Growth Mindset Misconceptions and Missteps

Bill Gates with picI have been working on developing a growth mindset culture in my school since October 2013, when I heard John Tomsett speak at TLT13. Over that time I have learned a lot about what works, what doesn’t work, and the stumbling blocks and misconceptions that still persist around growth mindset. I have also learned a lot more about the growth mindset, and refined my thinking about Dweck’s work. In this post I hope to summarise some of that learning.

Misconception 1: I’ve got a growth mindset, so everything’s okay

This is a common misconception. Dweck herself refers to it in this video:

One thing that’s been happening a lot that I see is that people prematurely conclude that they have a growth mindset. I call it “false growth mindset.” [They say] “oh! Growth mindset equals good? I have it! I’m good! I must have it!” And they haven’t done the work.

The fact is, shifting mindsets is about accepting that success is not going to come easy. If we want to be good at something, we’re going to have to work at it. Not just now, but for a long time.

It's all about hard work

It’s all about hard work

Misconception 2: I’ve got a growth mindset: where’s my Nobel Prize?

Another common misconception is that a growth mindset will turn you into an Outlier – an exceptional success. This is partly the result of the “famous failures” assembly and, yes, the growth mindset posters which highlight those people who have reached the top of their fields and also demonstrate a growth mindset. The fact is, there are examples of fixed mindset successes – incredible talents who achieve great things on the strength of natural ability and circumstance alone. There are also millions of people who have a growth mindset and are moderately successful. Having a growth mindset does not make you exceptional. As Malcolm Gladwell shows, Outliers are created by a combination of circumstance, system and approach.

However – and I firmly believe this to be true – a growth mindset is the best way to ensure you develop the talents that you have and continue to improve. I will never run faster than Usain Bolt – I don’t have the physique. But if I train hard and work at it, I will run faster than I can run now. I am unlikely to paint a masterpiece. But if I go to classes, practice and work at it, my painting will improve. If I don’t believe that I can improve – if I believe that my running or painting ability is fixed – then I won’t work at it and I definitely won’t get any better.

Misconception 3: Growth mindset is just good teaching; I’ve been doing it for years

I’m sure, in many cases, this is true. In other cases, however, it’s an opt-out from a critical self-examination of practice and an opportunity to improve. I’ve definitely been guilty of fixed-mindset practices in the past: I’ve congratulated students for getting the top mark in the class in their end of year exams, for example. This kind of well-intentioned approach to celebrate achievement encourages students to compare themselves with one another, rather than evaluating their own performance relative to their own progress. To then bemoan the fact that students are only focused on the marks and not on the painstakingly constructed formative feedback is the ultimate irony. Removing grades and marks from work this year and handing it back only with formative feedback has been transformative. We can all get better. But we need to be self-critical, and actually engage with the research. Read Mindset. Listen to Dweck speak. Read her interviews. Read the research. Don’t assume you know what growth mindset is all about until you have.

Misconception 4: they tried hard, so that’s okay

Dweck’s famous study on praise and mindsets has rightly attracted a lot of attention. However, mindset is primarily about achievement. It’s not about making kids feel good about mediocrity or failure. “Never mind, you tried your best,” is not what Dweck advocates. In fact, in her interview with Schools Week she warns against this approach:

The thing that keeps me up at night is that some educators are turning mindset into the new self-esteem, which is to make kids feel good about any effort they put in, whether they learn or not. But for me the growth mindset is a tool for learning and improvement. It’s not just a vehicle for making children feel good.

Failure should feel bad. It should be painful. We should all be motivated to work harder because we want to be successful. We should learn the lessons of failure so we can avoid those mistakes in the future. Effort and hard work are only worth it if they are directed and purposeful, otherwise you ingrain bad technique and habits. Practice piano scales for an hour with poor hand positioning, and you’ll do more harm than good – so it’s no good praising that hour’s practice unless it’s been purposeful and productive. Am I better now than I was before that work? What have I learned? What have I improved?

It’s worth remembering, however, that the growth mindset done right is beneficial to self-esteem. In her interview for Inside Quest, Dweck explains:

Self Esteem is not something you give to people by telling them about their high intelligence. It is something we equip them to get for themselves, by teaching them to value learning over the appearance of smartness, to relish challenge and effort, and to use errors as routes to mastery.

And that is why mindsets matter so much.

Mis-step 1: You can’t change someone’s mindset; they have to change it themselves.

I know there are no silver bullets in education (though Tom Sherrington’s Silver Arrows are great!) but Dweck’s Mindset was so convincing, so obvious, so natural for me that I couldn’t see how anyone could fail to be persuaded. In the hullabaloo of our Growth Mindset launch I had the zeal of an evangelist, and many were convinced. Many, but not all. There have been lovely moments where I have seen the ethos work:

And yet…and yet…I still picture a Year 10 student faced with an amateurish looking magazine article in GCSE Media. The conversation went something like this:

Needless to say, I didn’t leave it there and the fonts and image were improved. But still, why wasn’t my student convinced? She’d been to my assembly. Surely she should be applying herself to self-improvement with every fibre of her being. Didn’t she realise she was at a Growth Mindset School™? I can create the conditions which make the development of a growth mindset natural, easy, and self-evidently sensible – but teenagers being teenagers, the self-evidently sensible path is not always the path most trodden. I could compel her to improve her work. But I couldn’t compel her to change her mind. She needs to do that for herself.

Mis-step 2: Small scale, low-key interventions work best

One mis-step I think we made in launching our growth mindset ethos, due in part to the enthusiasm we felt as staff for the project, is that I think we made too much fuss. It was teacher led and this ran the risk of creating a condition which we came to recognise as “growth mindset fatigue” – the tendency of teenagers to groan whenever the term was mentioned.

Looking into the research in more detail, it is clear that the best interventions are small-scale, and followed up by shifts in the culture of the school to develop the growth mindset. A superb summary is presented in the excellent blog Growth Mindset: What Interventions Might Work and What Probably Won’t? from @Nick_J_Rose:

A successful psychological intervention involves a quick, well-targeted ‘nudge’; not repeatedly hitting students over the head with a sledgehammer!

What we definitely got right is ensuring that each aspect of the school’s culture and approach is compatible with developing a growth mindset. This approach to adjusting the normative influences within the school is definitely productive. But, in the early days, asking students to reflect weekly on their learning approaches definitely felt more like sledgehammer than nudge, and led to the aforementioned “growth mindset fatigue”. None of this is catastrophic, and easing off the use of the terminology whilst maintaining the shifts in culture, language, feedback and praise kept the project moving forward. And, after all, in a growth mindset we learn from criticism and persist in the face of setbacks!

Mis-step 3: Student Leadership – the missing piece?

In my wider reading and research around growth mindset, I came across the wonderful Growth Mindset Journey blog from Rebecca Tushingham. The whole blog is full of great ideas, including the on-topic Little Nudges, but she has also posted about Growth Mindset Leaders, student ambassadors for the growth mindset developed from within the school. We sent our Head of Science over to meet with Rebecca to discuss her approaches and we definitely feel like this is a strategy we missed. Using student leaders allows ownership of mindset theory within the student body and offsets the risks of top-down, teacher-led “nagging” approaches. As Dweck said in an interview with Schools Week:

Some teachers who genuinely have a growth mindset aren’t understanding how to apply it properly. They are just telling kids to try hard: which I call nagging, not growth mindset. Or they are just saying ‘hey kids, have a growth mindset’.

We definitely ran the risk of falling into this trap. However, by continuing to read around the subject, listening carefully to feedback, and refining our approach we are able to improve and develop what we are doing. It’s almost as if we have to have a growth mindset about developing a growth mindset…

Conclusions: Sticking with it

I remain just as evangelical about the power of the growth mindset to improve achievement, motivation and self-esteem as I was in Southampton in October 2013. Listening to Jo Boaler in the recent Radio 4 Mindchangers programme on growth mindset demonstrates why mindsets matter for achievement:

Anyone can do Maths at high levels if they are given the right teaching and the right messages. Many kids think that you can either do maths or you can’t…[but] we can all develop the brain connections we need. The brain is very flexible, very adaptable…if you need to learn some maths your brain can adapt and learn it.

I feel just the same about growth mindset interventions at school. We have achieved a lot already, but we are flexible and adaptable, and we are learning.

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Assembly: Concentration

This assembly owes much to a presentation on the brain given by Bradley from Inner Drive (@Inner_Drive) at #GrowEx last year, and this excellent TED talk by Peter Doolittle (@pdoopdoo) on working memory shared by Huntington Learning Hub (@HuntingtonLHub). It’s well worth a watch:

The PowerPoint slides are shared at the bottom of this post.

We start with a test of working memory (see the video for this test). I am going to ask you to remember five words just by holding them in your mind. Here are the five words:

  1. Tree
  2. Motorway
  3. Mirror
  4. Saturn
  5. Electrode

Whilst you are remembering those five words, I am going to set you three challenges.

  1. What is 23 x 8?
  2. On your left hand, use your thumb to count your fingers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, then back again 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
  3. Now in your head recite the last five letters of the English alphabet backwards.

How many of the five words that I asked you to remember do you still have in your memory? Does anyone still have all five?

The reason why many of you will have forgotten some of the words that I told you only a minute or so ago, is that the capacity of our working memory is limited. It can only hold so much information at any one time. Daniel Willingham provides a simplified model of the brain here:

A simple diagram of the mind (source)

A simple diagram of the mind (source)

In our test, the Environment (me) provided some information which was fed into your working memory. You didn’t do much with that information, and immediately afterwards I distracted you with three more activities which demanded space in your working memory. Little wonder, then, that when I asked you to return to the original information (the five words I asked you to remember), some or all of it had been pushed out of your mind without ever having made it into your long-term memory.


There are some more demonstrations that will help us understand why sustained concentration on the task in hand is important. The first is to do with focus, and multitasking. You might think that you are really good at multitasking, and that you can easily do two, three or more things at once. Where some of those things are automatic – walking and talking, for example – that is probably true. However, your working memory can only focus on one cognitively demanding task at a time. In that way, it’s like focusing a lens – you can only focus on one thing at a time.

You can only focus on one thing at a time

You can only focus on one thing at a time (when in doubt, reach for the cat gifs)

Let’s take this optical illusion as an example. In the picture, the man’s face can be seen looking to the right, or looking straight ahead. See if you can see both!

Looking to the right, or looking straight ahead? Both - but not at the same time.

Looking to the right, or looking straight ahead? Both – but not at the same time.

Now try to see both at the same time. Your brain switches from one to the other – it will only let you hold one interpretation of the picture in your head at one time. This is what happens when you try to multi-task. Your working memory actually switches from one task to the other. This is called context switching, and you may be able to do this quickly (there is some evidence that women are better at it than men), but you are not multitasking. You can’t.

Finally, here’s a demonstration of context switching in action. I need a volunteer from the audience to take this box of multicoloured balls, and arrange them in rows of four in the order of the colours of the rainbow. At the same time, they will be solving some Mental Maths Questions from the KS2 Maths SAT Buster book.

I know this challenge well, because Bradley used me as his volunteer at #GrowEx when conducting the same experiment. Essentially, your brain can either focus on arranging the balls, or on doing the maths – but not both. As I was trying to arrange the balls, I got simple questions wrong. When I thought about the maths, my hands stopped moving. My working memory would not allow me to do both things at the same time. I felt embarrassed, but I shouldn’t have; I was simply demonstrating a human characteristic. Our brains cannot do two cognitively demanding things simultaneously.

Let’s think about how we can apply what we’ve seen today to the classroom. The first thing is that it only takes is a small distraction for information that you have just learned to evaporate. If you are getting to grips with a new concept in your lessons and you then think about the piece of gossip you meant to tell your neighbour, your chances of transferring the new concept to your long term memory are dramatically reduced. Distractions are compelling – it’s very easy to be like Dug from Up: 

Distractions can take your mind off the task at hand

Distractions can take your mind off the task at hand

And don’t kid yourself that you can do two things at once; you can’t. Once you’re distracted, the damage is done.

Put simply:

  1. Concentrate on the task at hand
  2. Focus on the learning
  3. Apply and use what you have learned straight away if you want to stand any chance of remembering it.

And, by the way, 23 x 8 = 184.

Good luck!

Here is the PowerPoint, though the gifs don’t work in this slideshare version. Click on this link for the full version: Concentration Assembly.

Concentration phoster

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…

Assembly: Don’t Settle For Good Enough

This assembly is aimed at Year 11 receiving their mock exam results.

The whole point of doing mocks is to have a run through of the exam season to prepare – a “mock up” of the real thing. You have had an experience of juggling revision and preparation for multiple exams over a short period of time, and of the demands of the different examinations within the strict conditions and time constraints that you will face over the summer. These are all valuable, and you will need to build on them as you prepare for the real thing. However, to get full use out of the experience of the mock exams, the most important part is how you react to your results.

A Google search for "exam results" would indicate that only girls get them. Who knew? Source

A Google search for “exam results” would indicate that only girls get them. Who knew? Source

What will your reaction be?

I did really well! Much better than I expected! 

Good for you! Well done. Work out what you did right. Build on that success. Make sure it’s repeatable; replicate that success in every test, practice paper and revision exercise between now and the summer so it becomes second nature.

I did really badly. 

This is okay – these are just the mocks, they don’t “count” – provided you learn from the experience. What went wrong? Did you not do enough revision? Did you do the wrong sort of revision? Is there a topic, concept, or idea you are struggling to understand? Did you forget to “please turn over” and miss out a 32 mark question printed on the last page? You have just under five months to fix all those problems, and a dedicated team of staff ready to help you – but you have to take action. Work it out. Ask the questions. Listen to the answers.

I did okay. It’s good enough. 

This is the most dangerous reaction of all. “Okay” is not good enough. “Okay” is the equivalent of saying that you are satisfied with not doing as well as you could – it is worse than failure in my eyes. Your attitude determines your altitude and if your have this attitude, you will never achieve the heights that you deserve. Put simply, only excellence is good enough. And if you haven’t achieved excellence, you’re not finished.

Photo 11-06-2014 18 11 17

So what is excellence? How will you know when you have achieved it? Your teachers are clear with you about what they expect, but your own expectations of yourself are the key here. To illustrate this, I want you to watch a short video in which Ron Berger, an elementary school teacher from America, shows how a first grade (six-year-old) boy called Austin embodied this approach.

Which butterfly do the mock exams represent for you? Source

If you settle for the first butterfly, you are happy with mediocrity. I want you to aspire to excellence, and to the standard of masterpieces. Take a look at Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers. This painting is widely acknowledged to be a modernist masterpiece. According to art historian Martin Bailey, “the patch of floor in front of it “gets more scuffed” than that in front of any other work in the National Gallery, and its postcard outsells all others in the bookshop.” Yet Van Gogh worked and worked at it, producing study after study, draft after draft, until he finally he was satisfied enough to sign his finished piece.

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I’m not saying that you will all be Van Gogh and paint a modernist masterpiece; what I’m trying to say is that Van Gogh’s models the idea of not settling for mediocrity, of keeping working and striving until he achieved the standard that he was satisfied with – his own standard of excellence.

If you like your examples a little more modern, try these sketches of Disney’s Snow Queen, Elsa of Arendelle:

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The mock exams are only worth doing if you learn from them. Don’t settle for good enough. Strive for excellence.

good you are

Link to Prezi.

Colour coded self-assessment

This year every member of our teaching staff belongs to a Teaching and Learning team. These cross curricular groups are working together to improve pedagogy as described in my post Teaching and Learning Leaders. There are six teams: Research, Feedback, Independence, Engagement, Differentiation and Mindsets, and the work of each team is posted on our Echewcation teaching and learning blog.

I belong to the mindset team, and this term I have been working with colleagues from Maths and Languages on using self-assessment to improve redrafting. The concept is based on Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence, and the principles of improving work over time through specific feedback. This is best encapsulated by his famous “Austin’s Butterfly” example – mandatory viewing for all teachers! Just in case you haven’t seen it:

In Berger’s example, the work is improved through kind, specific and helpful peer feedback. I worked on this principle last year (see my post on Closing the Gap Marking and Feedback), and this year I have been looking for ways to encourage students to be more independently reflective on the quality of their initial drafts so that they can see how to improve. The principle we have been exploring in our teaching and learning triad uses colour codes for students to self assess their drafts.

Students use colours to identify successes

Students use colours to identify successes and drive progress

The idea came from our Head of RE and PSHE, Lou Pope (@philosophypope on Twitter), who had used the technique with her groups. When she explained it to the Teaching and Learning Team, I knew I had to give it a go! Here’s how it works:

  • Students complete a first draft of a task, with clear success criteria established
  • They go through their drafts, highlighting where they have met each criterion in a different colour
  • They then reflect on the pattern of colours – which criteria have they consistently met? Which have they met the least? Whereabouts in the work have they achieved the most success? And the least?
  • Redraft…and repeat until excellent.

Photo 11-06-2014 18 11 17

I liked this approach on several levels. Firstly, the act of colour coding the draft forces the student to evaluate every aspect. If they’re not highlighting part of their work, what is it doing there? How is it contributing to the success of the piece overall? Secondly, the visual nature of the finished product was very appealing. It would be easy to see the balance within students’ work of one element over another, and for students themselves to recognise what they needed to do more (or less) of.

I decided to run a trial with my Year 10 GCSE Media Studies group, who were working towards a controlled assessment in Advertising and Marketing based on perfume adverts. The students have never studied Media formally before, so they are still getting to grips with the conventions and demands of the subject, but they are making superb progress. As part of the assignment they need to analyse two existing adverts. I got them to complete this through marginal annotation, then unleashed the coloured pencils! Students had to choose four colours and highlight where they had:

  • used media terminology to identify technical features
  • explored the connotations of the technical features
  • commented on representation
  • commented on the impact of the advert on a specific audience

The gallery below shows a selection of the students’ drafts with their highlighting:

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After the highlighting process, the students evaluated which success criteria they had covered in detail, which only touched on, or which they had omitted completely. They then  began a second draft, some using the same adverts as in their first draft and others choosing to to apply what they had learned to new texts. The new drafts are barely recognisable – they are light years ahead of the first versions, and the students are really proud of the progress they have made. I will update this post with some of the improved work in the next week!

My next step is to apply this to my GCSE English class as they complete their next assignment, in a bid to help them to move towards becoming the reflective, self-improving learners that our Dweck and Berger-inspired approach is aiming for.

Colour coded self-assessment – highly recommended!

Assembly: how to make the most of your brain

The brain is an incredible thing. I’ve learned so much more about how our brains work over the past year through reading books like Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham and learning about the neuroscience behind growth mindset. I’ve blogged about this before in What I know now about how the brain worksNow that I know a bit – a very little bit! –  about neuroscience, I’ve found that I’ve been able to catch my brain when it’s playing tricks on me, and manage myself better. This is what Dweck counsels in Mindset – to catch yourself when you hear a fixed mindset voice and talk back to yourself in a growth mindset voice – and I thought it would be worth sharing this with students in my latest assembly (Prezi here).

Our brains are hardwired to expect the worst

Image credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Image credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Much of our brain’s chemistry is the same as back in caveman times. Back in those days, it made sense to be alert to danger and expect bad things to happen at every turn – it helped us to survive. We can see this with a simple test. What do you read when you see this?


If, like me, you read “opportunity is nowhere” then you are in the majority! Of course, we could read “opportunity is now here” but our brain’s predisposition is to expect the worst. Our brain is notoriously good at showing us things that aren’t really there.

Can you see the circles in between the crosses in this picture? They aren’t really there.

When we expect bad things to happen, sense danger, or feel stress, our brain is flooded with cortisol.

Cortisol molecule (public domain)

Cortisol molecule (public domain)

Cortisol is a self-preservation hormone, which enables us to respond quickly to danger. It’s a sort of caveman boy scout motto: “be prepared.” However, in preparing our fight-or-flight reflex it diverts resources from other parts of our systems by switching off functions which are non-essential in the moment of stress. Like the immune system. And growth. If we experience frequent high stress, we’re more likely to get ill and less likely to grow.

Luckily, if we are conscious of our fight or flight reflex we can control it – force our minds to see “opportunity is now here” and take a more positive track. And, if we do so, the rewards can be great, as this beer commercial shows:

Feel-good neurochemistry part one: the selfish chemicals 

To counteract cortisol, our stress hormone, our brains have several chemicals designed to make us feel good. The first type, endorphins, are designed to mask physical pain. They’re released by exercise. So going for a run, going for a bike ride, anything that gets your heart rate up will release endorphins into your bloodstream. Endorphins mask the damage you’re doing to your body through the exercise, so your legs may well be agony afterwards but it feels brilliant at the time!

Another feel-good chemical is dopamine. We get little shots of dopamine when we get things done; I like to think of it as the “achievement” chemical. It exists in our brains to make sure we achieve our goals. I’m a big “to-do list” person, and that great feeling when you tick something off your to-do list is a little shot of dopamine in your system. The trouble with dopamine is that it doesn’t really differentiate between big jobs and little jobs, so you’ll get a little shot of dopamine if you find that pen you were looking for, even if you don’t start your homework. Dopamine can be tricky – it will reward you for completing smaller, less challenging tasks as well as the big important things, so you need to force yourself to do the hard things first to make sure you have enough brain power and energy to see the job through.

Feel-good neurochemistry part two: reciprocal chemicals

Here’s where we get on to the really good stuff. Firstly, serotonin. I think of serotonin as the “pride” chemical.

Photo 29-09-2014 20 41 46

Serotonin is released when we get recognition from other people for something we’ve done – it feels really, really good. But the great thing about serotonin is that it’s released in other people too. When you get a little dopamine shot from ticking off something important on your list, you feel good. When you achieve something that your teacher, your parents, or your friends think is great, they feel good too. Back in caveman times, serotonin helped members of tribes work and stay together by encouraging them to invest in each other. That’s what’s so great about working in a school. When students do well, I feel proud of them – I feel good. How brilliant is that? So when you’re working on something, make sure you’re proud of it, and think about who you want to feel proud of you too. Your teacher? Parents? Grandparents? Siblings?

The final feel-good chemical is the best one of all – oxytocin. Oxytocin is an amazing chemical, which produces those warm and fuzzy happy feelings that we really treasure. It’s the antidote to cortisol: it boosts our immune systems and encourages growth, which is why happy people live longer. It’s not an instant shot like dopamine, however. It takes time to build up in our systems. I think of it as the “kindness” chemical, because it’s released when we do nice things for other people. Just last week I was carrying a stack of books and folders between the Humanities block and Lower School towards a pull-only door. A student – Year 8 I think – saw the potential for catastrophe and went out of his way to open the door for me. I don’t know him, and I’ve never taught him. But as I said thank you, he smiled. I felt good. He felt good. And the sixth formers who had seen what had happened smiled too. They felt good. Because even witnessing someone do something kind for someone else releases oxytocin. How amazing is that?

Back in Neanderthal times oxytocin was around to ensure that caveman tribes looked out for each other. It’s a selfless chemical and it’s the invisible glue that binds communities together. Whenever you help someone else – give up your time, energy and effort for someone – everybody benefits. The next video demonstrates this perhaps better than any I’ve seen. Get ready for that oxytocin effect:

Tips to get the feel-good chemicals flowing



I’m not a psychologist, and I’m definitely not a neuroscientist. If I’ve got my brain chemistry wrong, please let me know! This assembly was inspired by a Simon Sinek talk suggested by Simon Scarborough (@Leading_in_PE): Why Leaders Eat Last.  It’s 45 minutes long but it’s well worth it! I’d already prepared it before I attended the Growing Excellence in Learning and Teaching conference in London last week, but Bradley Busch’s inspirational session on the teenage brain was responsible for adding some more brilliant ideas. Bradley tweets @Inner_Drive on behalf of his company ( and having seen him in action, he comes personally recommended!

If you can’t see the Prezi embed above, please click this link.

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

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

My problem with ability

I’ve always had a big problem with grouping students by ability. The Sutton Trust EEF Toolkit shows that ability grouping, setting or streaming has a negative impact on student attainment.

Ability grouping slows progress down

Ability grouping slows progress down

One of the first blogs I read and favourited when I began exploring the online educational world was Kenny Pieper’s Setting by ability: why? which used Ed Baines’ chapter on ability grouping in Bad Education: debunking myths in education to argue that setting and streaming was “self-defeating in the extreme.” Since then I’ve had a look at the research myself; there’s a list of some of the articles at the bottom of this blog. My favourite was Jo Boaler, Dylan Wiliam and Margaret Brown’s study Students’ experiences of ability grouping —disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. Susan Hallam concluded her study: “ability grouping…does not raise standards, and in some cases can lower them. It can also have detrimental effects on pupils’ personal and social development.”

It’s fair to say, the case for setting and streaming is full of holes and there is plentiful research out there to show that it doesn’t achieve what it tries to achieve. As the Sutton Trust Toolkit says: “ability grouping appears to benefit higher attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners.” In other words, it exacerbates the Matthew Effect and ensures that the gap between the knowledge-rich and the knowledge-poor widens.

Ability has no bearing on your accomplishments; effort does

Ability has no bearing on your accomplishments; effort does

My big problem with any discussion around grouping is with the weasel word “ability.” As Fearghal Kelly says it has all the connotations of a fixed mindset. When you talk about a “mixed ability” group what are you really saying? That some of them are more “able” than others? This language implies that those “low ability” students you have are actually less able to improve. The word itself reinforces the widening of the gap. In actual fact, as we all know, students who end up labelled “low ability” have complex needs, some cognitive, some behavioural, some social, and some attitudinal which have led to them performing poorly. This poor performance – their prior attainment – gains them the label of “low ability,” but it does not necessarily follow that low attainment corresponds to lack of ability.

I want to root the word “ability” out of my own and my school’s vocabulary. If we are truly to become a growth mindset school we must avoid the bear-trap of labelling students with fixed terms like “middle ability” throughout schooling when we actually mean “achieved between 25 and 40 marks on their English reading paper in Year 6 which was then translated using a threshold into an arbitrary level 4.” This has nothing to do with the individual’s ability. It is all about performance.

Ability is not fixed. As teachers we can work with young people to overcome their cognitive, behavioural, social and attitudinal issues and improve their ability to access the curriculum. We certainly won’t solve all of those issues outright, but we can ameliorate them  – and we must. But labelling a young person as “low ability” is not going to motivate them or us to try.

No matches. Mission accomplished.

No matches. Mission accomplished.

I wrote to parents this week explaining our grouping and curriculum approaches in school, and I didn’t use the word ability once. “Students are taught in groups with the full range of prior attainment,” I wrote to explain those subjects that mix – the majority of our curriculum is taught this way. Some still set, of course – that’s the Head of Faculty’s decision. Our challenge now is to raise attainment for all and to ensure that every student continues to increase their ability to learn, grow and achieve.


Research articles:

Limits Assembly

A Flea - as drawn by Hooke (image via Wikimedia commons)

A Flea – as drawn by Hooke (image via Wikimedia commons)

Fleas are remarkable creatures. They are usually between 1.5 and 3mm long, but they can jump 33cm horizontally and 18cm straight up into the air. If a flea was a person, this would be the equivalent of jumping straight up to the clock face on Big Ben, or clean from one end of Wembley Stadium to the other.

Apparently the key is jumping off with your toes, rather than your knees, as this video shows. Worth noting for sports day, perhaps?

What is even more remarkable about the flea, though, is that this quite extraordinary physical ability can be limited by one really simple intervention.

If you put fleas into a jar with a lid on for three days, they will only jump half the height they are capable of. In that time, they will learn that this is how high they can jump and then – even if you take the lid off – they will only every jump the height of the jar until the day they die, even though they are physically capable of jumping at least twice as high. And what is even more remarkable is that the offspring of those fleas, even if they aren’t kept in a jar, will still only jump to the height of the jar lid.


What invisible jar are you working within?

We, as humans, are just as capable of limitation. Think about the things that you don’t think you can do because somebody has told you you can’t. As small children, we believe we’re capable of anything, but usually we begin to limit ourselves. When will my daughter, currently five years old, stop believing that it is possible to become an astronaut? I hope, never; but I expect, soon. Not because I will do anything to limit her ambition but because, in the world in which we live, there are so many influences slamming that glass lid down and telling us “that’s not possible” or “you can’t do that.”

Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile

Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister demonstrating what can happen when we challenge the naysayers. For decades it was believed to be beyond human capacity to run a mile in less than four minutes, but on 6th May 1954 Bannister did exactly that. To achieve this great feat he had to run at a speed of 15 miles per hour, covering each of the sixteen 100m distances in 14.91 seconds, showing incredible endurance. And what happened afterwards was really interesting, because his great competitor, the Australian John Landy, beat Bannister’s time 54 days later. It was almost as if Bannister was one of the fleas in the jar who had turned to a flea next to him and said, “what lid?” Since Bannister the record time for the mile has come down to 3 minutes 43 seconds. Bannister had proved what was possible; others followed.

Changes in the record for the mile over time

Changes in the record for the mile over time

So of course, the best weapon to combat those invisible limitations is ourselves. But the truth is, we often impose our own limitations on ourselves. As we grow up, we learn to protect our fragile egos from the embarrassment and pain of failure by stopping trying. We create little invisible prisons for ourselves within which we operate without even realising. We won’t put our hands up in class because…well…that’s not something we do. I won’t volunteer for that Change & Create Team because…well…I haven’t done anything like that before. Should I take up a musical instrument? Audition for the school play? It’s just not me. Should I go for an A in History? My challenge grade is only a B…it’ll be really hard. Try telling that to Roger Bannister.

The jar has no lid

I’m here today to tell you that your jar has no lid. You might not succeed, but as the Chinese philosopher Confucius said:

Confucius with pic

Disclaimer: this may not be an exact translation of the original Chinese.

This is the attitude that got people to the moon 45 years ago this month. When announcing the intention to go to the moon seven years previously, in 1962, President Kennedy said:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because…that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. 

This is called moonshot thinking:

Don’t be a flea. Remember, your jar has no lid. Jump as high as you can.

If you can’t see the Prezi embed, click this link.


As a few people have pointed out, the flea-jump-limitation thing is not scientifically corroborated anywhere. The idea that the limitation could be inherited seems beyond improbable. So, if you’re using this assembly, it may be worth adding a few caveats to the delivery!

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.