Monthly Archives: September 2015

Mental Toughness and Non-cognitive Skills in Learning.

I’ve spent a good few years now investigating the tricky subject of ‘resilience’ in all its guises and with its myriad of definitions. What I’ve found difficult is the marrying of related concepts; those concepts that are like resilience but remain conceptually different. Even with my decision to adopt the term ‘academic buoyancy’ there remains the frustration of not being able to reconcile the concept with attributes such as ‘grit’ (which to me remains ill-defined and somewhat woolly).

In the past I’ve attempted to compare students with athletes, in the hope of making the connection between the success of top sportspeople and the favourable outcomes experienced by our best students. As it turns out others have also been attempting to draw these threads together in the form of Mental Toughness.

Originally a term used within sports psychology, Mental Toughness has gradually entered the sphere of teaching and learning, providing a useful umbrella under which to study related concepts including resilience, buoyancy and grit, all of which align in some way with the Mental Toughness (McGeown et al., 2015). Certainly, when we look at the four main components of Mental Toughness (the 4 C’s): Commitment, Challenge, Control and Confidence, we immediately begin to recognise these components and key principles as being associated with other non-cognitive skills.


A major strength of the model is the wealth of evidence to support it; originally from sport psychology and latterly from educational psychology. The components of Mental Toughness appear to be positively related to certain favourable educational outcomes, including attainment, attendance, behaviour and peer relations (St Clair-Thompson et al., 2015). Studies involving athletes indicates that Mental Toughness can also be enhanced through psychological skills training. Interventions consisting of goal setting, visualisation, relaxation, concentration and thought stopping skills have been found to be beneficial within sports settings. Although it does not logically follow that these skills could aid learners, there is certainly a strong indication that they could. Another study found that an emphasis on coping and optimism also impacts positively on performance (Nicholls et al., 2008).

The main attraction of Mental Toughness appears to be its ability to consolidate a number of other concepts and to investigate them beneath a single umbrella. There will always remain a problem with the extent to which non-cognitive skills can be explicitly taught (I have argued elsewhere that they cannot), nevertheless, nurturing specific positive qualities in a whole school way could ensure that at least some pupils begin to develop these qualities and flourish because of them.


McGeown, S.P., St Clair-Thompson, H. & Clough, P. (2015). The study of non-cognitive attributes in education: proposing the mental toughness framework. Educational Review. [Online] (September). p.pp. 1–18. Available from:

Nicholls, A.R., Polman, R.C.J., Levy, A.R. & Backhouse, S.H. (2008). Mental toughness, optimism, pessimism, and coping among athletes. Personality and Individual Differences. 44 (5). p.pp. 1182–1192.

St Clair-Thompson, H., Bugler, M., Robinson, J., Clough, P., McGeown, S.P. & Perry, J. (2015). Mental toughness in education: exploring relationships with attainment, attendance, behaviour and peer relationships. Educational Psychology. [Online]. 35 (7). p.pp. 886–907. Available from:


ResearchED 2015: How wrong could I have been?

Back in 2013 I wrote a piece for The Guardian in response to a paper published by Ben Goldacre.  Ben attempted to argue that teaching should become a research-led profession, driven by teachers themselves and reliant on the Randomised Controlled Trail (RCT). It received a few comments and circulated around Twitter for a few days, inflating my ego as well as adding a little bit to the debate. During this time I was contacted by Tom Bennett (who probably doesn’t remember this particularly crucial moment in his life), a teacher and TES columnist and a man who seemed keen to answer (or at least critically discuss) Goldacre’s battle cry. Tom had an idea – he wanted to run a conference on a Saturday in September and gather together as many like-minded teachers, academics and other interested parties in an attempt to debate and discuss teaching as research-led. He had read my Guardian piece and thought I might be such a person. I was intrigued but declined due to family commitments. To be honest, I was also very sceptical – there was no way that teachers would turn up on a Saturday during the first precious weeks of a new term and discuss educational research.

How wrong could I be?


I arrived home at about 10.30 last night; having travelled back from what has become one of the key education conferences in the teaching calendar (the ResearchED National Conference in London). This time last week I had recently returned home from the first ResearchEd Scotland event in Glasgow. The movement (or is it a ‘cult’?) has grown so fast it’s difficult to keep track of all the events carrying the ResearchED brand (it’s even travelled to Australia and the United States). The most amazing thing is that it’s still very much ‘owned’ by teachers, with speakers giving their time for free and seminar rooms packed with eager young (and not so young) minds. I have to say that I’ve caught the ResearchED bug (better late then never, I suppose) and find myself still buzzing from all the wonderful things I’ve seen and heard over the past two Saturdays.

Around 700 delegates gathered at South Hampstead High School for ResearchED15 (most of them teachers – ON A SATURDAY!). If you weren’t there, this is just a teeny tiny taste of what you missed.


Kieran Dhunna Halliwell (Ezzy Moon to those on Twitter) started off my day by using some rather offensive language in her discussion of Race and Culture in the Classroom. Kieran had conducted an interesting survey into how comfortable teachers were with discussions around race, ethnicity and culture (although we all had problems defining these terms). Essentially, teachers really aren’t that comfortable with discussing such issues although, not surprisingly, History and RE teachers are more so. Media representations are a major problem, insisted Kieran; I nodded in agreement, knowing full well that my own students often base their understanding of complex issues on whatever is on the front page of the tabloids.

Next I went to listen to Nick Gibb (Minister for Schools) and immediately wished I hadn’t (but was just too polite to get up and walk out). I listened to a speech that cherry picked blogs, books and individuals that simply supported current political ideology and emphasised the tired old false traditionalist-progressive dichotomy and praised Chinese teaching methods.

Claire_WaghornThankfully, Claire Waghorn managed to banish Gibb to farthest corner of my cluttered unconscious. Her talk was on how South Hampstead High School (our host for the day) was adopting a Growth Mindset approach for pupils and staff. Claire provided the audience with a well-designed blueprint of how interventions should be implemented. There was also some discussion on Mindfulness (another hot topic at the moment).

I was up at 1pm but was too nervous for lunch (I was reliably informed that it was ‘lush’ – cheers Ezzy!). Mark Healy and I were talking critically about Mindsets only Mark couldn’t make it so I was on my own. If you’re interested the slides are here.

Stuart Ritchie (University of Edinburgh) talked IQ tests and used lots of complicated graphs. IQ remains controversial with teachers and although I’m not keen on the tests myself (I suspect partly in fear of being of below average intelligence) I can’t deny they have a strong empirical basis. Stuart certainly believed in what he preached and had the evidence to support every word he spoke (including an MRI scan of his brain). His talk also suggested that A-level Psychology textbooks really need to catch up with the research.

I was flagging by the time I made it to Jack Marwood’s session. We arrived to the sound of 80’s pop sensation Prefab Sprout (according to Wikipedia they still exist!). Jack talked about research and what we understand about what actually works in the classroom. I enjoyed the session but left with the frightening conclusion that nothing we ever do will make any significant difference to the outcomes of our pupils – of course I was very tired by this point and might have misunderstood.

The hard wooden benches in the sports hall woke me up a little (but did nothing for the wonky disc at the base of my spineRob_Coe *reaches for the Ibuprofen* ). I’d arrived to listen to Professor Rob Coe, good friend to the whole ResearchED movement/cult). Pof. Coe returned to the core of ResearchED – How can we know what actually works? The answer I think is that sometimes we don’t but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. His slides are available here.

Tom Bennett drew the day to a close by asking for some volunteers to put some chairs away. Then everyone went to the pub.