Attitude Determines Altitude

Attitude determines altitude banner

Attitude determines altitude banner

As part of our growth mindset ethos this year, we have been working hard with students on their attitudes to learning in school. As David Didau has explained, “good behaviour is necessary for good teaching to take place,” and we completely agree. I have been working closely with Head of Year 11 Phil Edwards (@_philedwards on Twitter) to help the cohort get into the right mindset for success. One of the innovations we’ve tried is the publication of attitude grades under our “Attitude Determines Altitude” banner.

“Attitude Determines Altitude” was adopted by NASA’s education programme in America (see here) as a variant on Zig Ziglar’s quotation.


Of course, it’s not rocket science…except, in this case, it is! Aim too low – or get the attitude wrong – and you’ll crash and burn. Get the angle of ascent right, ignite the thrusters, and you’ll go into orbit.

At Chew Valley, we collect teacher assessments of student attitudes three times a year. We use a four point scale – VGSU for Very Good, Good, Satisfactory, and Unsatisfactory – in four categories:

  • Behaviour
  • Classwork
  • Homework
  • Organisation

All the categories are underpinned with clear definitions issued with report guidance (view a copy here: Attitude Grades). The grades awarded are processed into a percentage score – if students were to achieve all V grades, they would get 100%, whereas all U grades would result in a 0% score. These scores are reported to parents (along with individual grades), tracked at each reporting point so that trends can be identified.The most recent score is also included in student Key Performance Indicators in SIMS. The advantage of tracking attitudes in this way is that it is possible to identify improvement and decline in student attitudes over time. Tutors are issued with a tracking spreadsheet which shows students’ attitude scores over time and their improvement or decline, as well as their relative position in the year group. This allows intervention to be targeted at students whose attitudes are declining, and the success of those who have improved to be celebrated.

This tracking process is well established and has been running for four years, but it has always been teacher-based. With Year 11, we have gone public. In November we published student attitudes on the Year 11 noticeboard, along with their rank order position in the year group according to that score. We debated the format for a long time! I was all for publishing a straight rank-order list from 1-200 to make it totally clear who was at the top and who was at the bottom. However, I was persuaded away from this as we worried that students would easily see who was surrounding them in that part of the table and this may create a sense of group identity and possibly negative reinforcement – “we’re the bottom of the table crew!”

Example attitude grades from first posting in November (anonymised)

Example attitude grades from first posting in November (anonymised)

Instead, we published the list in alphabetical order by tutor group.  This made it easy for the students to find their own name and see where they stood in the rankings. The launch was carefully handled by Phil and his team of tutors, who made sure the message was mediated and that students were encouraged to improve their attitudes – and their position in the ranking!

Guide to attitude determines altitude published in November (original here)

Guide to attitude determines altitude published in November (original here)

Last week, we published the second attitude determines altitude scores on the noticeboard. These had been awarded following mock exams and results over Christmas. A few interesting trends emerged! In November, the highest score in the year was 98% (awarded to two students); in January there were three on 100% and thirteen altogether over 98%. If you scored exactly the same attitude in January as in November, your position in the rankings dropped. The rest of the year group was improving – staying the same wouldn’t cut it! Most impressively of all, some students had leaped up the rankings, with a dozen students improving by 10% or more. Of course, some had also declined – this wasn’t a magic wand and it didn’t work for all! – but the response has been really positive. Above all, the average attitude score from this Year 11 cohort sits considerably higher than any other Year 11 cohort we have ever had – and the evidence from staffroom conversations and staff evaluations is that this reflects a reality in the classroom. Phil made the most of the publication by stoking a bit of inter-tutor-group rivalry:

On Friday, I asked a selection of the students what they thought of it. Here is a selection of what they said:

  • “When I saw how low I was, I knew I had to do something about it.”
  • “I think it’s good so you know where you stand.”
  • “My Mum was against it, but I’m not really bothered.”
  • “I would have worked harder anyway because the exams are so close. I’m not sure the board had anything to do with it.”
  • “When I saw how far I’d gone up, I was really pleased with myself.”

A mixed picture! This is an inexact science and we’re not conducting an RCT here. I don’t know if it’s our whole-school growth mindset ethos and focus on effort, the excellent leadership from the Head of Year and his team of tutors, the luck of the draw or the publication of effort grades on the board that is making the difference. But something is working! And when the scores went up last week, students gathered round, keen to check their position and progress. Conversations about attitudes to learning were happening between students. That’s got to be a good thing! Certainly was for 11H…

14 thoughts on “Attitude Determines Altitude

  1. Hi Chris, That’s an interesting read, but I’m afraid I have to say that I am not totally comfortable with this idea. It reminds me a little bit too much of how they used to rank us at my primary school, from 1 to 32, according to our academic results. Obviously you are using the ranking for attitude and not ability, but I can remember to this day how painful I found it when the teacher read out those last few names. I was lucky enough to be at the top, but being told where I was did not make me more motivated, all it did was pile on the pressure to stay there.

    I would also suggest that the ranking of ‘attitude’ is most likely quite a subjective judgement, especially in those subjects where teachers only see their students once or twice a week, and so don’t get to know them all that well. I wonder how possible it is to separate out our judgement of a child’s attitude from other aspects such as confidence, underlying academic ability, home background/support, and so on. Unless we know a child really well, it is very hard to know when or if they are trying hard (I even find this hard with my own kids at home and regularly get it wrong). The other thing that would be hard to take into account is the influence of the home background. For instance, on the homework grading that they get, how is it possible to tell where parents have ‘supported’ beyond what you might wish, and where parents have insisted that the student does it themselves, or not even offered the child a quiet space in which to do that work?

    One other thought – in terms of individual motivation, I’m observing some interesting reactions at the home end of the mindset equation. In a weird way, saying ‘it is up to you how motivated you are’ has almost put a brake on what I could previously have insisted on as an expectation with my kid. This is good in one way – it is up to students to find their own self discipline and to push themselves – but in another way I am finding it a bit frustrating and possibly slightly counter productive. (Of course, it may just be the typical transition to secondary/teenager thing going on.) I will ‘watch this space’ with interest!

    • Thanks Sue. We would never publish attainment grades in this way, especially not in any kind of rank order. That’s a horrible thought and could only be negative. Of course, grading “attitude” is somewhat subjective but our criteria try to make it consistent and it’s no more subjective than grading creative writing, drama performance or art imho. Of course home background can have an impact on attitudes to learning but they aren’t deterministic: students from the most supportive backgrounds can (and do) have shocking attitudes to learning, whilst those from the least supportive backgrounds can (and do) display exemplary approaches. With attitude, students have real agency – it is within their power to improve. We are putting pressure on those with good attitudes to maintain them, and those with poorer attitudes to improve them, and I think we are right to do so.

      I’m interested in your reading of our mindset approach. Whilst young people do have agency over their own motivation it is wrong to imply that we shouldn’t influence this. Indeed, we would be failing if we said “it’s up to you how hard you work – you decide.” Rather, our message is: “we want you to work harder. Here’s why. And here’s how.”

      • Hi again Chris, It’s not my reading of your approach, it’s more just a report of what I’m seeing at the parent end of the equation. It’s a kind of ‘okay well I’m fine with that grade then’ reaction, which may just reflect on my own child being a bit lazy, but it might also be interesting for you to consider in the context of the school’s approach. How do we get past a ‘that’ll do me’ attitude? It’s causing some friction at this end to be honest, in the sense of my kid feeling we are judging him (which we probably are) and losing confidence a bit in response.

        The reason the subjective aspect of this worries me is not that I think it’s horribly inaccurate (it’s probably only slightly so) but more that you are publishing a ranking based on it, so you are effectively saying to the students that you trust it completely. I hope that makes sense? I wonder what reaction you got from the student who was right at the bottom?

        The other thing I’ve been wondering is about the inevitable mismatch between the rankings the students will have got in the aptitude assessment, and the end results they will receive for their GCSEs. I worry that it could be crushing to say to say to a child ‘look you came top in the effort ranking’ when that child may then go on to receive poor GCSE results, for instance because of literacy related SEN.

      • Yes, those are all really valid points. The “that’ll do me” attitude is one we are actively challenging with this year’s Year 11 and with our ethos – I believe you’ve seen my “Don’t Settle” assembly on this topic? It is a worrying trend and it’s precisely that which we are trying to challenge with our approach. It may not always work but “that’ll do” is not good enough. We don’t want anyone – teachers, students, even families! – to settle for mediocrity. In terms of trust in our assessment of attitudes I think we are confident with it, and I think the students are comfortable with it. And students do get attainment grades (not publicly, but personally) at every reporting point and more besides, so they know exactly where they stand in terms of academic attainment – and that the only way to improve academic attainment from where they are now is to work hard, focus and show the best attitude they can. Hence our intervention!

  2. What Then of a student with significant cognitive challenges …given inflated As or Bs when if in mix with peers might be a passing C. They are devastated whe give a real world D……

    • I think you’ve misunderstood. We are only publishing attitude grades. Attainment grades – the academic standards reached – are rigorously, honestly and fairly applied and we would never publish these, especially not in a rank order.

  3. Hi Chris,
    I am interested in this idea and I think (at present) I’m confident with an approach of “We expect everyone to give 100% effort and, if you’re not, we’re going to flag that up and challenge you as to why”.
    I think I’m also ok with further conversations between tutors and tutees along the lines of the fact that a student is putting more effort in does not necessarily mean they will beat (attainment wise) a student that is putting in less effort. It does, however mean that they will attain higher than they would if they didn’t put in as much effort.
    However, I do find this curious:
    A judgment of “Satisfactory” indicates that the student is not currently meeting our high expectations and needs to improve their attitude.
    So a judgment of Satisfactory clearly means not Satisfactory?

  4. Morning Chris

    I do like this approach and the purpose behind it. I like the fact you have included “organisation” which is what my school do not do. Also, the fact that the data is being used rather than just what I call ” dead data” where nobody ( all stakeholders) engage with is proactive.

    Please may I ask why you chose not to include attendance in determining “attitude.” This is not a criticism, but a curiosity as am looking at applying this model in my school for tracking with my tutor team/SLT to allow us to target intervention at Year 10.

    Do you plan on using this same model for Year 11 for the whole school?

    Great Work


    • Thanks for the comment. We report % attendance separately but we don’t include it in attitude as it isn’t always connected – some long term health conditions for example result in low attendance but the students are still able to demonstrate excellent attitudes. However, we do track and intervene in attendance as a separate strand. We are considering rolling out the attitude determines altitude approach but we want to run the whole year pilot and evaluate before we decide.

  5. Pingback: Getting revision right | Teaching: Leading Learning

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