Growth Mindsets in a Fixed System

I’ve done a couple of training days recently on Growth Mindsets and have been asked if I’d jot down the key things we’ve covered. When I’m asked to do this training, I have to put a grenade warning on it. This is not a “this is what GM is and how to do it” course. It’s an uncomfortable truths course. Because the reality is, that while Growth Mindsets might be one of the biggest buzzwords in education, schools in the UK are working in one of the most restricted “fixed mindsets” systems in the world.

On the surface, the government would seem to embrace GM. They might say “Of course we promote Growth Mindsets! No child should be allowed to fall behind; we have high expectations for all, mirrored in our refusal to accept circumstances for failure; we even got rid of levels. And look at how many times we mention grit and resilience in our speeches. Proper GM us.”

But that would be, well a rose tinted view. In a proper growth oriented system, children would be given several chances to reach their potential – they wouldn’t be forced into a linear system. They would not be put in sets, not given “target grades” based on past performance. All of their achievements and pathways would be valued in the moment – whether academic, artistic, physical or social – and with a view on the next steps. Contexts would be taken into account and funding put in place to support those who needed extra help, including counselling, SEND support, resources and family support. A growth mindset government would not cut funding. They would not make it increasingly difficult for children to overcome set backs. So it’s clear that we are having to promote an idea that at best expects us to find ways to thrive in-between the concrete slabs of high stakes, linear testing, shifting goalposts and accountability based on suspect data.

To truly have a growth mindset, you have to accept that reality and then do everything in your power as a teacher and leader to make your school culture as positive as possible. That might mean asking some tricky questions to which there are no straightforward answers:-

  • Is it possible to really have growth mindsets in our schools if we use language such as high, middle and low ability?
  • Is it possible to have growth mindsets when we set/stream children?
  • Is it possible to have a growth mindset culture and still have graded lesson observations for staff?
  • Are any efforts on our part futile unless we also train parents and governors on the principles of growth mindset thinking?
  • Are we using growth mindsets and words like resilience and grit to excuse a dull curriculum – i.e. as a synonym for getting children to endure boredom?
  • Is there really a difference between GM and Assessment for Learning? How do we ensure this isn’t simply a fad that is forgotten in a couple of years’ time?
  • Is evidence from research into genetic heritability of intelligence (e.g. Plomin et al), at odds with what is effectively a ‘nurture’ approach from Dweck?
  • Is it true that people are either growth or fixed in terms of mindset? Does it not depend on circumstance and subject? In which case, are all those questionnaires a waste of time?
  • Is it possible to preach growth mindsets when sending children into a norm referenced exam system that makes the assumption that the same number of children should pass each year, regardless of whether or not they are getting better?

While there are no easy answers to the above, they form a day in which some much deeper thinking takes place and where we look to other areas of cognitive science and psychology to find some possible solutions. We explore the importance of motivation, of incremental feedback rather than praise, of stretching and challenging all children, of questioning, of moral purpose and of embedding the theory across the whole school – children, teachers, parents, governors and local stakeholders. We share ideas and we go away not with a silver bullet, but with a clearer sense of purpose and set of potential actions to effect change.

To my mind, this is what CPD should be – a trigger for change and for deeper thinking, not a set of top tips that conveniently gloss over the bigger issues that often get in the way of good intentions. In a recent discussion, for example, during a lively debate about the pros and cons of setting, one teacher said

“Whether we set or not should be irrelevant – it’s the attitude that matters. Children knowing they can move up and improve and schools making that a possibility.”

She was right of course – in schools who do set children (let’s leave the evidence behind on this for a moment) –  the problem may not be in the setting itself, but rather in the fact that there is always limited room at the top. If we are to be truly working towards a growth mindset culture, there must always be room for movement in reward for effort and achievement. If that leads to three set ones, then so be it. It’s in these discussions that possible solutions begin to present themselves. That’s not about a “consultant”coming in and telling you what to do. It’s about someone throwing difficult questions at you as professionals and then giving you the time and space to work towards solutions. Now I come to think about it – isn’t that what good teaching should aim to do?



Some Clarifications

This blog relates to events on twitter in the past 24 hours. If you are a time poor teacher hoping to learn something about education as you start this, I’d step away. It’s a shame I feel I have to write it, but it’s really of little worth to anyone who has not been following the conversations around my reputation for the past couple of days. I am closing comments for this blog. I am usually open to debate, but this is an attempt to end something, not start another thing off. I hope you understand.

On Tuesday night I tweeted that I had received notification from Michaela that my planned visit was no longer to happen – that they “would not be happy” for me to come. The reasons offered were twofold:-

“We are wary of criticism…and your review (of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers) contained many misconceptions.” This formed the first part of the note. It continued…

“We are inundated with requests to visit” and “would prefer to invite those who are open and willing to learn from us.”

It was polite and clear. So it’s a little strange that immediately people started to tweet that I had been banned because I was a “troll” and because my previous blog post about zero tolerance behaviour policies had referred to Michaela as “one little London school” which apparently is patronising. Now, I am more than happy to admit, I have offered criticism of Michaela’s methods in the past and that I have openly spoken of how their self promotion and tone puts people off engaging with what are, in many areas, very good ideas. Whether you agree or disagree with that, one thing is clear – it was not the reason for rescinding the invitation to visit. Indeed in the first invitation, which critically, came AFTER the zero tolerance blog was published, this was written. I am not naming the author of the comment – it’s not fair, but I think this is uncontroversial and reasonable:-

“I’d love you to visit, and I won’t take it personally if it doesn’t resonate with you: I’m more interested in you helping us see our blind spots…Thanks for having the courage and taking the time to come and visit us. I want us at Michaela to be wary of bubble thinking – I know we are making mistakes that are hard to spot once everyone’s on the same wavelength.”

No-one in their right mind could read that and not see it is an open and honest attempt to engage. It certainly set my mind at rest in terms of writing the review in which I hoped did exactly that – recognised the positives and identified some possible “blind spots”. So I think I am justified in being confused.

I have been conflicted about sharing this information. But Michaela have also come under fire and I think it’s important that all their staff are not grouped together as one band of paranoid people who are afraid of challenge. Indeed, another member of staff wrote to me after the review to say “thank you – that was really, really lovely.” Hardly insulted.

So I don’t know what conversations have gone on in the background. I don’t know and I don’t really care. The school are entitled to have whoever they like in. They are entitled to protect themselves. I respect their decision and am thankful to have time and money saved. But they no longer, and I’m sure they see this, have the right to challenge any criticism with the repost “well come in and visit then.”

As for the quite ridiculous allegations spinning off about trolling, let me clear up one or two things flying around about my “behaviour” and “abuse”. I hold my hands up to having lost my temper on a couple of occasions on twitter – to the best ability of my memory – it’s happened three times, all quite a while ago when I was feeling, well, not to put too fine a point on it, not myself. I was open in blogs and on twitter that I was struggling emotionally at the time. I first joined twitter as a teacher, just blogging about this and that in my classroom, then one day I wrote a letter to Michael Gove and invited other teachers to sign it. Within a week it was on the front page of  The Independent and I was on Channel 4 news, quaking in my shoes, opposite Nick Gibb.

No-one prepares you to be catapulted into controversy like that. I was woefully unprepared for the attacks that came my way from some of the neo-trad Gove supporters, most of it subtweeted. One in particular was rude. It made me very wary of him. I noted I was being discussed without being included. My work was described as “silly” and “mediocre” and later my tweets and errors would be screen shot and ridiculed without my knowledge. I couldn’t really understand what I’d done.

While all that was going on, I was struggling more and more at work. 70 hour weeks, relentless drives for data. Weeping staff sitting in my office telling me they’d been judged inadequate after years of brilliant service and that they’d been sent to me for advice. What could I teach these wonderful people who simply weren’t teaching in the way deemed to be acceptable at the time (thank God that’s shifting). I was starting to see the system as abusive to both children and teachers and I couldn’t stand it. I quit. I left the thing I had done for 21 years with no plan and no job and I walked away.

The pain of that decision still brings tears to my eyes now. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a great three years – learned loads, travelled all over the world. It’s been great. But then at that point, I was devastated. I felt like a deserter and there were people happy to let me know that they thought so too.

So… when a review of my book came out in October 2014, I was still feeling a bit delicate. I wasn’t really bothered that it got one bad review – it’s pretty unreasonable to expect everyone to like everything you do. But I was really hurt by the cheerleading and gloating that surrounded that one review. It went on and on and I was feeling ridiculously oversensitive about, well, everything.  I wrote about it in a blog that now makes me cringe in the same way that this blog will one day make me cringe. I was on holiday with my family. I spent the whole time on twitter and the holiday was utterly ruined. I came home, opened the comments page on that blog and saw a comment from the man who, I had come to feel (whether rightly or wrongly) was stalking me in an attempt to discredit and undermine me. He followed up a series of tweets, one of which called me “shoddy” in a comment, that on the surface may have seemed innocuous. But it ignored the fact that I said I was genuinely struggling with my mental health. It ignored the fact that that the blog was really an attempt to explore whether women were more prone to attack than men. Instead, it attacked. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. I snapped. In a comment on that blog, I accused the man of “utterly lacking in human empathy” and then I added probably the clumsiest comment of my life “unless, of course, you are autistic, in which case I apologise.” Or something to that end. No doubt there  will a screen shot in a file of grievances. That comment, deleted fairly quickly, has been the bane of my twitter life. It led to three days of persistent hounding on twitter. How dare I? What an insult to autistic people. They were right. It was. I apologised again and again and again for it. It wasn’t enough. By now I had not slept for almost a week. I was a wreck. After six apologies, when one twitter user (I’m not naming her, because I know that she is as sick of this being dragged up as I am) who had repeatedly  refused to accept the apology although she had acknowledged it had been made and had then subtweeted conversations about it, told me that she would not “let it pass”, I snapped. “And you” I wrote, “are a nasty piece of work.” It was the wrong thing to say and I regret it. I have written I have regretted it more times than I can remember. Partly because every time a certain someone wants to have a pop, he brings it up. And just because it was wrong.

And so, yes, when I realised that in a photo I had taken at ResearchEd that year, the figure with his back turned to the camera was this man (who although tweeting anonymously, seemed to be known and recognised by everyone there), I was tempted to tweet it. I held off for months. Then one night, after seeing him treat another female teacher in the way he had treated me and many others, I put it up with the caption “you may find a straw man in here.” There was no name. That was it. And within minutes, I regretted it. One of his friends, a fair and decent man, sent me a DM. “I know you are angry and I completely understand why, but this will only backfire on you. I would strongly urge you to delete it immediately.” He was right and I did. It was online for minutes and I admitted I was wrong. I don’t deny it now. It was wrong. It didn’t matter that he had himself attempted to out other anonymous twitter users. It didn’t matter because two wrongs don’t every make a right. I was wrong. That’s it.

So…three years later. I’m in a better place. Less likely to be riled, less likely to snap and be rude. I’ve learned a lot. I’m better. And if those incidents in the past make me a troll, then so be it. I can live with that – at least it’s set in context.

As for some of the other accusations I’ve had in the past couple of days. Did I “report Michaela to Ofsted” as was tweeted and attributed to me? No, apparently that was @HeyMissSmith who it seems did not “report” them either, but simply copied Ofsted into some Michaela tweets. It would seem that both of us were misrepresented in this respect.

Did I call Toby Young a knob? Yes I did. I might have been ruder, but it rhymed so beautifully with blob.

Knowledge Organisers are, Err…Ok

Probably the blandest title I’ve ever written for a blog that – but it kind of fits the mood. There’s been some hoo-hah recently about knowledge organisers. Are they good? Bad? Boring ways of forcing facts down little gosling throats or essential diets for healthy learning? Well to throw my tuppence worth in, they’re neither. They’re a baseline. A common denominator of the things we’d like the children to be able to remember for whatever reason. Some find them useful as starting points. Some see them as the starter, main course and pud. I probably fall in the former camp. Take the example Jon Brunskill kindly shared of his KO on the moon landings. There’s nothing wrong with it at all. Facts leading (hopefully) to a decent piece of informative writing. There’s nothing wrong, but it’s so small. Man, this is the MOON. There’s not much else out there that can get kids more excited than space. Surely it’s worth expanding?

What if?

A few years ago when we were outside I got the children to make footprints in the mud with their wellies. We predicted how long they would last and I asked them how long they thought a footprint would last on the moon. They generally thought it would last longer on the moon because they decided there was no rain there. And well, where we live, it rains a lot. But it was the first of many questions – some coming from me, some from them, that led to lots of investigation and learning:-

“Why were there no women astronauts on the Apollo missions?”

“How long would a footprint last there and why?”

“Is there less gravity on the moon? What is gravity?”

“How long did it take to get there?” (you could work this out from the times and dates provided on Jon’s knowledge organiser)

“How far is it? How fast did the rocket go?”

“Have rockets got faster over time?”

“If it took that long to get to the moon, how long would it take to get to Mars? The edge of the solar system? The edge of our galaxy?”

“How much did it cost to go there?”

“Would there be tides without the moon?”

“How do people pee in space? Where does it go to?” (that was mine)

It seems a shame to limit learning about this amazing voyage to a literacy task. Look how much Maths and Science is in here! And I’m reminded of the Year 4 children I saw in Ashley Primary School arguing about a 2cm disparity between their scaled circle of the moon and one of the earth. They had found out the circumferences of both, scaled them down and cut them out. They they had used the same ratio to work out the scaled distance between them. But the hinge of a door was in the way. They’d have to move the moon 2cms away from the earth. One of the children was most upset – she wanted it to be accurate. She knew in reality that 2 centimetres was thousands of miles. Now that kind of passion and commitment is what we really need from children. Facts are great, but caring enough about those facts to argue over them is greater. Sort of.

It’s not enough to teach children the what of the world and beyond. We need to teach them to find the wonder in all that is around them. We want them to want to protect their world, to investigate it, to push the boundaries of knowledge forward and become knowledge creators, not just knowledge keepers. So Knowledge Organisers. Yes, they’re ok. But they’re bread without butter. I  know a good sandwich starts with the bread, but I don’t see why we can’t give them a tasty filling. That’s all.