Weekly Newsletter Monday 26 May 2014 – The Growth Mindset edition

Full picture edition here – http://goo.gl/BhQV0z


The principles behind Carol Dweck’s Growth mindset were well known before Dweck’s “Discovery”. Harking back to Reuven Feuerstein’s work in the 1950s with backward children in Israel and Professor Michael Shayer’s work in the 1980s, we learned that children’s IQs could be improved substantially through teaching the children how to to think about their own thinking, and to act upon what they conclude in this thinking. Couple this with gathering an understanding of different types of reasoning, as in Bloom’s Taxonomy, and different types of Thinking, such as with De Bono’s thinking hats, and we know that children can perform really much better than their standardised IQ might suggest. What Dweck added to the mix was the initial kick-start that learners needed to ‘believe’ they could do better. Encouraging students to gain a ‘Growth Mindset’ meant they also believed that obstacles to learning were there to be overcome, that failure was part of the learning process and a change in strategy was needed to overcome the barrier to progress.

This all might seem ‘University of the Bleeding Obvious’ stuff, but it’s not. As Shayer’s research found last decade, the arrival of the UK National Curriculum in Maths and English in the 1990s lead to a real fall in academic standards.  Here’s the start of a 2006 Guardian article entitled ‘Children are less able than they used to be’.

“New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and conducted by Michael Shayer, Professor of applied psychology at King’s College, University of London, concludes that 11- and 12-year-old children in year 7 are “now on average between two and three years behind where they were 15 years ago”, in terms of cognitive and conceptual development”.  

Why did this happen?

Professor Shayler’s conclusion about the decline in UK children’s cognitive abilities was not conclusive; he pointed out that children had become increasingly passive in their work and play. “I suggest that the most likely reasons are the lack of experiential play in primary schools, and the growth of a video-game, TV culture. Both take away the kind of hands-on play that allows kids to experience how the world works in practice and to make informed judgments about abstract concepts.”

If you have 30 minutes to spare, watch Dr Tae’s presentation ‘Building a new culture of Teaching and Learning’ on the Physics of Skateboarding website, a video largely not about street sport and more about how Universities and schools have failed their students in recent years. His secret for success that learners need – “Work your ass of ‘til you figure it out, coupled with honest self-evaluation, and a commitment to practice to achieve Mastery in the challenge to be overcome”.

My take on why children’s cognitive abilities declined through the NC years

Probably because instead of children developing a self-awareness of whether they could read, write, do sums and stuff, their intrinsic knowledge of their own capabilities were replaced by the extrinsic conscious acquisition of levels.  Time and again I have seen children beam that they have gained good grades.  That’s fine at the end of a public exam course such as GCSE or A level, but really of little significance for other kinds of learning.  Once 80% children had passed their Maths at level 4 at end of KS2 age 11, that rather let them and their teachers off the hook, did it not?  I remember at the outset of the National Curriculum, all of my son’s class gained a Level 3.  We celebrated as did their teacher, Mrs Howell, only for her to learn the following year from the local English advisor that ‘all of Y2 can’t get to level 3’. And thence on they never did.  That’s to my mind is a classic imposition of a limiting mindset.  Moreover, one a child had gained a high level 5 or 6, they were deemed to be doing really well, exceeding their targets and actually unable to reach the next level up.  As if learning is this linear anyway!

Further ways of raising our game as pedagogues

In John Hattie’s seminal work, VIsible Learning, and as summarised/updated in the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, the most effective ways of improving learning outcomes for children are Feedback and Metacognition, both of which give rise to up to 8 months of improvement in a calendar year, and in relative terms are low cost to implement.


Let’s be clear, there are plenty of ways to give feedback that discourage and disappoint.  Lots of red lines through the work, loud words in the margin such as ‘See Me’ and negative comments are counter-productive. In fact, EEF recent studies find improvement gains are more modest, and other studies indicate that feedback is most effective when given during active work creation not at stepped intervals between sections. In my own work, it’s quite obvious what effective feedback looks like in some subjects such as Art, Drama and English, where perhaps the student does not need to acquire new knowledge during their period of creative activity. Whereas in History, MFL or Science, a lack of theoretical knowledge can ‘block’ the work, and no amount of ‘giddy-up’ can replace the learner’s lack of mastery of the facts needed to work at the required level.

Nevertheless, here’s EEF’s aide memoire – Research suggests that it should:

  • be specific, accurate and clear (e.g. “It was good because you…” rather than just “correct”).
  • compare what a learner is doing right now with what they have done wrong before (e.g. “I can see you were focused on improving X as it is much better than last time’s Y…”).
  • encourage and support further effort and be given sparingly so that it is meaningful
  • provide specific guidance on how to improve and not just tell students when they are wrong.
  • be supported with effective professional development for teachers.
  • Wider research suggests the feedback should be about complex or challenging tasks or goals as this is likely to emphasise the importance of effort and perseverance as well as be more valued by the pupils. Feedback can come from other peers as well as adults (see Peer tutoring).
  • Have you considered the challenge of implementing feedback effectively and consistently?
  • What professional development requirements is likely to be necessary for success?

Please bear in mind that positive feedback needs to be rationed, and where possible, not graded until that feedback becomes appropriate. Children know what a good grade is and when it is deserved. Sceptics amongst you will state that children love to hear what mark they’ve got for their work, indeed often it’s the only thing they’ll focus on. Quite, precisely my point.


A couple of years ago I made the mistake of running an Autumn Study conference seminar on the Learning theory that underpinned metacognition, most obviously that drawn from the work of ‘Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development’ – here’s an appropriate treatment of those ideas. In the end, we don’t really need to know why learning about learning works; we just need to think about our learning much more often as we go about our work. However, children make the best teachers mainly because those that can do the work are closer to those that can’t and are able to show them the ropes without imparting a sense of failure onto their peers.

EEF summary – research promotes the following:

  • Teaching approaches which encourage learners to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning have very high potential, but require careful implementation.
  • Have you planned how you will implement this approach?
  • Have you taught pupils explicit strategies on how to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning? Have you given them opportunities to use them with support and then independently?
  • Teaching how to plan: Have you asked pupils to identify the different ways that they could plan (general strategies) and then how best to approach a particular task (specific technique)?
  • Teaching how to monitor: Have you asked pupils to consider where the task might go wrong? Have you asked the pupils to identify the key steps for keeping the task on track?
  • Teaching how to evaluate: Have you asked pupils to consider how they would improve their approach to the task if they completed it again?

One of the more respected lecturers on Effective learning is Geoff Petty, whose website is a mine of all-sorts of great info on improving teaching. What Dweck to Petty and all those other names in between have in common is a firm belief that children do need to be taught at school. But rather than teach them the knowledge (very inefficient way of learning that, by the way), children need to be introduced to a myriad of strategies that once learned assist them in their work.

Petty refers to the importance of teaching the GENERIC skills that children need to acquire for each subject very specially, and include not just mind-maps, flow-charts, essay writing and self-reflection, but also an understanding ‘how to interview’ and ‘behaving maturely’.  You can find his guide for generic skills and lots of other stuff on his download page from his website.

A word of caution – as some of the sheets are a little dated, he still talks about raising children through KS levels.  I know teachers found Levels useful, but for all the reasons I am writing this Blog each week, don’t go falling for that old tripe once again. As Professor Dweck and Shayler have pointed out so clearly, our job as educators is to improve children’s Cognitive capacity, and we do that by specifically working on cognitive development. If we swap that job for scaffolding children’s learning through levels, all we will do is fail our children in the long run.

Mindset impact in Schools

Durringon High School in West Sussex are one of a number of schools explicitly setting out their stall to develop as a Growth Mindset school – read more of that here. Do click on the About page, as that will show you a range of initiatives the school is embracing to highlight what’s hot and happening for teachers, and you’ll find lots of links to other useful blogs as well.

And finally…

It’s not just me that is recommending we re-engineer our schools and the way we teach. As reported in the press this Friday, The Royal Academy of Engineering are really worried about how schools are switching children off practical learning “the education system has come to expect young people to move away from practical learning as they grow up and to become more theoretical and abstract, it says.

Read more: http://www.theengineer.co.uk/uk-schools-failing-to-encourage-natural-engineering-talent/1018607.article#ixzz32qEspnCn


…Infographic of the week using some Engineering..

I love the arrival of Tube maps to highlight connections and when used as posters improve opportunities for casual learning.  Here’s one on Discourse markers.


…and here’s proof engineering works:


Aarambh, a new Bombay-based NGO, has created a briefcase-like backpack that can fold out to become a desk during the day. And the company is distributing them to children who lack resources in rural India (via Huffington Post).

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/backpack-turns-into-a-help-desk-by-aarambh-2014-5#ixzz32qG6WKi2

Have a great half-term week, and see you soon.

James Wilding





About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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1 Response to Weekly Newsletter Monday 26 May 2014 – The Growth Mindset edition

  1. Pingback: Evidence-based education – The performance of children in Independent Schools places them 2 year’s ahead of their state school peers. | A Principled view

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