Shifting Mindsets

Senior-man-on-wheelchair-rear-viewIt was June of 2004. Wally was a patient in Ward Five of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. He was in a wheelchair having only just got out of bed following an operation. It was his third operation in the hospital. The first had taken place eighteen months earlier to remove the toes of his right foot. The next removed his right foot just above the ankle. This last operation amputated his right leg just above the knee.

Wally was a larger than life figure undiminished by his deteriorating state or by the hospital. He had been told by his GP on successive occasions to change his lifestyle, stop smoking, stop drinking, eat healthier food, get some exercise.  When his extended family visited him – wife, daughter, girlfriend – they wheeled him down three floors and outside so they could all have a fag.

I spent a week in the bed next to Wally in Ward Five. I liked Wally. What was noticeable about Wally was that he had invested so heavily in his lifestyle and it was so bound up with his persona that no amount of telling, information on charts, health checks or bullying was about to change it. What I was seeing close up was that behavioural change primarily arises as a consequence of successfully challenging and shifting deep seated personal beliefs. He’d lose his leg for a fag.

Mind your Mindset

In January I worked with a schools cluster on developing Growth Mindset. The schools and their staff were great and we spent a day together working in different ways around the proposition that they could successfully shift their students’ Mindset.  I was not so sure.

I’d encountered Carole Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset for the first time in 2004 at the Centre for Positive Psychology in Glasgow with Carol Craig. Then again at Blackburn Rovers Football Club where they wanted to use it in their Academy.  It seemed so black and white. I was sceptical.

Since then and over the last ten years there has been an overwhelmingly positive uptake for it amongst the schools I encounter north and south of the border.  It’s been fuelled by the usual combination of conference events, TED talks and largely uncritical academic acceptance. It’s worrying.

I wonder if we have wandered into a Wally moment? We assume that information bolstered by well-meaning entreaties will shift behaviours. I’m not sure it will. For a well-argued piece with which I agree read here

I worry not because it’s wrong or flawed but because the assumptions are unchallenged and have led to an industry of entreaty.  Schools are investing in posters with worthy messages – ‘Don’t find Yourself, Create Yourself’, ‘Don’t tell me you’re talented, tell me you’re working hard’ and ‘Dare to Begin’  – being three seen side by side recently.  We have assemblies on directed practice and 10,000 hours; praise regimes with a focus on discretionary effort; targets which are adjusted up or down and finally, delivering staff development around expectations. I know: I’m doing some of it!

Myths of Self-Efficacy in Schools

What I’m not yet seeing is how Growth Mindset ties in and aligns to the everyday moments in schools and more particularly in classrooms. If we don’t change school structures – for example how we select and group students – or classroom practices such as how we design learning challenges and give support and feedback, then the institutional practices are at odds with the behaviours we desire of students. Here is the problem. We can’t expect them to change unless we are prepared to do so ourselves.

 Is it fair to suggest to all children that their success in learning is largely, or even entirely, shaped by their Mindset? If only they would focus on increments of progress, avoid comparisons with peers, become learners of their own learning and see setbacks as an essential part of the learning process then they can grow their intelligence. Meanwhile the examinations, the curriculum, the school day and some of the teaching itself goes on unchanged.  The everyday experience of the student includes examinations as one-off tests, data where comparisons with peers are regularly made, learning for the exam and choices which are shaped by others through, for example, Progress Eight and no early entry!

Dweck’s work could become hijacked as a universal panacea for overcoming low expectations in pupils. I’m sure she wouldn’t want it that way and I’m equally sure she’d argue for a more nuanced and researched approach in schools. Her model does seem to position itself as an ‘on or off’ switch for the right sort of mental approach to school and study. I think such an interpretation doesn’t allow for the peaks and troughs of adolescent development and learning. It doesn’t acknowledge the significance of the home environment. It implies if you have a fixed approach in one area of your life then it’s likely to be fixed for all areas of your life. It fails to recognise that inhibition and a focus on what’s known and well-rehearsed could be a positive choice for an anxious child.

Don’t call it Growth Mindset

Here’s’ what I’d like to think schools could do to avoid the Wally trap and create incremental classrooms.

  • Don’t call it Growth Mindset! Don’t use the label. It’s the core business of all educators to match high expectations of themselves and their students with appropriate classroom interventions. We don’t need a label.
  • Create structural alignment. Ensure that there are no blatant inconsistencies where the institution advocates a Growth Mindset and yet behaves otherwise. For example: by selecting on entry, setting for core subjects, insisting on an entry threshold for the sixth form, reporting in raw scores or grades or promoting a feedback policy which requires the teacher to mark everything.
  • Create curriculum alignment. To what extent does a child exercise choice in what he or she studies in school? How authentic are the choices on offer? If we wish to foster a ‘mastery orientation’ what part does a pre-populated options sheet play?
  • Create pedagogical alignment. Beyond classrooms, learning occurs formally and informally, explicitly and implicitly. Within classrooms learning is all too often formal and explicit with the teacher making all the decisions about the nature of learning tasks, their order of completion and measurements of success. If the purpose of a Growth Mindset strategy is to create self-actualising, mastery-oriented learners then it is a minimum that each learner is actively involved in recognising and shaping the processes of their own learning.
  • Frame tasks as challenges. In classrooms, turn tasks into challenges, instructions into questions, difficulty into opportunity. Informed task design will do your heavy lifting and it’s the mark of an expert teacher to craft tasks which challenge and extend.
  • You get more of what you reinforce. Draw attention to and celebrate behaviours over which students have a degree of control and you wish to promote. Discretionary effort – ‘I noticed you stuck at it and didn’t give up ‘ and cognitive flexibility – ‘It was good that you tried different methods’. Choose your language carefully. Encourage students to do the same. For young children get them practice their noticing skills around great learning behaviours.
  • Teach and revisit challenge skills. The concept of desirable difficulty sees struggle providing opportune moments to draw attention to and practice cognitive flexibility. By freezing a moment when a student claims to be stuck the teacher can draw out, and thus promote, coping strategies. Once recorded they can be revisited and learned. Small things – recursive processes – revisited regularly make a difference.
  • Teach and embed evaluative skills. Teachers can trample over purposeful reflection by premature comments or marking. Where possible ask students to self-evaluate against agreed criteria on completion of a piece of work and before any teacher comment. Validate through peer scrutiny. Model and normalise the process so that drafting and re-drafting is understood and valued. Over-marking will drive out self-actualisation.
  • Revisit and cherish what’s important. If a task is worth asking a student to do, then the outcome has to be worth keeping. It also has to be worth revisiting. Scratty worksheets left lying around at the end of a lesson tell their own story. An exercise book, a portfolio, an electronic folder – should be a repository of what’s valued.
  • Utilise prior knowledge and prediction. Two great and underused questions at the beginning of learning experiences are: what do we already know about the topic? What would be good to know? Both with high effect sizes these interventions should play a part in shaping the learning which follows.
  • Landmark improvements. Three great Growth Mindset questions are: ‘Where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going? Noticing small improvements along the way and recording these in some form – for example, some class teachers build up a class profile day by day with wallpaper – helps reinforce a sense of worth.
  • Talk less, Query more. Develop the abilities of students to ask really good questions of each other. Insist they practice on each other and summarise, clarify, reflect back, paraphrase, speculate. High-quality purposeful dialogue is something to champion.
  • Frequent informal testing. Spaced rehearsal – in other words revisiting essential understanding – with frequent, albeit short informal student-led tests improves recall and gives the teacher a chance to consolidate learning.

Where’s Wally?

I left hospital and never saw Wally again. Wally was his real name. He was a genuinely larger than life figure who perhaps, had so much invested in his persona that he was not susceptible to change. Rational explanations of the inevitable and awful consequences of his life choices did not penetrate. Maybe if his extended family had been willing then they could have done it together. Somehow I doubt it. The lesson for me was that it’s difficult to shift behaviours unless one shifts beliefs, and it’s difficult to shift beliefs unless there is congruence with what you experience in your everyday life. If we want our students to have an incremental approach to challenge then we have to invest in an incremental approach ourselves.


Dweck, (1999) Self Theories: Their role in Motivation, Personality and Development

Duckworth & Seligman, (2005)  ‘Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents’, Psychological Science, vol 16, no. 12.

Roberts, (2009) Grit The skills for success and how they are grown, Young Foundation

U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology, (2103) Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century

Yeager, Walton, and Cohen (2013) Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions, Stanford

Tenuously Tough

Graham Obree’s 2012 autobiography The Flying Scotsman is a painful read (1).

It’s more a book about depression and dealing with it than images (2)a book about cycling. Paul McGrath’s autobiography, Back from the Brink is equally painful(2).. Obree fights bipolar disorder and in between times trains to the point of black out. McGrath drinks for 24 hours then turns in a man of the match performance for Aston Villa.

Obree broke the world hour record twice and did so using a bike he’d fashioned himself and rode in a flat out racing position.  McGrath had a sixteen year playing career with most of those years fuelled on alcohol. Top talent often has a tenuous grip on top performance.

His condition meant that like it or not, and he didn’t, Obree compartmentalised his life in cycling and his life other than cycling.  McGrath was unable to prevent his alcoholism seeping in to every area of his life. Early experiences had played their part in shaping their attitudes to sport. Obree was bullied viciously at school. Cycling literally offered an escape. 61BZDXZhwYL._SL1052_

McGrath grew up in Dublin, the only black kid in a succession of orphanages. Football was something which gave him friends and allowed him to shine.

Psychologists sell themselves short

The stories of elite performers like Graham Obree and .Paul McGrath and many, many others come to mind whenever coaches talk about the mental side of elite sporting performance.  I’m left pondering whether sports psychologists sell themselves short.

Every other aspect of elite performance – whether in individual or team sport – seems subject to detailed and specific analysis and is evidence –based.  In football for example we are familiar with periodization in training; use of heart rate monitors; GPS; urine sampling; post performance video analysis; position-specific coaching. At Liverpool they have their own research team employed to do practical research linked to Brendan Rogers’ match strategies.

We cover the technical, tactical, physical and social sides to performance in some detail, individualising guidance as we go. Psychological guidance, on the other hand, seems to lapse into tired old clichés .

At some point in their career all footballers will have endured team sessions on mental rehearsal, visualisation, self-talk, affirming targets, relaxation techniques, energising techniques and variations on the theme of mental toughness. For a few it might work, for most it passes by.

Addressing the fundamentals

I think it will only ever make a real difference if it’s done over time, on a one to one basis and with the fundamental issues which determine the limits of performance for each player.


Mike is small for a tennis player. He’s very agile, has fantastic speed to the ball and plays with high energy. His technical, tactical and physical attributes combined great confidence with have taken him through the junior ranks. Now he’s hit the senior game where he’s discovered self-doubt.

The first time we met we went for a walk away from the courts and did several circuits of the nearby football pitches. He talked freely. He had begun to experience sudden and catastrophic losses of confidence late in matches. It hit him on ‘big’ points where he described  both the physical characteristics – a weakness in his arms, getting to shots late, snatching – and the behaviours which followed: impatience, feeling rushed and, crucially – a sense that everyone is watching him.  He also told that he feels helpless as his opponent ‘looks bigger.’

So if you were his performance coach what would your advice be? At this stage some might say to change the self-talk, visualise your opponent being smaller, slow things down and rehearse pre-planned mental drills to take control of the moment. Assert yourself. Get back on top. All could be successful and some may have worked for Mike. However are these fixes addressing the more fundamental issue? Are they robust enough to see Mike through subsequent setbacks? Probably not.

A method of shifting self-doubt

For a psychological intervention to work  something of significance has to change. Tinkering won’t shift the behaviour. Here’s what happened with Mike .

  • We met outdoors away from desks and chairs and doors so we walked and talked; he showed me how he moved and it helped him speak
  • We agreed to share the processes we used together so that he could understand how his emotions shaped his decisions
  • We talked about Blue head versus Red head and how to recognise the difference between being rational or being rash, knowing when you’re relaxed and when you’re rushed. (6) This was so we could both be clear about what being in a good winning state was like.
  • He wrote down what it was he wanted to achieve in tennis, how he proposed to do so and what he had given up and was willing to continue to give up in order to achieve it. Going ‘public’ with aspirations helps.
  • He then talked about his tennis journey and more particularly about what he had sacrificed already to be where he already was.
  • In order to feel there was always something solid to fall back on he agreed to up his gym work and the intensity of his court sessions by 10% There has to be enough – and more – deposited in the effort  bankThis was a change. When he was in the final points of a rally late in a match he will know he’s banked the effort needed.
  • He committed to be more competitive in training and for his coach to exert pressure on him (3)
  • He needed to benchmark to the next level so we’d ask – who are your role models and what are they doing? What standards do you set in all you do? How do they compare with the others?
  • He also needed to own the strategy going forward – so then eventually, and after all this extra work he had banked and was continuing to bank, we addressed the presenting problem of choking on some big points late in games
  • We re-framed choking into a temporary phenomenon experienced by all elite athletes and something to be learned from. By doing so we were making it normal. (4)
  • It had taken us five meetings to get to the presenting problem so we then shared a quick and immediate solution that he could use without him becoming too self-conscious or needing unnecessary mental resources: he was to shrink his opponent – imagine him becoming smaller, being clumsy and hitting more slowly before his eyes – and practise doing so beforehand. That was it, but he did need to practise the technique.
  • Mike needed to leave me feeling good about who he is and what he does. I really hoped he’d never need to shrink his opponent because so much else had been invested in building his belief so that the need no longer arose.

I worked with Mike on six occasions over a year ago. I haven’t seen him since.

As I write, new manager Tim Sherwood is talking of bringing in a psychologist, or ‘anyone else who might help’, to motivate his Aston Villa squad. I hope he can find the right solution. If his dressing room is a reflection on the sorts of unique personalities who typically make up the elite sporting squad then there may well be an Obree or a McGrath or a Mike sitting in there just waiting for the right sort of he[p.


  1. Obree, 2012, The Flying Scotsman
  2. McGrath, 2006, Back from the Brink
  3. Moss-Kantner, 2004, Confidence
  4. Beilock, 2010, Choke: the Secret to Performing under Pressure
  5. Ankerson, 2013, The Gold Mine Effect
  6. Peters, 2011, The Chimp Paradox
  7. Wilson and Branch, 2006, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies

Developing the Expert Teacher

At the Cramlington Learning Festival I talked, albeit briefly. about the need to recognise and promote the role of the expert in the teaching profession. Here are the slides –  CLV Festival 2013 (NXPowerLite) I chose this topic because in our school system I see more and more instances of opinion masquerading as insight, novices positioning themselves as experts and collectively we, our schools and our students suffer in consequence..

The slides ought to speak for themselves but to paraphrase my argument it’s down to the profession to wrestle back the influence in shaping thinking, particularly around what constitutes great learning and teaching in our schools. I argue elsewhere that the ‘Novices’, the ‘OFSTED Whisperers’, the ‘Evidencing Soothsayers’ and the ‘Policy  Pedants’  will rob us of our profession.

When you watch an expert teacher working you see the artistry of teaching underpinned by the science of learning. It’s the culmination of years of reflective practice, bench marked against the best and tested in differing challenging contexts.

My experience tells me that expertise needs to be tested in different contexts; experts deploy a range of strategies and can do so under duress. The expert teacher has spent years improving and adjusting what he or she does so that there is no unfamiliar.

When we filmed the Step Up lessons we saw expert teachers close up. What quickly became obvious was there was no one way – the teachers adapted their interventions to the context. Some were directive, others less so; some focused on specific outcomes, others more on developing skills and understanding of learning processes. So we had a matrix – Teacher to Learner on the horizontal axis, Outcome to Process along the vertical. It looks like this Matrix. Experts excel in any of the four quadrants. Here are a selection of excerpts which illustrate each quadrant on the matrix. Fuller versions are all available on Step Up.

An example of a Teacher  and Process emphasis can be seen in Craig Stuart’s maths lesson. In this short preview to the lesson Craig explains how the approach is to isolate the big questions in maths which will tap into the learners’ innate curiosity to know more about the world around them.  Craig Stuart Outstanding Lesson (1) Craig directs and orchestrates the learning, although pupils have limited autonomy, through his skillful use of challenging questions Craig ensures everyone is stretched .

Some teachers set up learning challenges which deliberately positioned content understanding within the skills development of the learners and then  nudged pupils through the process in an indirect way. What followed was a Learner and Process emphasis. Learner autonomy was high, outcomes uncertain.  Darren Mead Outstanding Lesson (2) In this short excerpt Darren is conducting a review with Year Seven students engaged in a species diversity project on behalf of a local farmer. This lesson shows an ‘expert’ science teacher  interleaving learning interventions without being consciously aware of doing so.

One of the more exacting challenges for any teacher is to achieve quality learning outcomes without being directive. David Gray explains how he use learning conversations and choices of ‘route’ to help year 7 maths students direct their own progress towards agreed levels. Here we see a Learner and Outcome approach David Gray Outstanding Lesson which is engaging and brilliantly differentiated.

It may seem that a teacher directed learning experience towards a given outcome is the everyday work of the full-time classroom teacher. It would be understandable to see this quadrant as the least challenging. In this lesson Charlotte has brought the topic to life using a memorable Teacher and Outcome approach. Charlotte Murray Outstanding Lesson (1)

Expert teachers have years of accumulated experience focusing and refining their professional skills. Novices just don’t get it! Experts in all fields retrieve information holistically, focus attention on what matters and make successive and rapid decisions about appropriate interventions. Our profession needs experts; we should celebrate and cherish our best teachers as our collective futures depend upon them.

Done for effect: better feedback in six hours

I’m writing this as I wait for the man to come and unblock my drains. Not a glamorous job by any judgement but one which I’m relieved someone else is prepared to do and one which will yield instant results. My drains are blocked. He’s been before. I’m one of his hundreds of customers. Phil empties the septic tank, rods the pipes, gets my drains smelling sweet and assumes a very droll manner as he goes about it. He turns up, does the business, gets the system back working as it should and life goes on.

Yesterday we helped a school rod its works. We were in like Phil at Tong in Bradford. The school feedback system had become gunged up with well-intentioned initiatives and false starts. It needed clearing out so it could smell sweet again. So we got in and rolled the sleeves up. It helped to have a team of twelve very capable middle leaders. We were set up to develop a more effective student feedback system and do so in less than six hours. We would get to the everyday heart of what the school was about.

Our starting point was to identify some key features of an effective feedback system. So paired discussion led to recording short one line contributions. This, our “prior understanding” is below. The red dots are the subsequent three votes cast by each member of the group on which features they thought most significant. The dots are used to direct the content of the first draft of the school feedback policy.

We then had an input to follow up the reading given out in advance of the meeting. We looked at the research showing effect sizes of different interventions, provided practical techniques from classrooms around the country, modified the ideas with common sense and added a few of our own.

We heard about the work of Marzano, Hattie, Sutton Trust, Black and William. We discussed assertive and other types of mentoring, coaching, target setting, dialogic teaching, enquiry based learning and the SOLO taxonomy. We had a short input on Critique and watched videos of Ron Berger. We were primed, had shared knowledge and were ready to go…

Our first task was to define the desirable behaviours at three levels: school, classroom and student. Groups were asked to take ten minutes to draw and label the key features of effective feedback, one group for each level. We left the products on the top of the table and then groups moved round. At the new table, the arriving group had to discuss each feature before choosing three or four and listing some recommended “delivery” strategies.  For example, a school level feature might be ‘an effective whole school approach to marking’ and a strategy might be ‘to use generic response labels which can be peeled off and placed into exercise books.’

Once we had spent time generating strategies, groups moved around again. At the third and final station they had to look at the features left by the first group, the strategies recommended by the second and then decide on which strategies to prioritise for further work. They did so based on a ranking exercise using do-ability and impact. These strategies would go out for further consultation immediately following our day. The chosen strategies were:

    • Process into Practice – whole school guidelines on effective feedback in different versions to appear in the staff handbook, pupil planner and on the Parent Portal
    • Smarter Marker – separate sample templates which can be provide as peel off labels for generic and subject specific marking
    • Literacy Passport – outline contents for a portable document to record the use of literacy skills in different subjects
    • Display to Develop –standardized classroom display to prompt effective feedback routines
    • Peer Protocols – prompt questions and responses for teacher, pupil and peer

As this is happening I’m busy listening in and based on what I’m hearing I’m re-drafting the school feedback policy. This is what the first draft looked like.

In order to make Process into Practice consistent with what we had discussed we shared the following seven shaping principles. Effective feedback is

    • Participative: feedback involves student(s), Peer(s), teacher(s) and home
    • Iterative: feedback is accessed through a succession of improvement cycles and small adjustments, drafts and re-drafts
    • Understood: feedback  is communicated in an accessible language and/or format
    • Actionable: improvements arising from feedback and/or changes can be made immediately and with minimal effort
    • Timely: feedback is delivered at the points when it is needed
    • Related: feedback is connected to both subject and to whole school assessment criteria
    • Owned: feedback is linked to the student’s personal aspirations, targets or goals

There are now five groups working away at producing the practical guidance and resources for staff to trial. This takes a further ninety minutes and runs over and through lunch. As we work we share progress and re-adjust this helps create a further draft of the school feedback policy.

 After a mountain of bhajis, pakoras and the sort of cakes which are used to support the foundations of large buildings we finish. To conclude we ask each new group to describe

  • What’s been done?
  • What needs to happen next?
  • What do you need to make it happen?

After a further 24 hours, some thinking space and another re-draft. The school feedback policy now reads like this

At Tong High School we have a feedback approach which is accessible to all and which:

    • informs assessment
    • involves cycles of self, peer and teacher evaluation
    • is integral to a shared culture of learning and improvement
    • is built around purposeful dialogue and time effective interventions
    • actively involves students, peers and teachers in both review of progress and planning for improvement
    • fosters student reciprocity, emerges from curiosity and shapes personal growth
    • helps teachers and students locate and reinforce discretionary effort and strategies for improvement
    • is consistent with an easily applied whole school system  
    • derives from evidence-based research and the context of our school

We have begun to get it smelling sweet. Phil would be proud of us.

Thanks to John Turner, Matt Perry, Hayley Duckworth, Matt Campbell, Dawn Theakston, Jack McPhail, Danielle Burns, Ross Towler, Amanda Patch, Simon Ford, Jo Philipson, Victoria Harrop, Lisa Dabrowski – great talents one and all. Thanks also to Phil who emptied my septic tank in 25 minutes for £95.




Formative with Forthright in Formby

Friday was spent being Forthright with Formby. John Turner and I worked on our first day with the Secondary and Primary schools in the in the Forthright Learning Community as they further their journey to develop independent learners and independent learning across the community.

The schools are embarking together on an ambitious, self-funded project over the next two years to develop independent learning approaches across the schools starting from the infants. The schools within the community are already successful in their own right and have a tradition of academic success. The aspiration is to be even more successful in helping students be autonomous problem solvers who take increasing responsibility for their own progress.

Over two years it is hoped that staff in the schools can work together on agreed interventions which will help transform the learners’ experience. Amongst the possibilities which were offered for consideration

School level

  • Episodes such as problem solving programmes, learning to learn approaches
  • Events such Enquiry Week, Independence Day
  • Vertical tutoring challenges on big questions
  • Changing rewards and incentives towards independent learning behaviours

Classroom level

  • Reinforcement of essential attributes and skills
  • Development of common tools – such as an independent enquiry wheel with versions for all Key Stages
  • Shift from performing to learning orientation
  • Improved group work
  • Extended enquiry built into how we teach
  • More pupil choice
  • Lazy Teacher week!
  • Use of Critique method of authentic presentation and feedback

Learner level

  • Learner passports across the Forthright Community
  • Independent learner profiling
  • Fewer lessons led by the teacher, more challenges initiated by the pupil
  • A Students Commission on how we should learn
  • Improved use of the environment with better spaces for problem solving
  • Prop boxes for topics

John and I were very deliberately avoiding giving a ‘strategic lead’ in favour of consensus and collective ownership and so time was spent identifying what is meant by independent learning and how we would recognise the independent learner. We asked the group of nineteen to sub-divide into three and ‘characterise the learner’ before we then went on to isolate and rank the key attributes. This allowed us to agree the following working definition –

In the Forthright Learning Community, independent learners are curious about answers to the ‘big questions.’ They are prepared to be open-minded and resilient in their pursuit. Forthright independent learners are also:

  • willing to be actively involved in extending their own and others’ learning
  • flexible in approaching challenges and in learning from setbacks
  • able to make connections
  • optimistic, and ready to make positive contributions alongside others
  • able to apply and extend  reasoning
  • reflective, and in being so capable of improving their own learning
  • autonomous

The definition will be used to help shape all of the agreed activities. Going forward the group started to define what the signature features would look like at whole school, classroom and learner level with strategies to provide clarity, coherence and consistency for each.

The Forthright definition is pleasing because it has not been sourced from an academic, imposed by an agency or produced by a cabal and because it’s owned by the schools and emerged from honest debate it’s arrived with built-in durability; in other words, its forthright for purpose

No one wants to see him miss this!

The England national side’s success rate in penalty shoot outs is currently 18%. For Germany it’s 87% Why is this? Why do some teams and some individuals consistently do better in high pressure environments?

We can name the moments when top performers choke. Their collapse is often spectacular. Over the years we’ve seen it in different sports: Don Fox in Rugby League, Jana Novotna in tennis, Jimmy White in snooker, Roberto Duran in boxing, David Bedford in athletics, Greg Norman in golf, Eric Bristow in darts. The list goes on…

What happens when a top performer loses mental toughness and chokes? Can a coach make an athlete mentally tough?

Researchers cite the links between arousal and performance. They talk about managing attention and about coping strategies. Some causes of choking are said to be stable – for example personality and self-consciousness. Others are labeled unstable – such as expectation, the perceived reward, the audience or the competition.

For some time now I’ve worked with footballers to help them improve the mental side of their game. Accommodating the stable and managing the unstable causes. There have been some successes and some failures. All performers have ups and downs. Everyone will ‘choke’ now and again. For a performance coach it’s how to help the player manage this to reduce its likelihood and then deal with it should it happen.

Why bother with mental toughness?

Elite performers have the edge. At the top-level in every sport, elite performers use mental toughness strategies. Some are learned and some are natural.

Chris Hoy worked with his psychologist prior to the Athens Olympics 1000 metre sprint to mentally rehearse every possible thing which could go wrong so that they were perfectly prepared. The kilo was the hardest sprint event of all. With Hoy going last, he watched on as three of the four competitors before him successively broke the world record. He required a personal best to take the title. He won gold by 0.185 seconds.

When pro basketball players mentally rehearsed throwing shots for 15 minutes prior to practicing, their success rate went up by 9%

The beam in gymnastics is only 10cm wide and is 125cm above the ground. You could walk along it with confidence. How confident would you be if the same beam was placed 25 metres above the ground?

Adrenaline and cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate change when you are anxious. Your anxiety levels are determined by your thinking. Control your thinking and you control your body and your performance.

Brain scans show that mental rehearsal stimulates and sends messages to the muscles used in the real experience. This means that you can speed your recovery from injury by visualisation. Slalom skiers improved performance by 12% through regular visualisation sessions before racing.

I tell players to take 10 to 15 minutes before you train to go through what quality in training looks, feels and sounds like.  Give yourself an edge – the body follows the mind. Using the techniques improves the quality of preparation and remember nothing replaces hard work in training

A key part of mental toughness is to use the techniques to train at a better quality level. If it’s all about the match day then it’s too late. Performance psychology is not about a rousing speech! Produce quality in training. Mentally rehearse performing at your very best, particularly in areas in which you need to improve.

My strategies for developing mental toughness in top performers – or at least, the first few strategies

1. Learning about arousal up and down. Focus on managing your emotional state so that you can lower their heart rate and blood pressure and experience what the difference between anxiety and calm is like. Use visualisation and relaxation techniques. Do so regularly during the week.

2. Mental rehearsal. Prior to training take ten minutes to go through how you will produce quality in training. Mentally rehearse performing at your very best, particularly in areas which you need to improve upon.

3. Directed Practice – suggestions for Technique improvement. Take areas of your game where you feel you must be even better. For example a centre forward might focus on:

  • Holding the ball up
  • Positioning for diagonals
  • Winning headers
  • Getting across your man

4. Benchmark against a higher or desired standard. Watch the people who are the best and use training as an opportunity to practise the techniques and do what they do. Again, mentally rehearse in detail the performance improvements

5. Competition. Use competition in training to hone skills and build belief. Competition in training sharpens your competitive instinct and plays a big part in building confidence. Competing against yourself and your own Personal Best in skills sessions also builds self-belief.

6. Showing off! Showing your individual skill, doing what you are good at and letting everyone see it can be another way of giving your confidence a little boost. Do it in warm ups, after training and every now and again as a reminder to yourself of how good you are. Showing off what you can do improves your confidence.

7. Set ambitious targets. No-one ever got better at anything by staying in their comfort zone. To have a big impact, set targets for yourself which are at the edge of your ability level. Work towards these demanding targets. Share them with others: until you do so it is easy to cheat!

8. Scaffold the challenges. Don’t try too much too early! Set demanding targets and work towards them. Build up the basics as you go. Top athletes keep performance diaries and are interested in monitoring their own progress.

9. Demand specific useful feedback. Ask coaches, team mates and your family in the stand for specific role and technical feedback. Find out what you could do differently or better.

10. Recovery rituals. Have a simple gesture for recovering from mistakes. Try to focus immediately on the improvement needed and not the mistake. Your performance goes when you are distracted. You suffer 35% in performance losses when you become distracted. It needs up to 40% more mental energy when you lose focus and have to recover. Have a simple gesture for recovering from mistakes. Try to focus immediately on the improvement needed and not the mistake. Dwelling on failures is unhelpful and will destroy your performance.

11. Parking errors. Leave any errors behind. If you are a goalkeeper and you make a mistake you are not going to correct it by dwelling on what went wrong. Park the error up because you know you will be going over it later.  Use your recovery rituals to help you stay sharp. Some keepers do things like drink from the water bottle and spit the mistake away, kick the post with their studs or rub mud on the gloves. Little things which tell your brain – we’ve moved on…

Sport is full of  cliches. Over a life time of sport, top performers have heard them all. The real work in preparing to perform takes place away from team talks, from motivational speeches, from crowds and stadiums – it starts early on in life. Some of it is learned along the way and all of it is learned at the very edge of what’s possible.


Breeding Bidability

Language, the choice of words and the attention we choose to give them shapes response*. Recently I’ve been thinking about the language we use to introduce very young children to classroom learning. I’m particularly interested in the notion of rules, how they signify classroom culture and how they are used to direct behaviour.

It seems every school classroom I’ve ever been in has had protocols formal or informal, stated or unspoken, to shape norms. On occasion a quick glance at the classroom rules tells you what no interview would.  Here for example is a photograph – taken last Thursday by a colleague – of a set of class rules from a secondary school in Tennessee,

Notice rule number four on attentiveness – ‘head off table, no snoring.’

I’m struck how quickly a school can socialize very young children. The teachers’ choice of the Golden Rules for classes 5 and 6 year olds quickly seems to become lodged in their minds as what is necessary for learning. I worry that what we do when we stick up this sort of sign – Listen and Silent are spelled with the same letters – is that we create passivity in our learners. This may have its place when children arrive at school with few social skills and little experience of interacting with others but, over time, it makes the task of developing independent learners and thinkers more and more difficult.

So we set out to put this theory to the test and to explore better alternatives. My colleague John Turner and I set up some interviews with very young children. We spoke to six children from KS1. They were very bright and personable, able to relate to what we were asking and for the most part stay focussed on the questions asked.

We started by asking what sorts of words came to mind when they thought of school: which words would they use if describing their school to an adult. – fun, learning, awesome, good games, amazing, fun (again) and fantastic. They were amused by the question and enjoyed thinking about their answers!

We next asked what sorts of words came to mind when they thoughts of a good teacher. we asked this question so that we could begin to obtain a view on what they thought about themselves as learners and what the relationship with the teacher might be. We asked which words they’d used if describing a really good teacher to an adult. The words used were nice, helpful, intelligent, kind, fantastic, very good, special, really good person and then kind and nice again! This was interesting because it was entirely bound up in the relationship and in being an open, friendly and accessible adult.

The next question was about them as learners: what do you have to do to be really good at learning? This was perhaps the most useful part of the interview process and was as interesting for what was not said as for what was said. The responses were:

  • listen
  • be nice to others
  • help others
  • be good at listening
  • don’t copy other people
  • if someone falls over help them up
  • help if someone’s stuck
  • do what your told
  • don’t be naughty

We then went on to ask about what was their favourite sort of learning. We were told:

  • Maths: because it helps you  learn quicker
  • Art: they teach you how to make stuff and you get even better and your drawing and writing gets really nice and neat
  • Literacy: you get neat handwriting and be a good story teller. More people like your story and you might be a famous writer
  • PE: its really fun and it gets you exercised up and my mum really likes it makes me tired


  • Football: at sports day because I’m really good at scoring goals and saving 
  • Talking about famous people: everyone likes it and it gets you talking
  • Everything : I have so much fun at the end of the day I’m so tired when I get  home I have to go to bed straight away

We also asked about the hardest lessons and what was most difficult to learn. The responses included:

  • Maths: Year 2 expect us to do better and sometimes its too hard
  • PE: its really tiring and it really hurts your back and stomach
  • Maths: sometimes there’s really big numbers, that’s hard and counting

Finally we asked their views on why they had to come to school and learn. We asked specifically why they had to learn. Their responses included:

  • You have to learn because you just have to
  • So that when you are older you are clever
  • So that you can be a clever clogs
  • All the numbers and things
  • You learn things in the past and in the future
  • To be good at listening
  • To do GCSE’s
  • So that when you go to year 2 your teachers think you are intelligent

What caught our attention was that the children were very clear on what was expected and most of the behaviours they described were associated with being ‘good’ rather than being ‘good at learning.’ This offered an opportunity for the school to begin its work on creating independent learners early in their school lives!

On the premise that you will get more of what you reinforce we looked again at creating a positive classroom culture with a new set of rules. John and I asked staff to look at the class protocols already used with a view to revising them in favour of learning behaviours. The learning behaviours included learning together to be even better at:

  1. Explaining things
  2. Asking good questions
  3. Learning something new
  4. Practising hard till you get it right
  5. Thinking carefully
  6. Listening carefully
  7. Trying different ways of doing things
  8. Being a learning friend who helps others learn
  9. Making someone else happy
  10. Becoming better at sharing
  11. Reading every day

Within hours of the teachers discussing and using the new learning behaviours children responded.  Teachers too had an emerging vocabulary – one which shifted them away from talking about doing towards describing the learning which emerged from the doing.

It remains to be seen whether the higher energy levels, increased persistence and improved engagement noticeable in many of the children remain but it has to be better than passive bidability which, long-term, will switch them away from understanding and enjoying their learning.

The most absurd rules are always the ones promoted by misguided adults. How would you as a six year-old respond to this one placed on a door in the main hall? “No pupil allowed in this cupboard – this is an adult cupboard”.

*Thanks to Geoff Barton for pointing me to the video!