating their knowledge at the end of a topic or section from a literary work. However, I recently observed a Harkness between Phillips Exeter and Wellington students on Hamlet that demonstrated how Harkness can work to coach pupils into understanding the work. For this, teacher still needs slight input.
The audio below was recorded during this and demonstrates Harkness in Stage 3 where the teacher effectively coaches the students into their knowledge development. You can hear in the following recording that pupils are working through the extracts of Hamlet. Here, the teacher is still steering the conversation by asking questions to evoke the discussion and facilitates it towards language. The coaching style is non-threatening and the teacher is clever in his approach: he asks pupils what they do not understand to open the table up to the idea that there might be gaps in their knowledge at this point. What is most effective here, however, is that before answering the questions himself, he enables pupils to explore it. Therefore, the teacher plays a minor role.
But Where to Start?
It is important to remember that scaffolding is key. In order to make Harkness as effective as possible, you must train pupils on how to do it. It is essential to remember that they are not used to leading prolonged academic conversation and (in a surprisingly scary admittance), we usually haven’t taught them how to ask good academic questions. As a result, you cannot expect them to understand this level of independence instantly.
When first starting, it is useful to the follow three key steps: Preparation, Practice and Praise and Direct.
Preparation: You have to guide them to the accurate material that will assist them in building a conversation around a subject.
I recently taught my Year 10s How to Harkness. This involved 2 lessons of ‘set up’ or Preparation before we organised the official Harkness lesson.
Lesson 1 involved gathering knowledge and material for the Harkness that they would bring to the discussion. Normally, I find this is much easier if you quantify the knowledge they need to prepare and give each pupil a role.
For this activity I asked one pupil on each table to find different knowledge of Macbeth. Pupil #1, for example, was asked to explore what they consideredthe most significant 3 sections of Lady Macbeth’s character. This encourages their own personal view – which might differ from their classmates. It also forces them to individually reflect on and actively critique the text; it involves them personally refining their knowledge and understanding.
Preparation for this task is vital. It is also a good homework activity to give them. You could put a few leading questions at this stage depending on the independent ability of your group. For example, you could further break down each section: Find 3 key images from each section and be able to explore the devices used by Shakespeare in these. It will depend on how comfortable with the task you feel your group are at this stage.
Practice: You have to allow them space to vocalise their knowledge for an extended period of time.
The second lesson for this group that I gave was a Harkness practice lesson. It involved each pupil leading a ‘mini-Harkness’ on their tables (groups of 4) for 15 minutes. This encouraged their tables to add any information or key vocabulary that the pupil leading may have missed but also built their confidence in vocalising their ideas to each other before the whole class.
Praise and Direct: You must stop every now and then to praise good, intelligent ideas and direct where pupils may have a gap in their knowledge – or are applying their knowledge incorrectly.
In my 5th form, I intervened every 20 minutes just to guide pupils to really vital information that had been raised. I would stop the discussion but still took a minor role when I drew attention back to something mentioned. In this following audio, you can hear how a quotation was mentioned in discussion and I coerced the pupil who had made the point to highlight it again to the class. In this sense, it was student led – I simply acknowledged that it was effective knowledge to have.
Don’t implement it too early: Ensure students have enough preparation time.
Don’t be afraid to give them a week to get their information together. It would be a superfluous exercise to implement Harkness if students do not have the groundwork to develop their understanding. As mentioned in my previous blog, classroom discussion is effective in heightening subject knowledge; it furthers critical thinking skills and forces students to adapt what they knowinto a coherent, cohesive argument. If they do not know anything, the impact of Harkness is arguably threatened. In such a case, the pupils may simply continually repeat their previous knowledge without deepening their understanding.
Don’t feel threatened by silences:
One of my outstanding colleagues, Tom Hicks (blog: here), said a student once told him:
“Sir, don’t worry about our silences… that’s when we are thinking.”
In the audio below a silence in the Harkness of my 5th form occurs. I do not intervene and you can see how a more confident pupil decides to move the learning forward:
At times, as practitioners, silences are the moment we are taught to intervene as it signals alarm bells for a lack of knowledge. If pupils fall silent throughout a Harkness, let the silence happen. It often happens that another pupil will add onto a point, complete their point or move the conversation along. Teach them to do this by giving them the sentence starters:
‘Now we have seemed to finish that point, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to…’
‘I have a question for the group. I’d like to ask everyone what they thought…’
‘Do you agree that…’
‘I would like to raise a new point discussing…’
‘I would like to add on from that point to mention…’
Allow Debates to Happen:
We have also unlearned the healthiness of a good debate in our classroom. We believe it demonstrates rowdiness, or that pupils are out of our control. In Harkness, when pupils feel more comfortable, there will be times they appear to talk over each other. You will most likely find that this is diffused quite quickly. It should also be a good indicator that students are clearly passionate about the subject material enough to explore it in depth. If it does not diffuse, do not underestimate your ability to step in. Again, praise and direct pupils to vital points and give them time to explore how or why an argument occurred – all of which can be extremely interesting!
Below is an audio clip of a Harkness debates. It is quite interesting as it shows how passionate the pupils feel about the content but the debate is also very quickly diffused as pupils begin to reason with each other:
Harkness is a great tool to assess a student’s understanding of content.
Some students have a good knowledge of content material but simply need work in the skills to apply this knowledge in an exam format. Harkness is a great way to build the confidence of these pupils and also identify whether it is examination skills they’re missing or subject knowledge.
Finally, teach them that Harkness is not answering a question, it is about exploring it. Knowledge is about knowing the ‘right’ answer but also knowing why something is ‘not the right answer’ and accurate knowledge is an ability to understand in depth (and width) rather than simply on the surface.
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.
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?
“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.