Everything worthwhile I’ve ever tried has involved an element of struggle and I suppose I must have had a few failures along the way. Academically I wouldn’t have been identified as a more able pupil when I was at school and university; I learned to read late (according to my teachers), I struggled with ‘O’ Level Maths, wrestled manfully with Statistics at ‘A’ Level and just about survived my first year at uni, though admittedly that was largely down to my developing investigation into the properties of alcohol and a healthy interest in sport rather than lack of ability. I was deemed a risky pass when I attended the Army’s Regular Commissioning Board and to cap it all I’ve even taught the odd lesson that might have been a little shy of outstanding. But I don’t enjoy getting things wrong, or even readily admit that I have – ask my wife – and consequently I do sometimes take the easy option. But…..I do know that if you want to improve you have to be prepared to experiment and consequently there are going to be some mistakes. I am a curious person, I enjoy a challenge and I don’t give up until I’ve made some improvement. So I guess I’m a lover of learning.
Working in a school which regularly achieves results that are exceptional both regionally and nationally it’s difficult to see how to sustain improvement. I don’t think there is one big initiative that can transform our performance. I’d suggest that we’re in the business of fine tuning a range of aspects in order to make the kind of marginal gains that could cumulatively help it continue to improve.
I’m particularly interested in whether we could help more pupils develop a better understanding of what it means to learn, be more resilient and be better prepared for other learning opportunities beyond school. Why? Well on the face of it you would be forgiven for thinking that the pupils in such a school would have a great attitude towards learning – the results seem to be the evidence. However when you dig a little deeper there is a slightly different picture that warrants attention.
In some research that I’ve been doing with pupils this year I’ve collected a range of information about their attitudes to learning. The group is quite small and is made up of above average ability pupils. However some of the results are very interesting. Many of the pupils reported that they regarded themselves as ‘Perfectionists’. Nothing wrong with that I guess. Well maybe but perfectionism can be a double edged sword and it’s sometimes linked to procrastination and problems with time management so we’d be wise to think carefully about how we package the idea that you need to be perfect.
More interesting for me was the fact that a larger number of pupils reported that they felt ‘Stressed and Pressured’ (although this does have to be set beside the fact that they also reported that they were happy with the expectations that people had of them). It is noteworthy particularly when one considers the impact that stress can have on learning and academic performance.
But the most interesting statistic for me was that a still higher percentage of the group reported that they did not see ‘Mistakes as Learning Opportunities’. Remember that these are above average pupils. What’s going on here? How do they think you learn best? By avoiding making mistakes, by being perfectionists. One might reasonably deduce from this that they avoid situations in which it is likely that they will make a mistake i.e. the more difficult situations, the most challenging problems.
A significant percentage of the above average, more and most able pupils in this sample have begun to believe that you can learn effectively without making mistakes. They’ve begun to forget how they learned earlier on in their lives. OK so extrapolating broader lessons from this is tricky but there is definitely something worth looking at more closely. If it’s true for this sample I’d be surprised if it weren’t true for more pupils of differing abilities and across the school. It is certainly the case that it is something that is most clearly seen in the most able pupils and students.
How much better would pupils perform if they could embrace their mistakes and get back to seeing them not as a result to be avoided or a reflection on them personally but for what they actually are – an essential and unavoidable component of learning effectively. I’d like to get every pupil to think more about the process rather than fixating on the result. I’d like to have them almost enjoying making mistakes but….and it’s an important BUT…..working out what to do next, how to overcome the difficulty and then look for the next challenge knowing that they might not master the skill straight away, in fact accepting that this is inevitable if the challenge is a worthwhile one, but will make progress towards mastery if they persist.
It sounds a little bizarre, risky even, to encourage anyone to be comfortable with making mistakes let alone schoolchildren. But we are already doing it ourselves as teachers. We are fine tuning our lessons and improving the quality of our teaching by constantly identifying very precise areas to work on. The process of marginal gains works. Anyone who watched coverage of the Rio Olympics will have witnessed an amazing example of the way the process of focussing on areas of weakness can have a significant impact on the overall result.
Take Sir Dave Brailsford for example. ‘When he became performance director of British Cycling, he set about breaking down the objective of winning races into its component parts. Brailsford believed that if it was possible to make a 1% improvement in a whole host of areas, the cumulative gains would end up being hugely significant. He was on the look-out for all the weaknesses in the team’s assumptions, all the latent problems, so he could improve on each of them...Each weakness was not a threat, but an opportunity to make adaptations, and create marginal gains. Rapidly, they began to accumulate.’ (BBC Magazine Sep 2015)
And the rest, as they say, is history! Clearly a huge financial investment played no small part in helping the team to secure their results – even Sir Dave admits that the difference between the late ‘noughties’ and today is like night and day. But cry as they might our opponents were unable to make sufficient improvement between London and Rio to match the continued progress of British Cycling. What was central to the continued improvement was the mindset that isolated every possible component and intervention.
Not only identifying weaknesses but actually doing something about them should be a no brainer. Being open to the possibility that we don’t always get things right is clearly a prerequisite for improvement. But it’s surprising how frequently people indulge in what Matthew Syed describes as ‘closed loop thinking’ and simply miss the opportunity to improve their own performance or that of their organisation sometimes with devastating effects.
In his book ‘Black Box Thinking: Why Some People Never Learn from Their Mistakes – But Some Do’ Syed draws on a huge range of meticulously researched examples to argue that that the most effective way to sustain improvement is to acknowledge failure and engage with it. The most striking example he presents and one that should be of great comfort to nervous flyers is the eponymous case of the way the aviation industry has reflected on its performance. Syed shows how from the very earliest days of manned flight a particular mindset has been necessary in order to ensure continued progress; namely ‘black box thinking’. By this he means the forensic examination, more recently literally, of every case of technical failure or human error to not only prevent the same thing happening again but provide the springboard to innovation. Try as they might to avoid, ignore or even deny a weakness the ‘black box’ recorder ultimately casts a harsh spotlight on all manner of human errors. He kind of argues that it’s human nature to often ignore learning opportunities and does so by contrasting the aviation industry with the medical profession where even though the stakes in terms of human life are just as high the culture of owning your mistakes and acting on them is only just beginning to be adopted in the USA and Europe. His reasoning is that a mistake by a consultant can have a double cost. First the financial one with having to pay damages amounting to millions. Second to the individual of admitting that despite many years of experience they can still make mistakes – fallibility is not easy to accept when you’re at the top of your game and have been top of the class since school. Syed’s arguments are pretty compelling but for us the question is really how much more difficult it must be for children to embrace their weaknesses, mistakes and failures at a stage in their life when they see everything they do as self defining. How can we help ourselves and our pupils break out of closed loop thinking and listen to our own ‘black boxes’?
The starting point has to be an awareness and acceptance of the idea of neuroplasticity, that is the brain’s ability to change throughout life. The human brain has the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells and we are born with the potential to learn and to keep learning throughout our lives – it just depends how you set about it.
Carol Dweck is a world renowned American psychologist whose work on developmental psychology and ideas about mindsets have a huge following. She argues there are two mindsets or views you can adopt of yourself: fixed and growth. The fixed mindset is essentially one in which a person believes their qualities are pre-determined and finite. This self image needs to be protected and be proved over and over again. In this mindset mistakes, shortcomings and failure are damaging and are ignored, situations that may lead to them or highlight them are avoided. They are proof that you are less than you thought. The growth mindset by contrast “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” (Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential, Dweck, C.) Such a mindset is better able to deal with mistakes and failure because they’re not evidence of personal weakness but rather of your potential to improve and move towards mastery of a chosen skill.
Dweck is careful to point out that most people have a mix of both mindsets and when I heard her lecture she was at pains to emphasize that these are not yet another set of labels with which to classify pupils but rather starting points from which to reflect on their learning processes. Nor does she suggest, sensibly in my view, that a growth mindset and effort will guarantee an easy learning pathway. Indeed she ends one particularly useful passage by saying “when people believe their basic qualities can be developed, failures [mistakes] may still hurt, but failures don’t define them. And if abilities can be expanded – if change and growth are possible – then there are still many paths to success.” (Ibid)
So what can we do to foster a more growth mindset attitude in ourselves and our pupils?
Ultimately we want the pupils themselves to take responsibility for their learning but they can’t develop their growth mindset without our support. It’s also essential to recognise, as mentioned earlier, that we all have elements of fixed and growth mindsets within us. The first key thing therefore is to recognise and flag up what can cause us to retreat into our more fixed attitude and it’s suggested there are essentially three triggers:
- Moving beyond our comfort zone
- Struggling with a task
- Dealing with setbacks and criticism
A few thoughts:
- We are all familiar with the idea of providing scaffolding for pupils to help them develop new skills and of course this remains important whether its in the materials, the presentation or hints/questions we provide. But what about actually sharing with pupils before they start what is going to be more challenging and where we EXPECT them to be struggling a bit more and how they’re going to be supported. The message……this will be tricky, I expect it to be tricky, I’m going to give some help if I think its necessary, it’s ok if you find it tricky and if you can do it straight away please let me know because I’ve obviously made a mistake, you should be grappling with harder tasks – I don’t want to waste your time.
- Normalise the struggle in lessons i.e. there should be some bits that make you really stop and think. But when a pupil says ‘I cant do this!’ or words to that effect encourage a bit more tenacity, grit and self reliance by replying ‘You cant do it YET!’ have another shot at it and see if you can figure out exactly what it is that you need help with’. The message……..I’m confident that you can sort it out if you keep at it, you need to be more precise about the help you need so that I can help you effectively, effort is required not just two minutes looking for a fast fix.
- Focus on the learning process in feedback. Get the balance right between praise and feedback. We’ve had some useful CPD in the past on feedback etc. Formative comments, no marks… only comments, two stars and a wish, level of effort and attainment etc. etc. All designed to get the pupil to think about their work and what they could do to improve next time. But remember that the growth mindset approach is a tool to help pupils learn, it’s not a way to make them feel good about not learning so it is probably best avoid generalised effort comments like ‘Good effort’, ‘Great work’ etc. Even if they are followed by the most detailed points for improvement its likely these will be ignored. What about ‘I admire the way you’ve struggled to explain that clearly’. ‘I’m impressed with the way you’ve developed this over the weeks.’ ‘That was a risky/novel/challenging way of approaching the task you’ve had to really think about it a lot.’ John Hattie has stated that “if you want to make a major difference to learning, leave praise out of feedback about learning.” Ultimately the motivation must be intrinsic not extrinsic
- Teacher modelling the growth mindset. If you’re familiar with the work of John Hattie you’ll know about his meta analysis of aspects that have the biggest effects on pupil achievement. He’s constantly updating his findings but in the top ten fairly consistently are Self reported grades/Student expectations i.e. a pupil’s own expectations are more powerful than pretty much anything else including teacher expectations (#1 EF 1.44). Also in the top ten is Teacher Credibility – pupils are very perceptive about which teachers can make a positive difference to their learning and this is based on four key factors: credibility, trust, competence dynamism & immediacy. But research has shown that teachers and parents are remarkably poor communicators of growth mindset. Quite often we talk the talk but don’t walk the talk!! There are several things we could think about here. For example modelling our own thought process as we grapple with a problem on the board – a running commentary of what we’re doing. Perhaps even making a deliberate mistake and working round it – it takes more planning than you think and is completely counterintuitive. What about getting the pupils to spot mistakes in your writing and suggest ways to sort them out? Could you think of an example from your own studies at school where you had to grapple with a problem – can you remember and explain how you sorted it out? If we can demonstrate that we make mistakes and how we overcome them pupils will trust us more and be more comfortable with making and sorting out their own mistakes.
- Think outside your subject area. Don’t say things like “I could never do………….” You might be a pupils favourite teacher and in a casual remark about your least favourite subject at school you’ve just reinforced a pupils opinion that some people, even people like Mr X and he’s by far the best teacher at this school simply can’t do such and such a subject. You have just legitimised a pupil’s avoidance of the subject and made your colleagues job even more difficult.
- Encourage the sharing of errors. Get pupils to keep a learning diary to focus on the successes and failures they’ve had in studying a topic. Get them to discuss these with each other and compare notes. Even discuss these as a class – Celebrate the success but also embrace the mistakes. The drafting and redrafting of work serves a similar function by getting them to spot problems, mistakes and weaknesses then sorting them out. Drafts should always be handed in/seen with the final piece of work.
- Challenge adult negativity. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a parent saying something like ‘I could never do, X,Y, or Z at school……….’ and felt my heart sink as I realised that the child in question now had a bona fide escape clause/get out of jail free card whenever the going got tough in whatever subject it happened to be. We have to challenge these kind of statements sensitively but with conviction. If the adults in a child’s life think that it’s ok to give up then why on earth would they invest in taking the hard route.