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

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.

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

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!

Stick to the Knitting!

The phrase ‘stick to the knitting’ popularised by Tom Peters is interpreted as guidance to businesses to do this – to focus on what they know and do best and nothing else.

For over 200 years the small Dales town of Dent stuck to its knitting. Dent, in the north of England owed its prosperity to wool, and developed a cottage industry of knitters, mostly men. These knitters became known as the Terrible Knitters of Dent. Terrible then meant ‘awesome’ – surprisingly good! The knitters went at it night and day, sometimes whilst they herded sheep, milked cattle or repaired their roof! They multi-tasked using knitting ‘sticks’ tucked into the belt as one of the needles. The locals had to stick to the knitting to sell the products and keep starvation at bay. Needles often became bent and worn with use. An 18th century rhyme went:

She knaws how to sing and knit
and she knaws how to carry t’kit
While she drives her kye to t’pasture

The Terrible Knitters of Dent were awesomely good at what they had to do. They shared ideas, collaborated, maintained a high standard in their work and thrived together. They also did the other things but never stopped sticking to the knitting for a moment. Tourists would come from miles around to watch as they knitted with one hand and milked their cow with the other! We can learn from the knitters.

For me the lessons of the knitters are bound up in what my colleague,John Turner, calls the three C’s: Clarity, Coherence, Consistency. We might add a fourth, Community.

Organisations such as schools apply the three C’s when seeking to improve. By focusing down, by saying no more often, by avoiding the temptation to fulfil others’ agendas schools become terrible knitters. Clarity is found when agreement is reached over core purpose. For us core purpose is about planning, delivering, evaluating and improving quality learning experiences for and on behalf of the students – nothing else!. Top sports coaches talk of the power of focussing on process over results. A focus on results distorts preparation. We say focus on the processes of learning. For the knitters clarity was being sure that what they could produce was useful, locally owned and of the highest quality.

Clarity around what makes great learning precedes coherence. Coherence comes when we build and share agreement on the mechanisms for the delivery and scrutiny of great learning and each and every one of us buys in to those mechanisms. This means that we meet and talk regularly about what we do well and how to get even better; we monitor, support and challenge each other and we benchmark against the best. Coherence for the knitters would come as they sat around each others’ fireplaces and talked.

Finally a school achieves consistency when great learning is a matter of routine. Consistency is when, day on day, learning is optimised for the benefits of the students. This does not mean each and every lesson, every day is high in teacher energy and suffused with novelty. It means that students are actively and purposefully engaged often feeling a responsibility for their own learning and the learning of others. When a learning community comes together in support of an agreed purpose, you witness discretionary effort! The knitters survived as a community phenomenon into the 20th century. The Community adds leverage to any common goal. A community who invests in delivering great learning directs and schedule its efforts towards its day on day delivery.

Having worked with a community of schools over a period of 18 months we found remarkable progress once agreement on what comprised great learning was in place.  Once we had clarity over what great learning looked like, we were able to pursue coherence in delivery and consistency in its quality. Here is our clarity on Great Learning. Students across our community –

  • Value and Enjoy Learning
  • Are Actively and Purposefully Engaged
  • Are Safe, Secure and Self Confident
  • Build and Sustain Relationships
  • Stretched Through Challenge
  • Are Creative, seeking out Patterns and Solutions
  • Ask, and are asked, Great Questions
  • Make Progress Based on Feedback
  • Transfer Their Learning
  • Take Responsibility for their Own Learning and the Learning of Others

The Terrible Knitters of Dent endured without any sorts of checklists. The harshness of daily life alone reminded them to stick to the knitting. Be clear about, and focus relentlessly on, what needs to be done. Eventually as you become accomplished in your knitting you might be able to milk a cow at the same time.