Monthly Archives: June 2015

Mindsets: The Good, the Bad and the Unknown (Notes from Northern Rocks 2015)

I approached our session with fewer nerves than I had anticipated, even when I realised that we had been moved from a room to a lecture theatre at the last minute. I had, as usual, over-prepared, partly because I didn’t want to find myself struggling to convey accurately what I wanted to put across but also because there was just so much I wanted to say; there was so much I felt needed saying. Realistically, Mark and I knew that we would probably run out of time and in the end this came to be more because of the enthusiasm and interest of the audience rather than any error in our timing.

For a few moments I stood and looked out on the empty lecture theatre, wondering if anybody would actually turn up. My fears of having to present to empty seats soon dissolved as people began to filter in and take their places. It was like September, watching a new class of year 12’s enter my classroom for the first time, the farthest away seats being taken up first by most while a tiny number ofEmpty more enthusiastic students target the seats nearest the board. It was a little like that anyway. My heart skipped a little when John Tomsett and David Weston came up to Mark and I to shake our hands before taking their seats right at the front – I admire these men incredibly and felt so privileged that they had come to listen. I was also a little apprehensive, as I knew that John was a big advocate of Mindsets. I couldn’t have hoped for better or more challenging audience, they certainly gave me as much to think about as (I hope) we gave them.

What I intend to do here is try and convey everything that I either didn’t have time to communicate on the day or that which I fear I didn’t communicate as well as I wanted to. It was my job that morning to cast a sceptical eye over the well-known theory of Growth and Fixed Mindsets (aka Implicit Theories of Intelligence) developed by psychologist Carol Dweck. I don’t intend to describe the theory because others have done it so well so many times before (including Dweck herself).

The gist of what we wanted to say goes a little like this:

Growth Mindset interventions need careful implementation and sustained effort from everybody.

It’s much more than just an assembly and those who believe that we can just tell kids to go away and develop a Growth Mindset are either deluded, have simplified the theory into extinction or just want to tick another box for Ofsted. Change certainly doesn’t happen overnight, in fact (and because the Growth Mindset view needs to be deeply embedded into the culture of the school) it could take years of concerted and sustained effort before it becomes a seamless part of the school system.

The ‘system’ conspires against the idea of the Growth Mindset (through setting, target grades and even differentiation), creating a form of whole school cognitive dissonance.

When people try and hold two conflicting views at the same time or are given new information that conflicts with existing information, uncertainty and anxiety rapidly ensue. Telling a child to develop a Growth Mindset and then sending him off to his bottom set Maths lesson with his target grade simply isn’t compatible with the belief that intelligence is malleable and based on effort over innate ability or talent. Differentiation within classes may well have the same impact but has become part of the teachers ‘must do’ list. In many cases differentiation simply amounts to setting with classes; a Russian doll of setting within setting within setting.

Labelling can destroy everything we’re trying to do in a heartbeat.

We’ve been telling boys for years that they’re underachieving; research has found that teachers expect less from poorer kids; we don’t expect girls to be very good at physics. As teachers we don’t want to label our pupils but we do it anyway. We might also label them positively – as ‘gifted and talented’ or ‘more able’. Halo’s and Self-fulfilling Prophesies are not compatible with the nurturing of a Growth Mindset. In our session the audience briefly brought up the term ‘ability’ and if we could exclude it from the educational vocabulary and still be able to do the job effectively – it would have been great to discuss this further but time was not on our side.

Poverty also plays a part in academic ability. While research has found that children from poorer backgrounds are more liable to be negatively labelled by teachers, the very act of being poor has been found to lover IQ by up to 13 points, as cognitive resources are redirected towards mere survival. Interestingly, when I suggested that it would be easier for middle-class kids to buy into the concept of Growth Mindset, a couple of the attendees explained that, in their experience, it was the other way around. Could it be that poverty leads to increased striving in the same way that adversity leads to increased resilience?

Other psychological factors cannot be neglected – a Growth Mindset cannot be embedded in pupils and staff if other factors are ignored.

Pupils view themselves differently as learners – what psychologists call Academic Self Concept (ASC). It tends to be state rather than trait specific so they might see themselves more positively as historians than as mathematicians. Academic Self Concept is deeply embedded, having been built up over time from personal experience and the attitudes of educators towards the subject and the individual pupil. Higher Academic Self Concept is positively correlated with achievement so it would appear that developing a Growth Mindset while ASC remain low represents a non-starter.

At the Psychology in Education Research Centre (PERC) at the university of York, a study the role of positive emotions on day-to-day resilience. There is substantial evidence to suggest that emotions can impact on academic achievement in several ways. Anxiety impacts negatively on cognitive functions such as memory and problem solving and, specifically, can have a detrimental impact on working memory function. Worry has been shown to lower mean GCSE scores which would suggest that Growth Mindset gains would disappear if the learner is prone to test anxiety. So any intervention doesn’t begin with a level playing field – a Mindset intervention in isolation would only benefit certain types of learners.

Measuring the effectiveness of interventions is problematic but necessary.

Given the time, I was intending to discuss the need to measure these interventions and ask if measurement was even necessary. This would depend on a number of factors, including the existence of other competing interventions. Another point revolves around the identification of an outcome measure. For many school-based interventions, exam results are used at the dependent variable – higher GCSE results would suggest that the intervention worked and the assumption would be that this was due to more pupils developing a Growth Mindset. Of course, this is unlikely to be an experimental situation so extraneous variables and competing interventions cannot be ruled out. Mindset can be measured through the many versions Implicit Theories of Intelligence Scale – a self-completion questionnaire consisting of several Likert-scale rated questions. There are, of course problems with self-completion scales so these could be combined with teacher observations.

Whatever the problems, this is still a great theory.

I have to emphasise this because I’ve been so fascinated by the idea of Growth Mindsets for so long. As someone who failed their 11+ exam, I know how setbacks and views of intelligence can set kids back in their education. I also have to admit that I struggle to hold onto a Growth Mindset and I think I tend to slide up and down the continuum. Nevertheless, if we remain critical and ask the right questions, Mark and I would certainly agree that striving to become a Growth Mindset school can only lead to improvement for everyone.

Northern Rocks: A Curious Beast

Northern Rocks is, indeed, a curious beast. It’s based on the odd premise that five hundred teachers will travel great distances to spend their Saturday learning more about teaching. Even more curious is that for the past two years (and it’s only in its second year) tickets have sold out.

I bought my ticket back in November, having been too late to secure one for the previous years event. It was my intention to spend the day passively ingesting talks from others whom I have admired and followed (in a twitter way – not a stalker-type way) for some time. Then a couple of months ago Mark Healy @cijane02 (lover of words hardly anyone else understands) suggested that we co-present a session on Mindsets. I responded in my usual way – by ignoring him. I like Mark and have bucket loads of respect for him, but public speaking has a habit of filling me with dread and my tactic for dealing with impending doom is to pretend it doesn’t exist. Eleanor Roosevelt is cited as suggesting that we should all do something everyday that scares us, so I mulled over Mark’s proposal for a while, initially sending him a fairly non-committal reply.

To be honest, teaching still scares the bejesus out of me but, for that very reason, I don’t think it counted in the Roosevelt sense. So, knowing that once I said ‘yes’ there was no turning back, I, well, said yes. So Mark and I delivered a session entitled ‘Mindsets: The Good, the bad and the unknown’ (I was the bad – thanks mate!). I’ll blog separately about that later.

…We were up first, so I’ll skip to session 2.

My on-off relationship with Positive Psychology naturally drove me towards Alastair Arnott (@Alastair_Arnott), who was accompanied by Professor Mick Waters. Alastair is a former teacher, author of ‘Positive Failure’ and a man who seems to have been marinated in positivity. He is passionate about the positive side of psychology with an infectious insistence that schools should be ‘happy places’. I couldn’t disagree with that. I must admit, much of what Alastair said wasn’t new to me (my research at York is closely related to Positive Psychology) but certainly tweaked the interest of the audience. The gist of the talk was that pupils should be allowed, and even encouraged, to fail and that failure shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing. Alastair completed in MSc in Positive Psychology so I suspect he’s spent a great deal of time reading some of the books that adorn my shelves (most by the godfather of PosPsych, Martin Seligman and all with titles that contain the words ‘Happiness’ and ‘Optimistic’).

There were some concerns from the audience, however. One delegate asked how long somebody could fail and still carry on while another appeared sceptical about all the psychology in education (he asked Mark and I the same question in our session – I’ll try and answer it another time). Of course, the former question is about learned helplessness and Alastair used the term ‘inoculation’ several times. The idea of inoculation stems from Seligman’s early research into learned helplessness. The general idea is that we can help learners develop positive coping strategies, allowing them to develop the kind of mindset that keeps destructive negative thoughts in check in the same that the measles vaccine inoculates you against the measles virus. I’ve mentioned before the idea of building ‘positive psychological capital’ in learners and I suspect this is what Alastair has in mind.

Session 3 was a tricky one for me but I eventually opted for Tait Coles (@Totallywired77) who successfully ripped into the insane idea of teaching British Values in schools. Teaching in a predominately white middle-class school, I hadn’t really experienced much of what Tait discussed, nevertheless, his sentiments still managed to resonate.

The session debated a little about what we meant by ‘British Values’ and if they were, in fact, just human values. Tait admitted that he was using his ‘white privilege’ to discuss institutional racism and drew our attention to the fact that there was only one non-white speaker at the event (Amjad Ali – @ASTsupportAAli ). Tait, who isn’t exactly universally loved by all in the teaching profession, is the author of ‘Never Mind the Inspectors: Here’s Punk Learning’ and a vice principle at a Bradford secondary school. Tait is another passionate individual who appears to despise inequality in all its manifestations – I liked him a lot!

John Tomsett (@JohnTomsett) tried to teach us maths – I tweeted instead. I’ve had a great deal of love for John for some time (he even appeared on a slide in my session earlier in the morning), he is the kind of headteacher I would want to be (if I actually wanted such a scary job). Like, Alastair, John was discussing something I knew a good bit about – meta-cognition. I’m not sure if it was the topic or John himself, but the lecture theatre was packed and I had to sit on the stairs (that’s me in the photo!). What John did was bring the whole idea of teaching meta-cognitive awareness into the classroom in a practical way – I now need to get myself a visualiser!


But John moved on from meta-cognition, widening his remit to speak passionately about the emotional side of teaching and learning. Like me (and Alastair), John fears that young people are suffering psychologically from the pressures of the system and that it’s only going to get worse. Many believe that we shouldn’t try to psychologize education – I disagree. Emotional responses to stress and anxiety are too destructive to be ignored, and while teachers don’t have the skills to treat, they do have the power to make things easier and show a little bit of compassion. Teaching, insisted John, is as much about building positive relationships as it is about teaching content.

The day was certainly exhausting (especially for us introverts – I think I might organise a conference for introvert teachers – Northern (hiding under the) Rocks?). I’m certainly in awe of Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) and Emma Hardy (@emmaannhardy) who managed to organise it all!

In a society where the teaching profession is so often consumed by negatively, it was great to spend the day with people who, against all odds, remain so positive about what we do. I am also so very pleased that I said yes to Mark – our session went well and people seemed very enthusiastic about what we said…

Can’t wait for next year!