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.

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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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Failure

In 1919, a young man was fired from his job at a newspaper for “lacking imagination” and “having no original ideas.” The young man’s name was Walt Disney. He went on to win 22 Academy Awards.

In 1998 an 11 year old boy was cut from his football team because a growth hormone deficiency made him shorter than other kids his age. The boy’s name was Lionel Messi. He went on to be named FIFA’s World Player of the Year four times.

On 1st January 1962 a band auditioned for Decca Records in West Hampstead, London. Decca rejected the band, saying “guitar bands are on the way out” and the group had “no future in show business.” The band was The Beatles. They went on to have 15 number one albums, sell 21.9 million singles in the UK, and change the face of music forever.

In 1985, aged 30, a successful businessman was fired from the company he had founded. “I was out — and very publicly out,” he recalled. “What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.” He added, “I was a very public failure.” The man’s name was Steve Jobs. He went on to co-found Pixar Animation Studios, where he co-produced the first ever full-length computer animated film: Toy Story. He was lated re-hired by Apple, the company he had founded, and he went on to develop and launch the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Apple today is worth $900 billion. 

It would be easy to think about Walt Disney, Lionel Messi, The Beatles, or Steve Jobs and only to think of the successes. But those successes were only possible because of the unseen failures that preceded them.

Coping with failure

Failure is a big issue for all of us. None of us sets out on a task wanting to fail. It isn’t something desirable or positive. And, when it happens, it feels awful. But the hard fact is that some degree of failure is inevitable. We can’t be successful all the time and sometimes even the best laid plans come unravelled. For us at Churchill, our aim is to build understanding and acceptance that setbacks, mistakes and failures are part of the learning process, and to help our students react well when things don’t go the way we want them to.

We don’t seek failure out – that would be horrible! But equally we shouldn’t protect students from experiencing setbacks. The most important part of the process is showing them how to learn from the experience and improve as a result. When we are learning something new, it’s unreasonable to expect perfection first time – it’s going to take time and effort. We are constantly failing every day, but learning all the time, improving with each mistake, and getting closer and closer to our destination.

Question 1: Why did you fail?

Understanding the causes of failure help us to learn from it. Sometimes the answers to this question will be easy: I didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t prepare thoroughly enough. I didn’t fully understand what it was that I needed to do. In cases like this, the solutions will also be straightforward: work harder. Prepare. Go back and revise.

Sometimes, the answers will be less easy to find. Sometimes something completely unexpected will happen that makes it impossible to succeed. In these situations we we can also ask ourselves whether there was anything we could have done to forsee what went wrong, or whether there was anything we could have prepared for. If the answer is “no” then we can chalk those up to experience, but if the answer is “yes” then we can learn from it.

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Sometimes, you will know what went wrong, but you won’t know what to do about it. This is where teachers, mentors, tutors, family and friends really come into their own. Asking for help when you don’t know what to do next can feel like an admission of weakness, but it is actually a strength. Getting help from those who know more than you do, or who can do it better than you, will help you to get better too. And offering help to those that need it is part of our mission as an Academy – to “encourage others to succeed.”

Question 2: how do you feel?

Let’s not pretend that the feeling of failure is a pleasant one. It isn’t. It can be embarrassing, even humiliating to get something wrong in front of other people. It can be upsetting. If you’ve invested a lot of time, energy, hope and aspiration into a project, failure can be devastating.

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But failure is not fatal, and it is not permanent.

Acknowledging this simple truth is essential for us to learn and grow. It helps all of us to remind ourselves that the disappointment we feel when things go wrong is something that hurts now, but over time it will help us to be stronger and more resilient. It won’t hurt forever – and it could make us better.

Question 3: what have you learned?

Having experienced the horrible feeling of failure, we are faced with a choice. Part of us will certainly want to avoid that feeling in future by not trying – by avoiding the situation where we might fail again. If we do that, however, we risk the failure permanently affecting our confidence and limiting our ability to succeed in future.

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It takes courage and determination to pick ourselves back up and to have another go – but that is the only way to turn failure into learning. Work out where we went wrong, fix it, get help if we need it, and try again.

My failure

One failure that I will never forget comes from my time as the Head of an English Department. I was asked by a colleague to tell off a boy who had been disrespectful in her lesson. I checked the boy’s details on the computer, then went to find him at break time. When I saw him, I launched straight in to my best teacher telling-off, full of disappointment and indignation that this young man had dared to behave so poorly. After about two minutes, I paused for breath. “I think you might want my brother, sir,” said the young man – who had an identical twin.

Why did I fail? Because I didn’t check.

How did I feel? Very stupid.

What did I learn? Always – ALWAYS – check you’ve got the right person before you tell them off.

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We can’t get everything right all the time. But every time we get it wrong we learn more, and improve. Every failure, mistake, and setback is making us stronger, making us smarter. So be brave, keep going, and next time do it a little bit better.

What is a growth mindset?

One of the principles of our approach to education at Churchill is the development of a growth mindset. But what exactly is it?

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Growth mindset is an idea developed by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University in the USA. Your mindset is what you believe about yourself and your abilities. Dweck’s research into this idea – what she originally called “self-theories” – revealed that some people have what she calls a “fixed mindset.” In the fixed mindset, you believe that your qualities are carved in stone. You are born with a certain amount of ability, and that is all there is to it. Some people are better than you. Other people are not as good as you. But your abilities are fixed, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Other people, Dweck discovered, have a “growth mindset.” In a growth mindset, you believe that the abilities and qualities you are born with can be developed and cultivated through effort, application, experience and practice. With the growth mindset in place, we see challenging situations as opportunities to learn and grow. When we make a mistake in our reading or writing, we learn from it and improve the next time we come across that word or that expression. When the teacher asks a question, we think about it, and we are happy to explore it together with our classmates to help refine and develop our thinking, leading to greater and deeper understanding. The process helps us to improve. To grow. And even if we don’t know the answer right now, if we work at it, listen carefully, and apply ourselves, we will know it soon. In the growth mindset, Dweck suggests, the priority is “learn at all times and at all costs.”

The best way to understand the ideas behind mindsets is to listen to Carol Dweck herself. This video is an illustrated version of a talk she gave to the RSA in 2015, explaining some of her research and what it means for learning. Take ten minutes to have a watch – it could change your life!

 

Behaviour for learning

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Churchill Academy & Sixth Form’s Attitude to Learning Scale

This year at Churchill we have made behaviour our number one priority. We wanted to build on our already high standards to ensure the very best behaviour and conduct from all our students, all the time.

In March this year the government published an independent review of behaviour in schools. The report’s author, Tom Bennett, says:

“A student’s experience in school remains one of the most insightful indicators of later life success in any one of a number of metrics. For many it is the best chance they will ever have to flourish. How they conduct themselves at school is crucial to that experience. Helping them develop good behaviour is therefore one of the most important tasks a school faces…

…Whatever one believes the aims of education to be, all of [them] are best realised in schools where good behaviour is the norm, and antisocial, selfish, or self-destructive behaviour is minimised.”

It’s hard to argue with Bennett’s conclusions. Here at Churchill we believe that good behaviour is the foundation upon which a successful education is built. It’s a minimum expectation that students at Churchill will be polite, well-mannered, and tolerant, but we expect not just compliance but active participation in learning and taking responsibility for the choices they make. That’s why we use the Attitude to Learning Scale (pictured above) alongside the Code of Conduct (below) to help our students understand our expectations of them.

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Churchill Academy Code of Conduct

The Code of Conduct lays out our expectations of student behaviour in, around and beyond the Academy; the Attitude to Learning Scale helps students understand the things they need to do in lessons to ensure they are making the most of their opportunities to learn and make progress.

Each subject reports on Attitude to Learning in every progress check, but teachers can now reward students for demonstrating “Highly Motivated” attitudes in lessons at any time through our new rewards system. Similarly, whilst students may receive concerns for breaking the Code of Conduct, we are now placing an increased emphasis on giving rewards to those who consistently meet or exceed our expectations. Our aim is to use this positive reinforcement to ensure that those students who behave well consistently are recognised for their part in building a culture where exemplary behaviour and attitude to learning is the norm. It is this interplay between behaviour and attitude to learning that ensures the best chance of success in school.

Our staff and students have responded brilliantly to this new focus. Since the start of the term, our 1481 students have been awarded a staggering 8335 reward points for attitude to learning alone, alongside over 2000 for excellent classwork and homework and 1148 for demonstrating our values of kindness, curiosity and determination or making a contribution to Academy life. In total, across all categories, our students have been awarded 12,794 reward points in three weeks!

It’s safe to say it’s been a good start to the year.

How families can support learning

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Welcome back to another new school year! Our students have made an excellent start and they are ready to learn and raring to go. This year we are taking our next steps in developing the learning culture at the Academy, focusing on students taking responsibility for their own learning, progress, attitude and behaviour. As part of this, there are three key strategies families can use to support students’ learning at home.

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  1. Praise the process, not the product

Research shows that praising children for their intelligence – “you’re so clever!”, “wow, you’re so great at Maths!” – can actually harm their motivation by making them believe that they should find the work easy. Instead, when your children get great results or do well, try something like: “that’s great – can you tell me how you did it?” This is more helpful as it will provoke a conversation around strategies, techniques and approaches, showing that your interest is not so much in the product as the process. Instead of saying “you’re so good at English/Art/Science” and so on, try “you’ve really pushed yourself on this project – it’s great to see you working so hard at it.” Instead of “you’re so clever/brilliant/wonderful,” try “I’m so proud of the way you’ve put your time and energy into this,” or “we’re so happy to see that you persevered with this – it was worth all that effort, wasn’t it?”

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  1. Embrace struggle

We have an instinct to rush to praise when children “get” something quickly or produce perfect work first time. However, if students find something quick and easy to grasp, the likelihood is that they either knew it (or something very like it) already, or that the level of challenge was too low. Try asking your children after they get home: “what did you find difficult today?” Praise children when they struggle, because that shows that they’re trying, pushing themselves to do something difficult. That’s the attitude we encourage. Seek out challenging tasks for your children to do, and challenging texts for them to read, to reinforce the message that we give in school: if you’re finding it easy, you’re not learning anything. If you’re struggling, you’re learning.

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  1. Use the power of “yet”

“Yet” can help when students fail, or when they are in the midst of the struggle to master a new and challenging concept. “I can’t do it,” or “I’ll never get it,” or “I’ve never been able to do this,” can be turned around with “…yet.” Learning is a process, and students are always on an upward curve. If they can’t do it today, they’ll have to try again tomorrow, perhaps coming at it from a different angle or using a different strategy. As Thomas Edison famously said: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” If you struggled with Maths or languages or spelling at school, by all means share that struggle with your children, but share it with the determination that they will be able to conquer it if they apply themselves and get the help and support they need – giving up is not an option.

I’d like to thank our families for all the support you give to Churchill’s students and to the Academy as a whole. We couldn’t do it without you!

What I believe about education

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Over the past couple of months we have been doing some deep thinking at the Academy about our purpose, our beliefs, and our values. There will be more to follow on this blog about the conclusion of that work, but this week I thought I would share with you some of what I have come to believe about education.

1. Learning

I believe that we should learn at all times, and at all costs.

2. Growth

I believe that we can all improve through effort, deliberate practice, the right attitude and an effective approach.

3. Attitude

I believe that we should build the best attitudes and behaviours for learning to enable achievement.

4. Wellbeing

I believe that achievement, progress and success bring well being and should not cost us our well being.

5. Opportunity

I believe that through taking part and making the most of the opportunities presented to you, you make the most of yourself.

And that’s it: five beliefs about education that we are using to shape the Academy’s values, vision and approach. Keep reading The Headteacher’s Blog to find out more about how we are implementing those beliefs across the school.