• Feedback, Mindset and Motivation – Linked?

    Feedback, Mindset and Motivation – Linked?

    By Sarah Donarski

    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.


    Negativity Bias

    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.”

    – and, as a result, why our students develop a negative self narrative (re: my first blog on the Importance of Understanding Self-Narrative) and why there is the need to equip our students with an awareness of their thinking and mind set.


    Positivity Bias

    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:

    Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 10.27.15

    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:

    1. 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.


    1. 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:

    Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 14.01.38

    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.


    1. 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”

     She continues:

    “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.





    Further reading:

    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

  • Independent Learning: ‘Desirable Difficulties’ part 1.

    Independent Learning: ‘Desirable Difficulties’ part 1.

    “The most fundamental goals of education are long-term goals. As teachers and educators, we want targeted knowledge and skills to be acquired in a way that makes them durable and flexible.” – R. Bjork

    One of the more counterintuitive things about learning is that when we consider matters in the long term, the kinds of activities we do in the short term might not be as effective as we think. A ‘desirable difficulty’ refers to a learning task that may prove difficult initially but that leads to greater learning and mastery over an extended period of time. Independent learners are characteristically very good at embracing desirable difficulties and view the process of retrieval or having to generate information from memory as an effective method of consolidation.

    The term was coined by Robert Bjork in 1994 when he made a helpful distinction between learning and performance. Performance is something that is easily measured through cues and engagement while learning is only something we can infer. Activities like cramming, re-reading material and highlighting information can give the impression of learning but these kinds of activities are often illusory as Bjork explains:

    “Basically, current performance, which is something we can observe, is an unreliable index of learning, which we must infer. Massed practice on a task, for example, often leads to rapid gains in performance, but little or no effect on learning, as measured by long-term retention or transfer.”

    In helping students to become independent learners who are able to access and use a broad range of knowledge in a wide range of contexts over a long period of time, there are a number of approaches supported by evidence that are useful but can often be met with initial resistance from the student who can feel that by being ‘busy’ they are learning something when in fact they may not be using their time as productively as they could be.

    The importance of retrieval: 

    An effective way of students consolidating learning is to engage in retrieval strategies which require the student to search their long term memory for information as opposed to using their working memory to do ‘busy work.’ Reading over or highlighting material is not as ‘difficult’ a task as trying to retrieve it as the students feel engaged and the material is often already familiar them. This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall who 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.”

    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 Testing Effect:

    The testing effect is a well established phenomenon that has been replicated many times in cognitive psychology. This process doesn’t have to be high stakes and actually works better when students get into a regular pattern of active recall through flashcards or self quizzing in an independent manner.

    “Varying the context, examples, and problem type engages processes that can lead to a richer and more elaborated encoding of concepts and ideas, which can, in turn, support transfer of that learning to new settings.”

    Many of these findings are somewhat counterintuitive when considered in terms of traditional methods of learning where typically students study a unit of material, say a half term and then are tested at the end of that unit.


    Bjork’s research found that in the above model, no. 4 was actually the most effective method of retaining knowledge over a longer period of time. He suggests that engaging students in a process of ‘non-threatening’ retrieval through low stakes testing on a regular basis, and harnessing that process as part of covering the content is a far more effective way of consolidating learning.

     “difficult but successful retrievals are better for memory than easier successful retrievals”

    So having students generate answers rather than just re-read or highlight material, having them regularly engage in self-quizzing through the use of flashcards or multiple choice questions and ultimately have them step into the liminal space of ‘desirable difficulties’ means they will be far better prepared to remember and transfer knowledge in classroom discussions, presentations and formal exams.


    Further discussion:

    – What does the concept of ‘desirable difficulties’ look like in your subject?

    –  what are the barriers to students embracing difficulty and challenge?

    1. Bjork, Robert ‘Desirable Difficulties Perspective on Learning’ https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/07/RBjork_inpress.pdf
    2.  Pyc, Mary A.; Rawson, Katherine A. (May 2009). “Testing the retrieval effort hypothesis: Does greater difficulty correctly recalling information lead to higher levels of memory?” (PDF). Journal of Memory and Language60 (4): 437–447. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2009.01.004.
    3. Roediger, H. and Karpicke, J. (2006) ‘The Power of Testing Memory, Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice’, Perspectives on Psychological Science Volume 1—Number 3
    4. Nutshell, Graham ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007, p.24)
  • Teaching to the Test

    Teaching to the Test

    By Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington.

    I wonder if you noticed the recent study conducted by researchers at Oxford University. It should have rung a loud alarm bell and yet seemed to slip by largely unnoticed in the Christmas rush. The findings of the study suggest that the UK are among the world’s worst (or best) at teaching students to pass the exam at the expense of nurturing deep and lasting knowledge and understanding. According to the leader of the research, Professor Dorling, UK schools focus on short term knowledge acquisition to help pupils to pass tests; knowledge which is quickly forgotten.

    Then in recent days, the World Education Forum focused its conference around what it calls The Fourth Industrial Revolution: the digitisation and automation of the workplace over the next five years and the changing skill set that will be needed to thrive in the new landscape. The WEF thinking resonates with a view I expressed in a recent article for the Sunday Telegraph (hyperlink here), in which I argued that the UK education system, which began to take on its present form in the mid-19th century, has stopped evolving, and the result is that we are failing to fully prepare the young people of today for the world they will live in tomorrow.

    It is clear that all schools have to genuinely commit to an education which goes way beyond simply the acquisition of grades A*-C. We have to equip our children with the skills and aptitudes they need to live, thrive and survive in the future. Skills such a critical thinking, problem solving, independent thinking and learning, leadership and creativity.


    Fears over GCSE exam shake up...File photo dated 10/6/2005 of school exams in progess. Teenagers will no longer be required to sit all their GCSEs after two years of study, under radical plans to break courses into 'bite sized' modules. PA wire

    It all sounds very seductive so why does it seem so hard for schools to adopt this approach? It is perhaps easier to understand when we remember that our examination system – established in 1858, and little changed since – does not fully recognise these attributes but instead seems to place higher value on the recall of information and the application of the standard methods required to satisfy an overworked marker.   I believe that it is time for government and leading educators to come together to create a new strategic vision of how school and student assessment could evolve to meet the needs of current and future generations.

    The problem is compounded by the annual beauty parade of newspaper league tables, in which schools are numbered and ranked based on statistics which take little or no account of a school’s context or its success in creating well-rounded, interesting, inspired students. The same students who will be happy and successful in their lives beyond school.

    Schools, driven by the need to hit targets, satisfy stakeholders and compare well with their competitors, are often tempted to withdraw to the safest and easiest method of achieving good grades – “teaching to the test”. Worse still, there is often a temptation to make educational decisions which maximise grades at the expense of the students’ best interests. The greatest betrayal of all.

    All of which makes the school league table – at least in its current form – much worse than an unnecessary distraction but, in fact, a key driver for poor educational practice.

    Who is to blame? J’accuse….me (and probably you too). Anyone who has ever used the tables of raw results to compare one school over another. Anyone who has ever thought that School A is better than School B because it is 30 places higher in the list. We should recognise that there are exceptional schools outside the top 200 just as there may be mediocre schools inside the top 50. We simply cannot tell from the information provided. Yet we all collude in this harmful merry-go-round through our seemingly unquenchable fascination with measurement and comparison.

    I have higher aspirations for Wellington College students than top examination results on their own, which is why we will no longer be conspicuous by our presence in the newspaper league tables. This simply means that we will not be providing data on request to newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the exam results season. At the same time, we will make sure that our results are clear for all to see, no more than one click away from the home page of our website. If people wish to make comparisons they are welcome to do so, but our own focus will be on other, more important, indicators of educational success.

    The irony of all of this is that outstanding results and outstanding education do not have to be mutually exclusive. Changes to the curriculum and assessment procedures would be welcome but with the will, it is not impossible to provide a great education within the current system. What is required is for UK schools to approach teaching in a way that truly nurtures and inspires every child’s all-round potential. Excellent examination results will follow naturally. It is a bold step away from the comfort blanket of “teaching to the test” but one that all educators must take if we are to fulfil the Secretary of State’s vision of the UK as a world leader in character education. We still have a long way to go.


  • Pilot Study: What is the impact of explicitly teaching Growth Mindset theory?

    Pilot Study: What is the impact of explicitly teaching Growth Mindset theory?


    Despite the weight of evidence around Growth Mindset as a strong indicator of student achievement, there remains a lack of hard evidence as to how exactly affect that disposition. The EEF trialled various interventions in 2013 and found that the results were not statistically significant. Whilst researchers may be able to observe Growth Mindset as a valid psychological state, how to actually have an impact on that state remains somewhat unclear.

    Many Growth Mindset interventions take the form of superficial interpretations of the original research in the form of posters, assemblies and simplistic tasks. This appropriated approach can often lead to students switching off to the core messages behind the research and the interventions not having any real impact.

    After our initial year 1 study which sought to get some larger baseline data on exactly what dispositions our students had in these areas, we wanted to ‘zoom in’ and test a specific approach with a smaller group, and look closely at the effect of teaching this theory explicitly as opposed to tangentially.

    This pilot study proposes to evaluate the impact of teaching an intervention group of students the theory around Growth Mindset in an academically rigorous way using research literature and articles in the form of a course designed by Harvard faculty of education researchers.

    Harvard project year 2.001


    Control and intervention groups comprising of year 12 students selected randomly will take a baseline test using Dweck’s scales before and after the study. The intervention group will receive a term’s worth of weekly sessions looking closely at the research on Growth Mindset and applying it to their own context. These sessions will feature explicit instruction of the theory in its raw form, and follow-up coaching conversations with individual students.

    Previous studies have shown the efficacy of ‘stealth’ interventions where students were not made to feel stigmatised by being singled out for interventions based on poor attainment, enabling the students to bring more of an open mind to the project. This was an important consideration in this project.


    Harvard project year 2.002

    Next Steps:

    This pilot study was trialled in the winter term and will be evaluated by researchers from Harvard GSE in the spring with the results published later this year. If successful, a larger trial may be rolled out to other year groups and time built into tutorials to use the same approach. This same course is also being run at Highbury Grove under the supervision of head of research Sara Stafford and head teacher Tom Sherrington to be able to test the impact in different contexts.


  • First working paper published – “Getting Gritty with It.”

    First working paper published – “Getting Gritty with It.”

    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.

  • Podcast: Carol Dweck Talks to Student Research Council

    Podcast: Carol Dweck Talks to Student Research Council

    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.


  • Learning and Research Journal Volume 1.

    Learning and Research Journal Volume 1.

  • Using ‘Service’ to Build a Growth Mindset

    Using ‘Service’ to Build a Growth Mindset

    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.


    Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 22.09.36

    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.



  • Harkness teaching: a small-scale study

    Harkness teaching: a small-scale study

    By Rachel Trafford, Head of Geography at Wellington College.

    Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 13.09.41


    During the academic year 2012/2013, having taught at Wellington for a couple of years following a PGCE, I chose to write a Master’s dissertation on the use of Harkness teaching to develop students’ discussion skills. My primary aim was to shed some informative light on its role as a pedagogical tool to promote the “holy grail” of student-centred independent learning and intellectual discovery. I used my Third Form (Year 9) Geography class over a single academic year as my subjects and adopted a semi-quantitative methodology: content analysis of discussion transcripts, supported by outcomes of a retrospective student questionnaire of participants, and with the intention of deriving a suitable framework for coding discussions in order to assess (or, at least, compare objectively) their relative quality and hence the class’s progress over time. In the absence of a “control” group (i.e. a parallel class not exposed to the Harkness method whilst studying the same material) for comparison, and a relatively small sample size (22 students), the study tended towards providing a rich source of information – and, in fact, probably raised more questions than it answered – rather than offering robust, unambiguous conclusions.


    Harkness teaching is a pedagogical strategy pioneered in the 1930s by the Phillips Exeter Academy (PEA), New Hampshire, USA and adopted wholly by that school ever since. Whilst it is difficult to provide an exact definition, at its philosophical heart is a way of learning whereby the class (usually of 12 students at PEA) come together to “share, discuss and discover” (http://www.exeter.edu/admissions/109_1220.aspx) based on whatever preparatory material they have worked on individually in advance: anything from a passage of Shakespeare to a series of complex algebraic problems, for example. The class sit around an oval-shaped table to facilitate a Socratic style of learning driven by the students (i.e. rather than the teacher, whose primary role should be as observer: this is key): by sharing and exploring new knowledge; verbalising and communicating their thoughts; accepting new ideas and questioning old ones; considering and analysing a variety of viewpoints; listening carefully to one another; challenging each other intellectually; and grappling with complex concepts through collaborative, deep discussion. The beauty of Harkness, therefore, is that it inherently promotes student independence and responsibility, as well as their ability to interact, communicate and collaborate, and develops higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation. In its purest form – as at PEA – every lesson is in a Harkness style; at Wellington (where it was first introduced in 2008), it represents just one implement in a teacher’s “toolkit” of various strategies and hence is used periodically rather than regularly (in most cases). As a result, Wellingtonians tend to be relative “Harkness novices”; but increasingly relish the challenge of the elevated level of responsibility they take on in a Harkness lesson. The difficulty for us as teachers – hence the nature of this study – is to enable students to learn how to equip themselves with the skills necessary to conduct a high-quality discussion and so to derive the various benefits of this style of learning. However, it is also worth noting here that the actual discussion lesson is just one strand of PEA’s “share, discuss, discover” philosophy and therefore the success of Harkness teaching depends on the wider school ethos engendering a culture and attitude towards learning which enables preparation of a sufficient quality to permit a productive discussion.




    The purpose of my research was not simply to measure whether the class achieved a significant improvement in the quality of their discussions, nor to assess the impact of Harkness teaching on learning compared with an alternative pedagogical method. Rather, of particular interest was to examine the nature of the changes in the skills students demonstrated over the course of the year: to identify (if possible) what characteristics or features could enable an assessment of a discussion’s “quality”; and, if successful, to apply these criteria to analyse how the students’ discussion skills changed (and, hopefully, improved!) over time. Moreover, the greatest benefit might be simply the product of detailed and thoughtful observation: its potential to offer some practical implications for teachers seeking to enhance students’ discussion and thinking skills using the Harkness method; and to provide some useful input on how effectively it is (and could be) used at Wellington.


    The class conducted three discussions over the course of the academic year, on a variety of topics from the development of China to conflicts associated with urban planning and development in the local area. Each discussion was centred on one overarching question and the class was split in half to hold two simultaneous (in two different classrooms; I recorded the discussions on dictaphones to enable subsequent transcription for analysis) “11-a-side” discussions since keeping all 22 students together would have been a rather large group. In preparation, students were initially given stimulus materials as well as a scaffolded worksheet to organise their ideas and guide their research: since they were early on in their “Harkness careers” the level of support was relatively high but was gradually removed over the course of the year. The discussions lasted for between 15 and 30 minutes and were retrospectively transcribed and then coded: to differentiate between participant contributions which were primarily descriptive vs explanatory vs expressing opinion; to identify contributions that made reference to the support material vs other secondary material; and – most crucial in ensuring the quality of a Harkness discussion lesson – to identify contributions that asked questions of other participants. In addition to this semi-quantitative analysis, I also compiled and circulated to all the student participants an anonymous survey to capture their perceptions of the experience.


    In summary of my findings, a sample size of only three discussions makes it difficult to draw robust conclusions about the extent to which the class (let alone individuals) made progress in improving their discussion skills over the course of the year. However, a sense of progress was recognised by the students who commented that they grew in confidence and were increasingly willing to participate in Harkness discussions, as well as deriving greater enjoyment from that style of lesson over time. The vast majority of students reported that they found the discussion lessons “extremely useful” in enhancing their communication and critical thinking skills, as well as helping them to learn more effectively since it requires greater independence, so it was reassuring that some of the Harkness method aims were both valued and – to an extent – achieved by students. There are three outcomes worth noting in particular that arise from the study.


    First, the impact on students’ listening skills was less well recognised and, from a teacher’s perspective, was also a significant area for improvement. Students need to work on their ability to interrogate a topic in depth – rather than skipping over detail – and to challenge each other intellectually, both of which require careful listening in order to respond meaningfully so that a series of apparently rather unrelated points becomes genuine dialogue. The transcript analysis revealed that students were far more likely to make statements than to ask questions of each other, suggesting that encouraging a greater frequency of questions could offer a route to success – in addition to helping students to recognise and therefore value the art of listening – in achieving a higher quality discussion as a result of greater intellectual depth. That applies not only to “evidence-seeking” questions challenging others’ opinions but also to “knowledge-seeking” questions for more effective academic interrogation of a concept. Having said that, the frequency of questions as opposed to statements did increase over the course of the year, indicating some progress was made.


    Second, the type of contribution most commonly made – as would probably be expected, given the nature of the discussion topics – was that of “expressing opinion”, but the frequency of references to support or secondary material did increase over the year, as students learnt to provide justification for their opinions rather than merely stating their point of view. This is another area with significant room for improvement, though, as statements still tended to be unsubstantiated and to go unchallenged; which ties in with my previous point about effective listening and questioning to achieve greater intellectual depth.


    Third, the frequency of “procedural” contributions – i.e. those referring to the structure and procedure of the discussion – increased over the course of the year as students gradually recognised the need for a purposeful thread to avoid the “beginner’s curse” of a Harkness discussion characterised by a collection of unrelated statements. The discussions did tend to rely on a chairperson, though, which provided a sort of “halfway house” between a teacher-centred and a student-centred classroom in terms of power and direction: a more desirable, genuinely student-centred model to work towards would be one where that responsibility is shared collectively amongst the group. That transition is probably one of the most challenging for students, as indicated in the questionnaire which revealed that the relatively passive role of the teacher in the lesson is, for the majority of newcomers, the most striking characteristic of a Harkness classroom. It is worth noting that all three outcomes – promoting depth of understanding, providing evidence in support and the value of structure – are particularly significant aspects of the Harkness method since they have the capacity to have a tangible impact on students’ written work where those traits are similarly desirable.





    So, I have highlighted several tangible outcomes of the research which – rather than providing robust measurable indicators of Harkness discussion quality – offer potential practical ideas for teachers to use in the classroom which may help to achieve desirable educational outcomes. Given the capacity for variation in interpretation of the concept of Harkness teaching, it is important to view Harkness not as a “magic solution” but instead to appreciate that it is likely to vary in its implementation from one classroom to another, dependent on – amongst many factors – the prior experience of the teacher and the class as well as the institutional context. At Wellington we are collaborating with experienced colleagues from PEA to work collectively towards our own, workable “brand” of Harkness since it is not adopted here in the same, pure form. Beyond the differences between the US and UK education systems (arguably characterised by significantly less freedom here thanks to prescriptive national curricula and a results-driven exam culture) one of the greatest challenges for us at Wellington is to reach greater consistency across subject disciplines to help students adjust to the relatively unfamiliar pedagogy, whilst our Harkness teaching continues to evolve as we gain experience. The biggest task, particularly when students are not faced with a Harkness approach every lesson – though at PEA teachers face the same challenge when students are new to the school – is to be able to help students to succeed in making progress by giving them practical, tangible techniques (such as to develop the habit of asking questions more frequently) to sow the seeds of accomplished Harkness practitioners. Helping students to recognise the value of desirable habits which can be difficult to articulate and define – such as the ability to listen effectively; to be able to challenge someone else intellectually rather than aggressively; to be able to respond to someone else’s challenge thoughtfully rather than defensively; and to be able to comprehend the meaning of deep understanding – is the first hurdle.