Process over product

 

African Masks

Last week I saw a post on the Art Department Instagram which has inspired this week’s blog.

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Process over product. You art students work mighty hard towards your final pieces, and let me tell you… it doesn't go unnoticed. We call that the process, the hard work (and sometimes downright frustrating part) before we start the final piece. You do most of your learning during the first stages of a project. I sometimes love the development shown in a sketchbook more than the final piece! Shhhh. Amazing pieces of art don't just happen folks. It takes planning, research, and hard work to create a final piece to be proud of. Keep trying, keep working hard. 🤗 . . . Here, yr 7 start making their masks, whilst referring to their sketchbooks. #churchillacademy #Processoverproduct #hardworkpays #masks #ks3art #kidart #creativekids #churchillartacademy #africanart #yr7art

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You art students work mighty hard towards your final pieces, and let me tell you…it doesn’t go unnoticed. We call that the process, the hard work (and sometimes downright frustrating part) before we start the final piece. You do most of your learning during the first stages of a project. I sometimes love the development shown in a sketchbook more than the final piece! Shhhh. Amazing pieces of art don’t just happen folks. It takes planning, research, and hard work to create a final piece to be proud of. Keep trying, keep working hard.

This post captures a key element of our approach to learning at Churchill. At school, every experience is an opportunity to learn. We encourage our students to approach every task with the attitude: “how can I learn from this?” or “how can this task help me to get better?”

With this approach in mind, teachers emphasise what each task is designed to teach, develop or provide the opportunity to practise, whilst students will focus on what the key learning points in each task are. Although students should rightly feel proud of the finished product – whether it be a project, a homework, a performance, an essay, a test, an experiment or a piece of art or design – the learning happens during the process of making it. It is only through rehearsal that a performance can be polished.

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Even when a piece of work is finished, the learning isn’t. There will always be feedback on how to improve, reflection on what we have done well and what we can do better next time. This feedback is the essential ingredient which helps all learners move forward.

Receiving feedback can be hard. If the work has been the result of substantial effort, receiving critique on its flaws can be difficult. “I tried really hard, and it’s still not right,” our inner voice might say.

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The key to overcoming this is to remember that every experience in school is a learning experience. When you approach every task with the attitude: “how can I learn from this?” or “how can this help me to improve?” it means that you are expecting feedback – you need it. The task is not over when you have completed the work; it is only over when you have received the feedback and acted on it in order to improve, and taken the next step forward in your learning. Then you are ready for the next task, to build on the progress you have made.

If we are going to make the progress we are capable of, we all need to shift our mindset away from “it’s finished when I put my pen down.” The final product is important, but the learning happens during the process. That’s why, at Churchill, we always emphasise the importance of the process over the product.

 

Curiosity: is there life on Mars?

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Organic molecules found on the surface of Mars (source)

Earlier this month, NASA announced that the Curiosity Rover on the Martian surface had found ancient organic molecules by drilling down into 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks.

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life.

I’m completely in awe of the Mars exploration project. It blows my mind to think that there is a machine, made by humans, rolling around on the surface of another planet and sending back pictures and information. Not only that, but the machine is drilling into Martian rocks, cooking the extracts at 500°C and analysing the vapour.

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A composite selfie taken by the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars (source)

The machine bears the name of one of Churchill’s values: Curiosity. It is this desire to find things out that has driven us on to this incredible achievement. The project combines Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, Geology, Design, Technology, Engineering, Computing, and Mathematics just in terms of the exploration programme. The interest in these subjects started for each of the people involved when they were at school. They have built their careers on applying what they have learned to this amazing project, demonstrating creativity and ingenuity at every turn. When I look at the “selfies” taken by the rover on the surface of Mars, or I see the hole in the Martian surface left by its drill, I am staggered at what we can achieve.

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Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 Rover on the surface (source)

There are two more missions to Mars planned in the near future: NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme. What other secrets will they discover about the mysterious Red Planet? These missions are laying the ground work for a manned mission. Perhaps the generation of students currently at school will be the generation that first walks on the surface of another planet in our solar system. I hope they do – and it will be curiosity that takes them there.

 

How believing in others helps them to believe in themselves

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“Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t…you’re right.”

Those words, spoken by Henry Ford, the American business magnate and founder of the Ford motor company, perfectly capture the importance of self-belief in achieving success. His statement underpins a lot of what I know to be true from my long experience in education. What interests me, as a teacher, a leader and also as a parent, is how to help children and young people who think that they can’t, believe that they can.

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One really interesting study into this area was carried out in 2014 by David Yeager, Geoffrey Cohen and colleagues. They studied a group of high school students in America, who all completed the same essay task. Teachers provided written feedback on the essays in the margins and at the end, with suggestions for improvement. The researchers intercepted the essays and added a post-it note to each one. Half of the essays had a post-it note which read: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” The other half had identical post-it notes with the message: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your work.” Neither the students nor their teachers knew that there were different messages on the post-it notes, as the essays were handed back in wallet folders.

The first post-it contains an important message about high expectations, positive regard, and the belief in improvement. The second is a carefully-worded neutral message designed to act as a “placebo” or “control” in the experiment – in other words, it should have no impact on the motivation of the students.

All students in this study were given the opportunity to revise their essays and hand in an improved version the following week. About 40% of students who had received the “placebo” feedback did so, but double that number – 80% – of the students who had received the positive regard feedback chose to revise their work.

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What this study – and others like it – demonstrate, is that showing others that we believe in them makes them more likely to believe in themselves. Twice as many students took time to improve their work and make more progress when they were told that someone believed in their potential. I believe in the potential of every single student at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form to achieve great things. Telling the students that, and showing them that belief in our actions, is the most powerful thing that we grown-ups can do.

Progress

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Academy’s first Exhibition of Progress. This event, organised by Director of English Mr Grimmett, was designed to celebrate students who had made exceptional progress in their learning this year. This doesn’t necessarily mean the students who were getting the highest marks, but rather those that had made a huge leap forward in their learning over the course of this year.

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Learning Ambassadors 2018

Students were nominated by their teachers, and Mr Grimmett took them off timetable for a morning to work with them. His aim, with the students, was to reflect on the progress made and to try and work out what it was that had made the difference. Why had these students made exceptional progress in these lessons?

The question seems simple, but the answers are quite complex. The students themselves weren’t clear to start with – for many of them it had “just happened.” To help them to reflect, students put work from the start of the year side-by-side next to a more recent piece, looking at the improvements they had made. They then followed the leads they found – how had that improvement been achieved?

From the group of students, the following were rated as having the most impact on the progress they had made:

  1. Effort in classwork
  2. Personal determination to get better
  3. Positive relationship with teacher
  4. Effort in homework
  5. Personal understanding of the work and how to improve
  6. Enjoying the subject

Many students said that enjoying the subject led to them making more progress, but of course making progress makes the subject more enjoyable and leads to greater levels of satisfaction – like the chicken and the egg, it’s hard to know which comes first! What is certain is that progress builds confidence which leads to enjoyment which helps progress…it’s a virtuous cycle.

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Students created display posters to compare the “before” and “after” pieces of work, and explain the reasons for that progress. These posters formed the exhibition itself, and it was great to walk round and talk to the students stationed by their posters as they explained how they had done it.

Mr Grimmett pulled three key findings from his work with these students:

  1. Break out of your comfort zone: pushing yourself to do something difficult, or different, is the best way of making progress. Often this was prompted by something – feedback from a teacher, a good or bad result in an assessment, or a personal realisation and decision to change.
  2. Be self-disciplined: avoiding distractions, staying focused, concentrating so that the job gets done well – these are keys that unlock progress. It’s hard – but it’s worth it.
  3. Reflect and think about learning: the power of metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” was a common thread with many students. Knowing how to improve, responding positively to feedback, and developing a bank of strategies and approaches which work, allowed these students to apply themselves more purposefully to their learning.

What’s great about this is that these findings provide a road map and a template for any student who wants to thrive and make exceptional progress. If these students did it – you can too.

Thanks so much to Mr Grimmett and all the students involved for such fantastic work and for putting on a truly inspiring exhibition.

What’s your goal?

What are our motivations when we take on tasks in school? As part of the research I did when writing my book, I found some really interesting discussions about this issue. When we approach a task, the end goal we have in mind can have a big impact on how useful or effective that task is, both in terms of learning and also in terms of our well being.

There are two types of goals when taking on a task in school:

  1. Performance goal: if a student is motivated by a performance goal, then their primary concern is how well they do in the task – how successful they are, where they placed in relation to other students, what their score or grade was. They take on tasks to do well. If they are worried they might not do well, then students motivated by a performance goal might seek a way to avoid the task, fearing that it might expose them as “a failure.”
  2. Learning goal: if a student is motivated by a learning goal, then their primary concern is how the task helps to improve or develop them, through gains in knowledge or skills. They take on tasks to improve themselves, to learn something new, and to develop. If you are motivated by a learning goal, then failure to fully complete a challenging task is an opportunity to learn from mistakes, not a judgment on you as a person.

Students motivated by performance goals focus on avoiding failure. This can result in using tactics to get out of doing tasks that might be difficult, or even engaging in what the researchers call “self-handicapping” so that they can blame someone or something else for why they didn’t do well:  

For example, a student might postpone completing a [piece of homework] until the last minute or stay up late partying the night before an important test. Although the student can now blame failure on a factor unrelated to her intelligence, she has sacrificed the chance to learn and excel.

from Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning 

The research shows that students motivated by learning goals make better progress, are more resilient, are more likely to persist with difficult tasks, and seek out challenges – all features we want to encourage in our young people at Churchill.

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Learning goals at Churchill

At Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, the only time when students have a performance goal is in their final GCSE, A-level, BTEC or other public exams or assessments.

At every other time, tasks are designed and set up with a learning goal in mind.

School tests and internal exams

End of unit or end of year exams and tests are designed to help students in their learning. Revising for and completing the tests themselves are opportunities for retrieval practice, a learning strategy that has been shown to improve memory and long term learning. After students have completed their tests or exams, teachers will spend time with their classes going through their answers and their scripts, helping students learn from where they got things right, mistakes they made, and gaps in their learning revealed by the test. Of course, we want students to do well, and it is important that they try hard to do the best that they possibly can – but that is not the goal. The goal is to learn.

Performances and matches

Performances in drama, dance, music and sports matches are also learning experiences. Of course they are rehearsed or practised carefully, so that the performance is the best it can possibly be, but each performance is a learning experience. Each time a dancer steps onto a stage in front of an audience, it makes them a better dancer. Each football match played against “real” opposition builds the team’s and individuals’ skills and experience, making them better. Winning the match, or putting on a great show, is fantastic – but our aim is to learn.

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Challenges in school

Taking on a challenging or difficult task in school – in a lesson, as part of our extra-curricular activities, personally, or even socially – is an opportunity to learn and grow. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get it all right, or even if we get it wrong – because that’s not the point of taking it on. If we learn from the experience, it’s worth it.

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Transforming the learning environment

Over the past fortnight students have been getting used to a new and improved learning environment in the English department. Over the past year our site team have been working tirelessly, room-by-room, to renovate and refurbish all the classrooms in Hanover, where English is based. Over the Easter break, new carpet was laid in all classrooms and the upstairs corridor. It’s made an amazing difference!

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Before…

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…during…

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…and after

What was once an echoing tiled space is now a quiet, padded corridor. Whereas once the slightest shift of a chair was accompanied by an ear-splitting shriek of metal on tile, now students can focus on their learning without distraction. The clutter of old resources has been removed in favour of neat storage, and classroom displays are now focused on key learning points for English classes.

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The classroom design uses the same template as the Alan Turing Building, based on the Smarter Spaces research and work conducted by our students last year. The “teaching wall” is painted in a bright accent colour, to draw attention to the front of the room. The other walls are in a neutral colour, free from distractions, so that focus remains where it should be – on the learning.

Corridors are now clean and uncluttered. Hard-to-maintain displays have been removed in favour of large, robust photography. The time teachers would have spent on preparing, putting up and maintaining displays can now be spent more effectively on lessons and working with students.

We now have two buildings – the Alan Turing Building and Hanover – in this new internal design. The Athene Donald Building will make a third, and over the coming years we will also roll out the design to Windsor, Stuart and beyond. The future is bright!

We have only been able to achieve these great results thanks to the amazing efforts of our site team, who have completed this work with minimal disruption and a great end result. I’d like to thank them personally for all the work they have done – and continue to do – to transform the environment for learning for our students.

My book: Becoming a growth mindset school

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The front cover

One of my core beliefs as a teacher and as a school leader is that the manner in which we approach learning – our attitude – is the most significant factor in our success. I have written about this subjectrepeatedly on this blog and it is the cornerstone of our approach to learning at Churchill.

At Churchill we believe in the value of:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

In late 2016, I was approached by educational publishers Routledge to write a book about this approach to teaching and learning. What does the educational research say? How do you go about implementing an attitude-based approach to teaching and learning? And what have I learned from the process?

At first, I was a little daunted, but this is a subject that I love. I am passionate about the ways in which learning can transform young people’s lives, and about how small shifts in attitude and approach can yield big improvements in progress and achievement. I felt like I had something to say, and I hoped that what wrote I could make a difference to other teachers and school leaders and, through them, their students. So I agreed!

Nearly eighteen months and over 75,000 words later, the book is finally here. It’s called Becoming a growth mindset school  and it explores the theories which underpin a growth mindset ethos and lays out how to embed them into the culture of a school. It offers step-by-step guidance for school leaders to help build an approach to teaching and learning that will encourage children to embrace challenge, persist in the face of setbacks, and see effort as the path to mastery. It isn’t about quick fixes or miracle cures, but an evidence-based transformation of the way we think and talk about teaching, leading, and learning. It is a celebration of all we are trying to achieve here at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form through the skill and dedication of our expert staff, the support of our community of families, and the wonderful kindness, curiosity and determination of our fantastic students.

And we’re only just getting started!

Read an adapted extract from the book here.

Becoming a growth mindset school is available from Amazon, Routledge and Waterstones.

Stephen Hawking

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Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018

I was saddened to hear this week of the death of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. He is perhaps best known for his book A Brief History of Time, which I first read when I was in the Sixth Form. His work probed the beginning and end of the universe, pushing science and human understanding to the very limits of what it is possible to imagine.

What I remember most about Stephen Hawking, however, was listening to him speak. In 2016 he gave two lectures – the Reith Lectures – on BBC Radio 4.  The lectures were fascinating, exploring the nature of black holes. You can listen to them here. But what really captured me was an answer he gave to an audience question at the end of the second lecture. He was asked: “if you had to offer one piece of advice for future generations of scientists…what would it be?” The answer he gave encapsulates Churchill’s values perfectly:

My advice to young scientists is to be curious, and try to make sense of what you see. We live in a universe governed by rational laws that we can discover and understand. Despite recent triumphs, there are many new and deep mysteries that remain for you to solve. And keep a sense of wonder about our vast and complex universe and what makes it exist. But you also must remember that science and technology are changing our world dramatically, so it’s important to ensure that these changes are heading in the right directions. In a democratic society, this means that everyone needs to have a basic understanding of science to make informed decisions about the future. So communicate plainly what you are trying to do in science, and who knows, you might even end up understanding it yourself.

And finally, Hawking’s message was one of determination:

“Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Read more about Stephen Hawking (BBC website)

Creativity

Creativity – the ability to make something new – is one of the most important skills or qualities we can nurture in our school. It was one of the key words for us when we were thinking about our vision and values last year. We say “we maintain a supportive and inclusive culture that values and celebrates personal enrichment and creativity alongside academic achievement,” and when I walk around the Academy I can see this in evidence everywhere I go.

My office is full of students’ artwork. When I glance up from my emails, or conclude a meeting, or when I walk in from a cold, wet lunch duty, I’m often brought up short by the quality of what they have produced. And it isn’t just the technical skill of the art work that causes this effect: it’s the ideas, the thinking, and the imagination.

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You can see it at the entrance to the school too, in the projects that the students have designed which are on display in they foyer. And, yes, in the portrait of me produced by Katie Jackson!

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Walking further into the school, though, this spirit of making, imagining and creating runs through every corridor and classroom. Students are choreographing, planning, deciding, photographing, filming, writing, painting, sewing, sculpting, organising, designing, discovering, inventing, producing, building, performing and making all the time. From the upcycled chairs in the Sixth Form, through the delicious dishes in catering, to the solution to a problem in Mathematics, examples of creativity are everywhere.

Back in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson gave a famous TED talk entitled “Do schools kill creativity?” He talked about the risk that the current education system runs, the risk of squashing the creativity out of children through their experience of the curriculum. He quotes the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso:

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At Churchill, we work really hard to ensure that a student’s experience of school nurtures their creativity. We recognise that the process of learning is creative in itself, as it encourages learners to make new connections and engage, through the process of learning, in the art of creating themselves.

Success

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After last week’s blog about failure, I wanted to write a companion piece about success. We all want to be successful. We all aim for success. But what does success mean to you?

At the end of each school year at Churchill, we have our annual Celebration of Success events. These evenings aim to celebrate those student who have been successful in many different ways. Of course, academic success is a huge part of that. As a school you wouldn’t expect anything different! But, as an institution, we believe that personal and academic accomplishments are equally valuable, and we try to celebrate success in all its forms.

For some of us, a string of A* grades (or 7, 8 or 9s!) is a mark of success. For others, achieving a grade 4 will be a huge achievement. For some, winning the 1500m on Sports Day will bring that sense of pride; for others, simply finishing the race is worth even more. For those students who successfully complete their Duke of Edinburgh award, the feeling of success is palpable; I’m looking forward to handing out this year’s awards later this term.

These are all major achievements, which we rightly mark up as successes. But it’s important also to celebrate the small triumphs which occur every day. We know that for some students simply getting into school and making it through the day is a success to be celebrated. Finally grasping that difficult concept in a lesson, or having the courage to have a go at a challenging task, or recognising a mistake and going back to fix it – all of these are important successes that matter hugely to all of us.

Blackboard with the chemical formula of dopamine

There are interesting things happening in our brain when we are successful, with two different “feel good” chemicals being released: dopamine and serotonin. We get little shots of a chemical called 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. The trouble with dopamine is that it doesn’t really differentiate between big successes and small successes, 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.

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Serotonin molecule

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 – and I feel good. How brilliant is that?

That’s why recognising and celebrating success is so important. When effort leads to achievement, we feel good about ourselves. When other people tell us they’re proud of us, or celebrate that success with us, we feel even better about ourselves – and they feel great too. It’s a win-win. So cherish those moments, and celebrate every success, no matter how small – they all count.

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