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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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.

Failure and learning

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!