Making Festive Fun

Every school has their traditions: dates in the calendar which make each institution special. At my current school, Christmas is a time when the sixth form traditionally take over, and the staff watch on with bated breath.

The first tradition is the Sixth Form Christmas Debate. All the students dress smartly for the occasion and teams compete to carry two motions. This year, they took on “this house believes that in order to fight terrorism the government should pass a law that compels social media sites to monitor conversations”, and “this house believes that superheroes such as Batman and Superman are misleading idols.”

Secondly we have the Sixth Form Revue on the final afternoon. This is a show penned by the students combining sketches, musical items, videos and dance, with the express intention of…well, ridiculing the staff and the school. The rest of the students pile into the hall in full festive cheer (the last day is always Christmas Jumper day), the lights go down, and the staff look on with a mixture of excitement and fear. Who will the students impersonate? What character trait will they pick up on? There are definite mixed feelings when you see a sixth former emerge with a sign round his neck bearing your name. On the one hand, panic. On the other hand, it’s a kind of compliment. As Oscar Wilde said, “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.

This year, given our relaunch, Growth Mindset was squarely in the crosshairs. It is, I think, a fair comment on how visible our new ethos is, that they covered cars and offices in Growth Mindset post-its…

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My part in the proceedings included performing a “Growth Mindset Rap” alongside the Head of Geography, written and supported by Year 13 music students. Set to Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack.  Sample lyric:

Don’t give up (Get your mindset on)

Give it a go (and you will not go wrong)

The children show (get your mindset on)

A marked improvement (and your brain will be strong)

In what they know (all your worries will be gone)

And it’s all because (get your mindset on)

the mindset of growth (get your mindset on)

I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. If I’m honest, it’s probably best that way.

Of course, the irony is that the kind of hard work, effort and dedication taken to put on a show like this would make Dweck grin from ear to ear!

The reaction of the younger students in the audience during this thorough lampooning of the staff is really interesting. Many of them look round at the teacher to check it’s okay to laugh. And it is; it really is. Because the satire is a sign of the strength of relationships within the school, that it’s okay to laugh at ourselves and at one another. The warmth that this generates is what binds school communities together and creates the memories that we keep forever.

Happy Christmas everyone!

 

Growth Mindset Launch

Back in March I blogged about becoming a growth mindset school following our staff launch event.  Since that time we have been very busy preparing to roll out the ethos to the whole school. Here’s what we’ve been up to, and what we’re planning for September…

Re-branding the school

Our old school motto was “Developing Potential to the Full” – a noble idea full of good intentions. However, as John Tomsett pointed out on Twitter, how do you know what anyone’s potential is, even your own? For this reason we have rewritten our school aims and changed our motto to “Learn, Grow, Achieve” to encapsulate our growth mindset ethos.

Graphic of our new school sign

Graphic of our new school sign

The external signs and website have all been “refreshed” with the new motto. Unfortunately our paper prospectus was printed in bulk so re-branding that will have to wait until next year!

Inside the school, we have put up over ninety “inspiration signs.” These all feature quotations which encapsulate aspects of the Growth Mindset crowdsourced from the school staff (and a good trawl of Twitter and Google!), made up into A3 sized plastic signs. You can see the whole collection here. One of the activities we will be running with young people is an “Inspiration Treasure Hunt” where the students have to find all the different signs and research the sources of the quotations. There will be prizes for the most detailed research as well as the first to find them all!

Finally, there are two displays in school explaining the idea of Growth Mindset – one outside my office, and another due to go up in main reception. The latter will also include an excellence wall to celebrate student work after the model of Pete Jones and Shaun Allison.

We felt that it was important that the students arrived in September to see something visibly different about the school, and we also felt it important to wear our hearts on our sleeves. The ethos should be visible from the front gate through every corridor and into every classroom in the school.

First days back with staff – INSET

Staff have already had the launch presentation, so the presentation below will serve as a reminder of the principles and set out our strategy for launching the new ethos.

The presentation boils down the growth mindset approach to three key mindset traits, and lays out the importance of praising effort not intelligence. I have also prepared a handout on the use of growth mindset language in the classroom and in written feedback (GM Language) adapted from various sources including the Grow Mindsets blog from Huntington School. From this session, teachers will move into their inaugural Teaching and Learning Team sessions to work on improving their own teaching practice. This is a cornerstone of the growth mindset approach, as teachers as well as students will be working hard to develop a growth mindset for themselves. You can read about our Teaching and Learning Leaders approach here.

Launching Growth Mindset With Students

1. Growth Mindset Questionnaires

With tutors on the first morning, students will complete a Student GM Questionnaire. This has also been borrowed from Huntington School via John Tomsett and their excellent Grow Mindsets blog.  The idea behind this is to get the students thinking about the ideas of intelligence and mindset, and reflecting as they start the school year on their own mindsets. We will also be collecting the data to evaluate whether our interventions have had an impact on student mindsets over the first year.

2. Launch Assembly

Secondly, I will be delivering a Growth Mindset launch assembly, using the Prezi below. If you can’t see the embed, please click this link.

This assembly is a refined and condensed version of the presentation delivered to staff and governors in March. I didn’t want to over-complicate it, so I began by thinking about the most important information that students needed to know. I came up with:

  1. The difference between growth and fixed mindset
  2. The basic neuroscience of how the brain learns
  3. How this neuroscience can be used to understand the benefits of a growth mindset
  4. How to use a growth mindset voice in learning situations
fixedgrowth-copy

Growth Mindset Infographic

I based sections 1 and 3 on a simplified version of the well-known mindset infographic by Nigel Holmes, and used this Robert Winston video from The Human Body for the neuroscience:

The key part of the assembly is emphasising why the growth mindset attributes – embracing challenges, seeing effort as the path to mastery, learning from critique and the success of others – help develop intelligence by growing and developing neural pathways. Struggle is essential for learning. I will also make sure that the students know that all teachers will also be working hard to develop a growth mindset in their Teaching and Learning Teams to ensure that the quality of teaching young people receive continues to be excellent and improving. It’s important that students understand that learning, growth and achievement are critical for every member of the school community.

3. Tutorial session

The week after the assembly, all students have a session with their tutors to reinforce growth mindset ideas and apply them. Click here for the lesson plan: GM Enrichment Lesson 230914 . This session uses “The Learning Brain” video to revisit the link between neuroscience and mindset from the assembly:

Tutors then have a choice of three activities to help embed the ideas of a growth mindset, including Elizabeth’s Story.

Learning Reflection Journals

The final part of the tutorial session involves the launch of our Learning Journal for reflection (click here for a copy). Each student has a journal and they will use it to define their goals at the start of the year. It serves as a “getting to know you” exercise for new tutors, as well as being something to refer back to during the year to remind students of the big picture. There are also sections in the journal for more detailed reflection at monitoring points when reports are shared with parents (three times a year). The bulk of it, however, is taken up with weekly sheets to review learning in the previous week and set goals for the week ahead:

Weekly reflection from an original by @abbie_tucker adapted by @Ashley_Loynton and @chrishildrew

Weekly reflection from an original #5minplan by @abbie_tucker adapted by @Ashley_Loynton and @chrishildrew

The aim of this is to promote consistent reflection on learning and enable regular dialogue between tutors and students about mindsets and approaches to the learning process.

Next steps

We have already put family information sessions into the school calendar. I have pushed hard for these and they represent a substantial investment in terms of staff time out of normal school hours. However, it is essential that families understand what we are trying to achieve in school so that they can reinforce the message and provide consistent feedback at home. I will publish a separate post about these in due course!

Finally, it’s about getting on with it and ensuring that all of this planning actually makes a difference. That means enacting and developing a growth mindset in every interaction, every lesson, and every communication in every classroom, corridor and playground, not just for now but for the long haul – until it becomes the norm. Through the aggregation of these marginal gains, I hope we can achieve a true ethic of excellence.

Napoleon Hill with pic

Points about prizes

I have been thinking hard about values and ethos recently. It’s probably to do with being on NPQH where every other slide on every PowerPoint is about your values and vision, but my thoughts were also prompted by Joe Kirby’s recent blog series on rewards which begins with the Lewis Carroll quotation:

“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”

Image via Wikimedia commons

I remember David Cameron using this same quotation post-Olympics as he laid out his vision for the future of a Conservative-led Britain in the pages of the Daily Mail:

“In schools, there will be no more excuses for failure; no more soft exams and soft discipline. We saw that change in the exam results this year. When the grades went down a predictable cry went up: that we were hurting the prospects of these children.
To that we must be very clear: what hurts them is dumbing down their education so that their potential is never reached and no one wants to employ them. ‘All must have prizes’ is not just patronising, it is cruel – and with us it is over.”

Roger Bannister reaps the benefits of competition

Roger Bannister reaps the benefits of competition

I find this difficult, because I’m caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, I’m a fan of competition. I know that it can spur people on to achieve bigger and better things. I’ve been listening with interest to the documentaries commemorating the first four-minute mile, run by Roger Bannister on 5th May 1954. Most commentators, and Bannister himself, agree that competition from Australian John Landy pushed him on to achieve that feat. Kennedy’s drive a decade later to put a man on the moon was driven more by competition with the Soviet Union than scientific advance.

Man on the moon: the space race was driven by competition

I’m also a fan of competitive sport, both as a spectacle and as an integral part of schooling within and beyond the curriculum. Despite all of this, I can’t help feeling uneasy at the notion of awarding prizes to the single best performer in a discipline.

I’m certain this unease has its roots in my own experience; schooling is formative for all of us. But unlike Michael Gove, I am not driven to emulate my own schooling for the students in my care. My school (all boys, independent – read about it here) was competitive in every respect from the entrance exam to the end-of-year prize-giving; all very well if you were the single person that won. Which, after the first year, I was – I won the subject prizes for English and Biology and went up to shake the Headmaster’s hand the day after the great storm of 1987.  From that point forward, I measured myself against the success of others, constantly looking over my shoulder at the competition – the epitome of a fixed mindset. It’s no wonder that Carol Dweck’s story about being sat around the room in IQ order in sixth grade strikes such a chord with me! In the Sixth Form, when the school prizes were awarded, I came second in English. And I was gutted.

The competition

Let’s put this in context. I had a place to read English at Oxford; I got an A at A-Level and a 1 in S-Level English – and I was disappointed. Because there was someone better than me. It turns out the teachers were probably right, since the prize was awarded to my contemporary and all-round lovely bloke Andrew Miller, who went on to write the Man Booker nominated Snowdrops (heartily recommended by the way – a fantastic novel). I should have been proud of my achievements, but I wasn’t, and this was entirely due to the competitive ethos of my school where only one person could feel truly proud of what they had achieved – the winner.

I have no doubt that Cameron, Gove et al would nod at this and say “quite right.” In a true meritocracy, I wasn’t good enough. Perhaps they might even say that without the competitive ethos I would not have achieved as highly as I did. But I can’t accept that. In a growth mindset we should be measuring performance against our own yardstick, aiming to better our own personal best irrespective of the performance of others. This is the message I teach in my classes, the ethos I want for my school, and the frame of reference I set myself.

Are prefects compatible with an egalitarian ethos?

Are prefects compatible with an egalitarian ethos?

The same idea permeates my attitude to prefects and student hierarchy. My school had three levels – house prefects (bronze badge), sub-prefects (silver badge), and prefects (gold badge). As I’ve said, it was an independent boys’ school, so what do you expect? I was a sub-prefect but was never nominated as a prefect – I still don’t know why. The criteria weren’t published. I was certainly never in trouble, I was academically successful, I had 100% attendance throughout my school career. I wasn’t sporty; was that it? Maybe I wasn’t high-profile enough. Maybe there was a quota which had already been filled. My point is this – I had done my best throughout my schooling, and I was left disenchanted. A good student, passed over, left resentful and irritated, feeling second-best when there was no need! That’s why I strive in my classes to recognise the achievements of every single student, not to pass over any of them, and to celebrate each of them.

I wish I’d gone to the school I teach at now. There are no prefects, no Head Boy or Head Girl with their own offices and privileges putting them a cut above. The thriving school council, branded Change & Create, is comprised of self-generated student-led teams engaged in projects such as fundraising, Amnesty International, caring for the chickens, gardening, regenerating the pond and memorial garden, caring for wildlife, raising awareness of mental health issues… If a student wants to be part of it, they step up and join or form a project team. This way the community of the school pulls together towards common aims without the interference of hierarchy or external judgement. It is growth mindset in action.

And yet…we still have prizes. Each year the highest performing student in each subject discipline receives an award. Every school I’ve ever worked in has had them. And, for the winners, they’re great. The public recognition of achievement is powerful and important. We temper it slightly with awards for “most progress” and “best effort” alongside the achievement awards, which I think helps. And thankfully, we don’t have the situation which prevailed in a previous school where students were only permitted to receive one prize, which led to the bizarre situation of having my Media Studies nominees returned because they’d already been nominated in Art or Chemistry or something, so the second best media student would get the prize…and the senior leader in charge would not be budged. Insane!

Prizes can make us part of a shared community history

Prizes can make us part of a shared community history

The prizes themselves bring something else, however – a story. They’re named after an ex-teacher, ex-student, or member of the school community who wanted to put their name to an award. Some of them stretch back decades, some are more recent. Every year, as the story behind the award is read out, I get a lump in my throat: “this award is in memory of…a servant of the school for thirty years…” The names of the recipients are recorded, and it connects us to a shared community history that helps make the school more than a set of buildings and a seat of learning. I love this part of the prize-giving ceremony. I just wish there was a prize to recognise and reward the efforts of all our learners for the victories, achievements and triumphs they have celebrated on their journey with us.

Becoming a growth mindset school

The idea of becoming a growth mindset school has been over a year in the making. Our Headteacher bought each member of SLT a copy of Mindset for Christmas, and it was the main agenda item at our annual senior team conference. Today I launched the idea of becoming a growth mindset school to all staff at our INSET day. This is the basis of the presentation I did.

Our INSET session was for all staff – teaching, support, administrative, catering, site, network, technicians – everyone! It was essential for us, if we’re going to begin the process of shifting the culture of the school, that all staff are working together as one coherent team. It felt wonderful! As people arrived and settled down, we encouraged everyone to fill out a self-assessment questionnaire, with the results to be given out later! You can download our questionnaire (borrowed from John Tomsett and Huntington School) here.

What is Growth Mindset? 

Professor Carol Dweck and "Mindset"

Professor Carol Dweck and “Mindset”

Growth Mindset is the idea Professor Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Dweck has conducted a lifetime’s research into mindsets and established an opposition between a fixed mindset (the belief that intelligence is fixed) and a growth mindset (the belief that intelligence can grow). The differences Dweck establishes are well illustrated in this helpful infographic by Nigel Holmes.

fixedgrowth-copy

Dweck’s approach to mindset was sparked by her own experience of education. In her book, she describes what happened in her sixth-grade class:

Even as a child, I was focused on being smart, but the fixed mindset was really stamped in by Mrs. Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher… She believed that people’s IQ scores told the whole story of who they were. We were seated around the room in IQ order, and only the highest-IQ students could be trusted to carry the flag, clap the erasers, or take a note to the principal. Aside from the daily stomachaches she provoked with her judgmental stance, she was creating a mindset in which everyone in the class had one consuming goal—look smart, don’t look dumb. Who cared about or enjoyed learning when our whole being was at stake every time she gave us a test or called on us in class?

Our aim as a school has to be to build the growth mindset in our young people, and avoid the fixed mindset that can trap them into a premature plateau and cause them to fall short of their unknowable potential.

The Science behind Growth Mindset

I have previously blogged about my tentative first steps into neuroscience. As part of today’s presentation I used this Robert Winston video to explain about neural pathways and synapses:

This video really helps to visualise the learning process in the brain. The first time we try to learn something, it can be really hard. This is because we are making the first connection between neurons across a synapse. If we give up at this stage – as the fixed mindset might encourage us to do – we will never form that neural pathway. If we persist, repeat and deliberately practice the new skill or knowledge, we will create a secure pathway in our brains which will allow us to recall and re-use that skill or knowledge.

Establishing a growth mindset works in just the same way. The first time we challenge our fixed mindset approach to something, it’s difficult. Persisting in the fixed mindset strengthens that pathway in our brains and makes it more difficult to challenge. But building and repeating growth mindset approaches makes them stronger and more powerful too.

Dweck’s work and why a Growth Mindset is important

To give my audience a break from my voice, I turned to a helpful TED talk:

Here Eduardo Briceño outlines some of Dweck’s research studies, and how they apply in particular to education. The most powerful for me was the study into the use of praise. When similar children were given fixed mindset praise (“you did that really well; are so clever at doing puzzles!”) or growth mindset praise (“you did that really well; you must have tried really hard!”) it dramatically reduced or improved their ability to progress onto harder puzzles. Briceño’s examples are clear and well-articulated, which helped to illustrate the application of Dweck’s research into an educational context.

Why are we interested in Growth Mindset

In our school, we use PASS surveys to help us understand how our young people feel about themselves and their school experience. In these nationally benchmarked tests, our school’s scores come out green, well above the national norms. However, there are some interesting anomalies around the numbers. Students’ own perceived learning capabilities – the extent to which they believe they are effective learners – are the lowest average scores across the school. Even more powerfully, as students moved from Year 7 to Year 8, whilst their self-esteem and attitudes to teachers improved, their perceived learning capability declined. As SLT, we interpreted this to mean that whilst students were increasingly positive about school and themselves as they progressed, they became less confident in their own ability to learn. This can lead to a slow-down of academic progress, often manifested as a lack of effort or a “can’t do” attitude: “I can’t do Maths.”

In simple terms, we need to reverse this trend. As Shaun Allison has noted on his blog, we need to be producing Hobnob learners, not Rich Tea:

The #BiscuitClub Case Study

Ashley Loynton has run a case study group with the boys in his Year 11 Science class to develop a growth mindset approach. You can read more on his blog, but he outlined the approach that he had taken and shared the impressive results: from Year 10 Core Science achievement of 2Bs, 8Cs and 1D, the students went on to achieve 1A*, 1A, 5Bs, 3Cs and 1D in their Physics mock exam at Christmas. The difference? A growth mindset approach. One boy even stuck the Nigel Holmes infographic over the power button on his XBox, to make him think about what he should be doing every time he went to switch the console on and break the habit of getting in from school and switching straight into gaming mode. That feels like success to me.

What difference can a Growth Mindset make? 

Here I paid due tribute to John Tomsett, who firmed up the idea of a growth mindset school for me as I sat in his session at #TLT13. His blog has been incredibly influential, but most notably the post “This much I know about…developing a Dweck-inspired Growth Mindset culture.” John has been very helpful and supportive, providing materials that he has used at his school and useful, intelligent advice. Thank you Mr Tomsett! This results graph, taken from his #TLT13 presentation (which he has helpfully embedded on his blog), helped illustrate what can happen to a school which adopts a growth mindset culture enthusiastically:

Huntington School A*-C, courtesy of John Tomsett

Huntington School A*-C, courtesy of John Tomsett

I also used the example of New Heys School in Liverpool which, when faced with closure, adopted growth mindsets and saw their results rise by 39% in two years. You can read Winchester University’s case study of New Heys here.

How will we enact a Growth Mindset culture? 

This is where the session became more open. We have several ideas already:

  • Ensuring all stakeholders – staff, students, governors and parents – have the approach clearly explained
  • Changing the language of reporting
  • Using growth mindset praise
  • Using formative comments only for assessments (both on student work and in lesson observation)
  • Removing the concept of “Gifted and Talented” and instead identifying “high starters” in curriculum areas
  • Using peer-to-peer coaching to develop teaching and learning

The buzz in the school hall was overwhelming. Staff were full of ideas. We aren’t launching to students and parents until September, so there is plenty of time to harness that energy and those ideas into a coherent strategy. It’s really exciting!

Changing Mindsets

I finished the session with the results of the questionnaire, so that all staff could assess where they currently were in terms of their mindsets. Finally, we discussed how Dweck encourages us to change our mindsets when we find ourselves taking a fixed approach:

  1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset voice
  2. Recognise that you have a choice.
  3. Talk back in your growth mindset voice.
  4. Take action.

I finished on this animation illustrating the mindsets:


Below is the Prezi I used in the INSET session. If you can’t see the embed, click this link.

I will be updating you on the progress of this project on this blog over the coming months – with the first being our new teaching and learning approach! Watch this space…the Trojan Mice are coming!

Fiyero and the Scarecrow: defying gravity

In describing the visit of selected edubloggers to Ofsted, Tom Sherrington drew parallels with the visit of Dorothy, the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard.

Image via @headguruteacher

“Scarecrow has a brain!” concluded Tom, and it certainly seems that the bloggers have done good work in pulling back the curtain to reveal the mere mortal presence behind the intimidating smoke and mirrors of the spectral inspectorate.

For me, the stories of Oz have a resonance in my classroom, and in particular with the presence of Fiyeros in the student body. For the uninitiated, Fiyero is a character in the Geoffery Maguire novel Wicked, adapted into a wonderful Broadway and West End musical by Stephen Schwartz, telling a revisionist story of the origins of the witches of Oz. In the musical, Fiyero is a handsome prince whose introductory number is Dancing Through Life, where he lays out his simple philosophy:

The trouble with schools is
they always try to teach the wrong lesson
Believe me, I’ve been kicked out
of enough of them to know
They want you to become less callow
less shallow
But I say: “why invite stress in?”
stop studying strife
and learn to life “the unexamined life”

Dancing through life
skimming the surface
gliding where turf is smooth
life’s more painless
for the brainless
why think too hard?
when it’s so soothing
dancing through life
no need to tough it
when you can slough it off as I do
nothing matters
but knowing nothing matters
it’s just life
so keep dancing through…

How many Fiyeros have I taught? These are the students who will take the path of least resistance – “why think too hard?” It’s so soothing to ignore the challenge of the difficult path, shrug it of and not bother. The Fiyeros I teach will in fact expend huge amounts of energy and effort in attempts to avoid engagement with the academic challenge of the classroom, some of them to the point of being kicked out.

In the musical, Fiyero ends up (spoilers) being transformed into the brainless scarecrow we recognise from Baum’s original Oz stories, his lifetime of sliding away from challenges rewarded by an adulthood of ignorance. As we know from the 1939 MGM film, however, this destiny is far from the satisfying “ignorance is bliss” existence imagined by Fiyero:

Many young people will look at the challenges of the lessons we teach and sigh “if I only had a brain…” before giving up. How can we make them see the frustrations that adults feel at wasted time and effort in the classroom? How do we persuade the teenager intent on avoiding trying that, one day, their attitude will be a source of regret?

It comes down to the culture of the classroom and, by logical extension, the culture of the school. Opting out of challenge cannot be a viable route. Effort and engagement with learning should be so ingrained into the fabric of the building, the expectations of students, teachers, parents, leaders and governors, that the consideration of swerving it should be at least unattractive and at best impossible. All need to understand that difficulty is normal, that being daunted by a challenge is healthy, and that perseverance, resilience and determination are the essential ingredients to a healthy growth mindset.

With this culture in place, it’s my hope that I can help young people to have an attitude more like Elphaba: “unlimited – my future is unlimited” – and defy the gravitational pull of inactivity.

They’re never going to bring me down!

Learning is uncomfortable

keep-calm-and-carry-on-revising-19

This week at Year 11 parents’ evening I found myself giving the same advice to a series of conscientious, hard-working and keen students and their families. The advice went something like this:

There are two ways to mess up revision. One is not to do enough – then you will definitely underachieve. The second is to do too much. Then you will panic, get over-tired, and possibly make yourself ill. Then you may also underachieve. You need to find the “sweet spot” with revision where you are working just hard enough to achieve your best, but not so hard that you make yourself ill. 

Too much revision is as bad as too little

Too much revision is as bad as too little

It struck me on the drive home that this piece of advice encapsulates a really important dynamic tension in what good schools should do for students. I want my school to be an environment which does everything it can to ensure that young people are happy, and successful. Or, alternatively, successful and happy. But which way round should it be?

I’ve worked in and visited many different schools. Some of them have prioritised pastoral care, building relationships, and providing positive experiences for young people, sometimes at the expense of academic results. Others of them have had a relentless focus on academic progress and achievement, and have consequently been rather joyless places for young people to attend. I am fortunate in that my current school has the balancing act right, but it’s like finding the biting point on the clutch when you first learn to drive – it requires constant monitoring, feedback and minute adjustments of pressure to get it right. Sometimes you have to ease off a bit, sometimes give it a bit more gas. And the only way you get better at this tricky balancing act is through deliberate, thoughtful practice – and experience.

Getting the balancing act right

This tension is demonstrated in classrooms every time that good learning is taking place. For learning to be effective, students have to be confronted with something they don’t know, or can’t do…yet. This is, naturally, an uncomfortable experience. Some students find it very difficult and will look for ways to avoid the discomfort of a demonstrable lack of understanding or ability. This may manifest itself in misbehaviour or attention seeking to distract from the perceived failure. It may also appear in work avoidance and apparent distraction as the student’s mind slides away from the uncomfortable experience into the warm embrace of inactivity.

The best teachers make their classrooms safe havens, where students do feel comfortable getting it wrong. Where it is okay to admit that you don’t know, where it is fine to have a go and fail, and where there is no shame in making mistakes. This is only possible where there is trust that it is a non-judgemental environment where all learners expect to be challenged beyond their current capability. Pitching the lesson in what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, just beyond what they can currently do, is one of the key elements of effective differentiation and is essential if effective learning is going to take place. But it needs more than accurate assessment of performance and carefully planned and pitched activities; it needs the culture to be right. And whilst a teacher alone can create a magical culture in their own classroom, that task is simplified a thousandfold if it is a manifestation of the culture of the school as a whole.

Laura McInerney has proposed this area – Productive Emotions –  as the second of the Touchpaper Problems being explored through research: “How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation?” The question was explored by a team led by Eleanor Bernades and Katharine Vincent at the recent Touchpaper Problems Party and I’m fascinated by it. The best teachers can invoke this emotional state, providing challenge and the security that allows learners to feel uncomfortable, safely. How do they do it?

From my observations, it seems that they have:

  1. An passion and enthusiasm for, and an excellent command of the subject matter
  2. Crystal clear expectations of both behaviour and attitude to learning
  3. The emotional intelligence to perform the minute recalibration of delivery required for the individuals, groups, moods, day, time, season and wind direction of the moment
  4. The confidence of the learners that the first three are consistently present day in, day out, in every lesson

Lessons have to provide the challenge of the climb and the security of the safety harness at the same time. Schools should do the same. 

How do you think teachers in the classroom, and leaders on a whole school level, can best balance academic challenge with personal well being? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.