Monthly Archives: June 2014

Growth Goals: One Path to a Growth Mindset.

Top athletes use both competitive & growth goals

Top athletes use both competitive & growth goals

Goals come in many shapes and sizes. Generally, when we talk of goals in an educational context they usually involve mastery goals, our pursuit of mastery over a skill or particular learning
task (e.g. “My goal is to master algebra”). Other goals might be less productive, for example avoidance goals whose purpose to is to avoid failure or negative outcomes which may lead to success but often lead to self-handicapping, allowing us to survive rather than thrive.

A third kind of goal is a Growth Goal. Martin uses the term Personal Best (PB) to describe the managed attempt to exceed oneself rather than to be “top of the class”. Personal Bests centre on a specific personal challenge (e.g. “I want an A in my next essay because I got a B in my last one”) and the specific steps required to reach the goal – so PB’s are competitively self-referenced – doing better than you did before.

PB’s have been found to increase engagement and academic achievement (Martin & Liem, 2010) as well as promote other skills including self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation and ‘flow’. Studies have also found that PB’s are just one way to encourage and promote an incremental (growth) mindset (Martin, 2014).

Mindset theory continues to gain ground over other motivational and engagement strategies primarily due to its rapidly growing and significant evidence base. The problem of implementation often centres around the actual process by which the fixed mindset (entity based self theory) is transformed into a growth mindset (incremental based self theory). PB’s work by drawing on this incremental philosophy and using a series of small steps to go from one personal best to the next, in the same way an Olympic sprinter aims to shave a second here and second there off his or her fastest time.

Furthermore, PB’s aren’t confined to specific cultural groups, with PB’s being generalised to non-western (Chinese) contexts (Yu & Martin, 2014).

PB’s encourage students to examine feedback constructively and set out a plan by which they either maintain their current level or exceed it, ensuring that they take on board teacher comments and identify gaps in either subject knowledge or study skills. In many ways PB’s are similar to the SMART-type objects used in employee appraisal systems and coaching in that they provide specific time-bound criteria by which progress can be made without relying on extrinsic factors.


PB Worksheet and Worked Example

Martin, A. J. (2014). Implicit theories about intelligence and growth (personal best) goals: Exploring reciprocal relationships. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1–17. doi:10.1111/bjep.12038
Martin, A. J., & Liem, G. A. D. (2010). Academic personal bests (PBs), engagement, and achievement: A cross-lagged panel analysis. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(3), 265–270. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2010.01.001
Yu, K., & Martin, a. J. (2014). Personal best (PB) and “classic” achievement goals in the Chinese context: their role in predicting academic motivation, engagement and buoyancy. Educational Psychology, (May), 1–24. doi:10.1080/01443410.2014.895297




Using evidence to support teaching and learning: A cautionary tale.

Several years ago I read Making Minds: What’s wrong with education – and what should we do about. It was written by Paul Kelley, headteacher at Monkseaton High School in the north east of England. I was a little awe struck by Kelley at the time (and still am) and in retrospect see him as the forerunner of all the evidenced informed hype in education that has taken hold in the last couple of years.

Kelley was (and still is) and educational visionary. Drawing on neuroscience and the latest findings in circadian rhythms, he partnered up with leading researchers (including Russell Foster, a neuroscientist at Oxford University) and began to test, analyse and implement a number of revolutionary ideas at the school.

The two main innovations were:

Spaced Learning. Based on research developed by Doug Fields at the Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the United States, it concerned the nature in which memories are strengthened. As Kelley explains:

Remarkably the important factor was time.  Fields and his team found a pattern of 3 stimulations spaced with 10 minute periods without stimulation triggered the response that strengthened the synaptic pathway permanently- creating a long term memory.  I saw an opportunity to use the same pattern in education. A team of students, Angela Bradley (a talented Biology teacher) and I then created what has become known as Spaced Learning.  We ran trials with surprisingly positive results.

[…]I was hoping to link up with other researchers who had applied his research to learning.  He told me he didn’t know of any, and that put huge pressure on me to conduct further detailed research which we did in 2007-2010. The surprisingly positive results were validated. Unfortunately they were so positive they questioned the validity of conventional teaching itself.

We were lucky to secure funding to create a resource to help other educationalists use Spaced Learning- they are here on the site. At Monkseaton there has been training for hundreds of people, and now there is digital resource in English for everyone to use as they see fit. Italian and Chinese versions are on this site.

Later Start to the School Day: The second innovation was based on research by Russell Foster, chair of circadian neuroscience at Brasenose College, Oxford, in turn supported by some of the work Sarah Jayne Blakemore was doing at UCL. Research has discovered that, as teenage brains develop, they are more likely to go through a stage where their 24 cycle (or circadian rhythm) doesn’t match that of adults. The implication is that teenagers are more alert later in the day, are impelled by their circadian cycle to sleep later and wake later in the morning. For Kelley, the conclusion was simple – start school later in the day. In 2009 Monkseaton High School, therefore, became the first school to start lessons later (10am) to account for the differences in teenagers’ circadian rhythms.

So did it all work?

In 2010, a report by Tyneside Council reported GCSE results at 34% (A*-C) in English and Maths (below the national average) and branded the school ‘inadequate’, however the school recorded a rise of almost a fifth a few months later (the highest in the history of the school).

Nevertheless, in 2011 Ofsted designated the school ‘satisfactory’. Kelley unexpectedly resigned as head in 2012 and the following year the school was given a ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted.

… so, at face value, the situation appears confusing.

The question of whether the initiatives worked is also complicated. GCSE grades certainly increased but a number of different variables need to be considered, such as implementing a rage of evidence-based initiatives simultaneously. Also, the general upward trend in GCSE results nationwide might have contributed to a proportion of this rise.

The evidence on which the experiments took place might have been sound but the implementation might not have been. A series of Randomised Controlled Trials might have been useful but even then it would have been necessary to include other schools in order to reduce the likelihood of extraneous variables impacting on the results. I’m not aware of any replications outside the original school either, so any results might not be valid or reliable.

There is much to learn from the Monkseaton experiment, it was the forerunner of all that’s buzzing in education at the moment but was perhaps too naively designed and implemented to produce any useful data (I haven’t been able to find any outside Kelley’s own book but feel free to point me in the right direction). It also suggests the headteachers really do need the courage to give this kind of thing a go, but preferably not alone!

Finally, remember that although individuals like Ben Goldacre produced the spark, we are all standing on the shoulders of amazing educational revolutionaries like Kelley.

Getting serious about mindfulness.

I’ve never really been an ‘accept everything, jump on the bandwagon’ kind of person. I like evidence and the evidence needs to be of high validity and reliability. I exist in the in-between world of psychology and education (two worlds that, I believe, are about to collide with dramatic and wide-ranging consequences). I have dabbled with the ‘dark side’ – a brief dalliance with humanistic psychology and (dare I say) the transpersonal – I’ve read more Maslow than you could shake a stick at and even have a copy of Ken Wilber’s ‘A brief history of everything’ sitting on my book shelf.

Thankfully, I always return to the safety of empirical evidence. Cognitive psychology makes me feel safe and warm inside – laboratory studies with independent and dependent variables and a whole host of statistical analysis I don’t quite understand.


This is silly – and a potential health and safety issue.

So what is it with all this mindfulness stuff? Surely this a horrible backwards move towards fuzzy psychology! This is Brain Gym; this is VAK!

Oh, hang on – there is evidence, and the evidence is compelling (and has some complicated statistics).

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre was established in 2008 within Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry and has been busy providing evidence in support of mindfulness for depression:

OMC Director Professor Mark Williams and his team in Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry are responding to the pressing need for new ways to prevent depression. They are world leaders in the field of research into the prevention of depression through mindfulness.
Williams, together with colleagues John Teasdale (Cambridge) and Zindel Segal (Toronto) developed an eight week program of mindfulness training to prevent serious recurrent depression. It is called Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). They showed that MBCT could significantly reduce the rate of recurrence in serious recurrent depression.


The results of further trials are equally striking. They show that in patients with three or more previous episodes of depression, MBCT reduces the recurrence rate over 12 months by 44% compared with usual care, and is as effective as maintenance antidepressants in preventing new episodes of depression. The UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recommended MBCT as a cost-effective treatment for preventing relapse in depression.


But what about Mindfulness in schools?

The media have been getting quite excited about the whole idea:
Why does the Government want to teach mindfulness in schools? (The Telegraph)
Could beditation be the answer to exam nerves? (The Guardian)
How two minutes of mindfulness can calm a class and boost attainment (The Guardian)

In addition, studies have found positive benefits of mindfulness with working class children who displayed better coping strategies and less anxiety after 12 sessions of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) (Sibinga et al., 2013); a decrease in hyperactive behaviour amongst children diagnosed with ADHD (Carboni, Roach, & Fredrick, 2013) and lower levels of stress in teenagers (Metz et al., 2013)

So maybe (just maybe) there’s something in this.

Unfortunately, while individual studies are showing positive results, the implementation of mindfulness programs in schools is a little more complicated. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis (Zenner, 2014) highlighted some of the problems with assessing school-based interventions. This includes problems with heterogeneity, underpowered studies and measuring effects. However, the authors did admit that many of the problems occurred due to this being an emerging field.

Despite some problems with implementation and measurement, The Mindfulness in Schools Project (in partnership with the Oxford, Cambridge and Exeter Universities) is attempting to provide a more homogenous framework by providing training programs for teachers.

The problem I think is how the public, teachers and parents will view the idea that pupils should partake is such behaviour. The comments on the The Telegraph piece above are (I expect) quite indicative of the general view of such initiatives and I doubt even the call from government ministers could alter their opinion.

However, teaching will never become an evidence based profession if, when the evidence is presented to us, we then ignore because it sounds a bit silly.

Carboni, J. a., Roach, A. T., & Fredrick, L. D. (2013). Impact of Mindfulness Training on the Behavior of Elementary Students With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder. Research in Human Development, 10(3), 234–251. doi:10.1080/15427609.2013.818487
Metz, S. M., Frank, J. L., Reibel, D., Cantrell, T., Sanders, R., & Broderick, P. C. (2013). The Effectiveness of the Learning to BREATHE Program on Adolescent Emotion Regulation. Research in Human Development, 10(3), 252–272. doi:10.1080/15427609.2013.818488
Sibinga, E. M. S., Perry-Parrish, C., Chung, S., Johnson, S. B., Smith, M., & Ellen, J. M. (2013). School-based mindfulness instruction for urban male youth: a small randomized controlled trial. Preventive Medicine, 57(6), 799–801. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2013.08.027
Zenner, C. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools-A systematic review and meta-analysis. Name: Frontiers in …. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00603


Fear, Failure and Memory.

Sometimes I think we neglect the impact anxiety and fear has on our students. With the sudden interest everyone seems to have in cognitive psychology (usually referred to as ‘cognitive science’ by the political elite*) there is, quite rightly, a growing fascination with how we can help learners to recall all the information we’ve been filling their heads with.

…but what use are these strategies if our students are so terrified of failing that they can barely recall their names (let alone the components of the working memory model – I know, ironic isn’t it)?

Alright, I’m being melodramatic.

…or am I?

Consider the following quote from the book ‘everyone is talking about’):

A fear of failure can poison learning by creating aversions to the kinds of experimentation and risk taking that characterize striving, or by diminishing performance under pressure, as in a test setting. In the latter instance, students who have a high fear of making errors when taking tests may actually do worse on the test because of their anxiety.

Make it Stick (Brown, Rodieger & McDaniel, 2013)

It seems that fear of failure is having a detrimental impact on working memory capacity because the student is directing resources away from memory and into the monitoring process – so the student is so busy thinking about performance and the monitoring of possible mistakes that there is little working memory capacity left to take care of the job in hand.

It also seems to be worse for girls…

One study investigating anxiety and performance in mathematics found that anxiety and worry in females was much more likely to negatively impact on working memory. More specifically, the researchers identified a causal chain from the worry component of anxiety to visuospatial working memory to maths performance, with worry placing more strain on visuospatial working memory in females (Ganley & Vasilyeva, 2014)

Those students who are less test anxious also appear to be more resilient and perform better on tests than those with increased levels of test anxiety (Putwain, Nicholson, Connors, & Woods, 2013).

Fear of failure is also more likely to lead to cognitive strategies such as self handicapping which in turn further perpetuate failure (Bartels & Herman, 2011)

Implications of this kind of research into emotion and learning are quite clear – rather than ignoring or eliminating the fear experienced by students, educationalists should encourage more positive ways of dealing with the fear of failure. Students need to fail (I’ve been banging on about that for a while now) but the ‘idea’ of failure needs a serious re-framing. While we might not yet be ready for a French-style ‘Festival of Errors’ or a Californian ‘FailCon’ (after all, let’s face it, no Brit wants to admit they’ve cocked up!), there is certainly a need for some cognitive readjustment.

* Michael Gove likes to use the term ‘cognitive science’ – I suspect it’s his way of hiding the fact that he thinks psychology is neither a science nor a proper subject.


Bartels, J., & Herman, W. (2011). Fear of Failure, Self-Handicapping, and Negative Emotions in Response to Failure. Online Submission. Retrieved from
Brown, P, Rodieger, H., & McDaniel, M. (2013). Make it stick. Belknap.
Ganley, C. M., & Vasilyeva, M. (2014). The role of anxiety and working memory in gender differences in mathematics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(1), 105–120. doi:10.1037/a0034099
Putwain, D. W., Nicholson, L. J., Connors, L., & Woods, K. (2013). Resilient children are less test anxious and perform better in tests at the end of primary schooling. Learning and Individual Differences, 28, 41–46. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2013.09.010