Welcome back assembly: make your effort count

My welcome back assembly this week was delivered as a YouTube video, rather than live in the Academy hall, due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. And that is – inevitably – how I opened my assembly: going through the COVID protocols for the month of January with a run-through of the rules about face coverings; expectations around twice-weekly testing; an explanation of the teacher’s role in balancing the need for good ventilation with a comfortable working temperature in winter; and an update on what we know about vaccinations for 12-15 and 16-18 year olds.

Once this reminder was out of the way, I wanted to focus my assembly on the importance of effort in learning. At Churchill, we have outlined the six things we know make the biggest difference to learning.

The six things that make the biggest difference to learning

These six things are grounded in educational research, and our experience and data shows that students who show these behaviours in learning are the most successful in terms of their progress and outcomes. And there, right at the top of the list, is determined and consistent effort.

But what does effort look like? Back in pre-pandemic times, we worked hard to describe what our expectations of student effort were. The result of this work was the launch of our effort grades system in September 2020 – which you can read about on this blog here, or on the Academy website here.

Our effort grades system sets up the expectation that all students will make at least “Good” effort. Anything less than “Good” isn’t enough – so it is graded “Insufficient” or “Poor.” It’s really important that our students know what teachers are looking for when we say we are looking for “good effort,” so we have set it out really clearly in their planners – and in my assembly!

Good effort

We have deliberately tried to write the descriptors for our effort grades as things that teachers can see the students doing in their classes, so that it makes it clear for the students how to show the teachers that they are trying their best. And those students who really push themselves can show that they are putting in excellent effort:

The effort grades that students achieve in their reports three times a year are really important to us at Churchill. We count students’ effort grades towards the House Cup: every Good and Excellent grade adds points to the House total! We also track them carefully to see how students are improving their effort, so we can congratulate them. Alternatively, if their effort is declining, we will try to understand the cause of this and offer support or challenge to them so they can bring it back up. But, vitally, the only one who can control the effort that a student puts in is the student themselves: they must take responsibility for the investment they make in their learning.

In my assembly, I talked about two students whose effort grades were tracked through Year 9, 10 and 11, and how they did in their GCSE exams (these examples were from before the pandemic, when exams still took place). The percentages shown are the students’ average effort grade score across all their subjects.

Student A started Year 9 with below average effort grades, but worked really hard to improve them. Despite a small dip in the middle of Year 11, this student got better and better over time – and this investment paid off. The student made, on average, 1.3 grades more progress than similar students nationally in their GCSEs. The difference: the effort they put in.

Student B tells a different story. They started Year 9 roughly where student A finished Year 11 in terms of effort, but gradually declined across the three years. The result of putting less and less effort in each time: the student performed, on average, one and a half grades less well across their GCSEs than similar students nationally.

We see this played out time and time again across the students we teach. In class, all students are taught the same lesson, but they don’t all learn the material equally well. There are lots of factors in the mix to explain why that is, but the single biggest differentiator is the effort that the students put in. That is why, at Churchill, we put such an emphasis on effort grades – and it is why, at the start of 2022, I used my assembly to remind students of why if matters, and what we expect.

You can see the assembly below:

Getting your results

Whenever you get results back from a test, an assessment, or a piece of work, there are two competing priorities at work in your mind. On the one hand, you want to feel good. You want to feel proud of what you have achieved. You want your teacher, or whoever has assessed the work, to have recognised the effort you have put in and what you have achieved.

On the other hand, you want to learn. You want to know how to improve so that you can get even better next time. Your eye is instantly drawn to the questions you got wrong, to the notes in the margin, which tell you that you’re not quite there…yet.

It would be great to turn in the perfect piece of work, to get it back 100% correct, with full marks and a shiny gold star on it. That would feel amazing. But, as I tell students and their families when they join the Academy in Year 7, if you’re getting everything right then you’re not learning anything. The chances are the work wasn’t challenging enough: it just gave you an opportunity to show things that you already knew, or to practise skills you had already mastered. That has its place – but the real learning happens when you’re grappling with material you haven’t quite nailed down yet, or attempting a really difficult problem that you haven’t quite grasped…yet.

Researcher Dylan Wiliam calls these two types of response to feedback “ego-involved” and “task-involved.” When you get your work back, or receive some feedback, your ego is always involved. This is the part of your brain that wants to preserve your wellbeing. It wants you to feel good about yourself. It wants you to think you’re brilliant. The problem with this is that it gets in the way of learning. It means you will be afraid to try difficult and challenging tasks, in case you fail: it protects you from the damage to your self-esteem that failure can dish out.

In the other side, a “task-involved” response means that your first reaction when getting your work back is not to react emotionally, not to act to preserve your wellbeing, but instead to think. A task-involved approach means that you are analytical in response to your feedback, and focused overwhelmingly on the learning you can gain from it. Of course, you are interested in what you did well: it’s important to recognise the progress you have made, the hard work that’s paid off, and the knowledge and skills that you have secured. But you are also focused on the room for improvement: the silly mistakes you’ve made, the ideas you hadn’t quite grasped yet, the bits of knowledge you had misunderstood or not expressed clearly enough. And – crucially – you are focused on what you are going to do about it. How you are going to avoid the same mistakes next time. The bits of the course you are going to go back over. How you are going to improve.

It’s impossible to divorce the emotional “ego-involved” response altogether. It’s natural to feel disappointed if a mark isn’t as high as you wanted, or if you made a silly mistake that dropped you from one grade to the next. That’s normal! But, at Churchill, we work really hard to help our students to manage their emotional responses to feedback, and focus as rapidly as possible on the learning that comes from it. Because the only point in doing school work at all is to learn from it!

Over the coming days, our Year 11 students are getting their mock exam results back. There is a lot of emotion tied up in these results for our students, especially with the additional pressure that the pandemic has placed on mocks after two years of cancelled public exams. But the most important thing for our Year 11 students – and for any students, at any stage, getting a piece of work or an assessment back – is to focus on the learning. What did I do well, and how can I improve? What does this assessment tell me about where I am in my progress in this subject? And what do I need to do to make sure that I continue to get better?

The grade or mark you get on an assessment only matters twice in school: in your actual GCSE exams in Year 11, and in your actual A-level exams in the Sixth Form. At every other point in school, the grade or mark is not the most important thing: it’s what you learn from it.

Attitude to learning, and why it matters

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I’ve been sharing my assemblies this week with the wonderful cast of Sweeney Todd, who are preparing for their performances at the Playhouse, Weston-super-Mare, on 26th-28th February (click here for tickets!) Before they steal the show, I have been talking to each house about the importance of attitude to learning, and why it matters.

Attitude to learning is the way we assess and monitor students’ approaches to their studies. The descriptors are used by each teacher to assess students’ attitudes in their classes, and these attitudes are reported home three times a year. We place a great deal of emphasis on attitudes to learning – but why does it matter so much?

example hm report

Over the past three years we have been gathering data on attitudes to learning and comparing it to GCSE progress scores. To do this we convert the attitude to learning grades in each report into a percentage score: all “highly motivated” grades would score 100%, all “disengaged” would score 0%. What we’ve found is that students with average attitude to learning scores over Years 9, 10 and 11 over 80% made an average of three-quarters of a grade better progress than similar students nationally. Students averaging over 90% on attitude to learning made, on average, a whole GCSE grade better progress than similar students nationally.

What I love about this is that everyone can control their attitude to learning. The behaviours listed under “engaged” and “highly motivated” are things that any student can do, if they choose to. It doesn’t matter whether you find learning easy or difficult; if you are getting the top grades or not; or which subjects you enjoy the most: everyone can choose to show that they are engaged or highly motivated in their learning. If students do make those choices, and show consistently good attitudes to learning, they are giving themselves the best possible chance of making exceptional progress. This is the mission for when students return after the half term break: what choices will they make about their attitude to learning?

Climate for Learning

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Over the past four years we have been working hard at Churchill to develop an exceptional climate for learning. The climate for learning consists of the relationships between staff and students; the environment in which learning take place; and the way in which the learning is managed by both staff and students. The climate has been carefully managed through our focus on attitudes to learning, our revised code of conduct, our thoughtful classroom design and investment in our buildings. This year, especially, staff and students have been working to develop metacognition in lessons. This process, best described as “thinking about thinking,” is a common thread with many of our most successful students. Knowing how to improve, responding positively to feedback, and developing a bank of strategies and approaches which work, allows these students to apply themselves more purposefully to their learning. This year, we have been working hard to provide all students with access to these strategies.

I am delighted to announce that our work on developing a positive climate for learning has now been nationally recognised by the Leading Edge programme from the Schools, Students and Teachers Network (SSAT). Leading Edge is a network of high performing schools, and provides accreditation through the Framework for Exceptional Education – a challenging school improvement framework designed to stretch and challenge schools which have already been recognised as high-performing by Ofsted.

This year we applied for “transforming” status in climate for learning under the Framework for Exceptional Education. This is the highest level available, and would show that we were national leaders in the field. We had to demonstrate that, at Churchill:

  • All staff establish excellent working relationships with learners. High levels of trust ensure interactivity and continual learning dialogue, which challenges and extends learners to apply, evaluate and create. Learners respond well to the high level of challenge and expectations in a climate where they have high self-confidence and self-esteem so that they are able to take risks with their learning.
  • Every space has a learning purpose and is inspiring for teachers and learners. The environment ensures learners are able to develop and access the strategies/solutions needed to move on independently of teacher instruction as well as celebrating excellent outcomes.
  • Classroom management is characterised by highly collaborative and respectful relationships; learner interactivity is the norm. Learners routinely reflect on how they learn and undertake this through a wide range of contexts and methods.

Having submitted our evidence, we were then subject to a peer review by visitors from another high performing school within the Leading Edge Network, and moderation by a visiting assessor from the SSAT. The process has taken months, but I am proud to say that this we received confirmation from the SSAT that we had successfully met the standard and been awarded our badge! This makes us one of the leading schools nationally for this area of school improvement.

Our peer reviewer said:

“the research and thought that has gone into the new buildings has led to the development of some outstanding learning environments with a sense of coherence and consistency, and the use of limited display space has focused students’ learning, as well as reducing unnecessary staff workload.
There is a clear communication of ethos, which again supports the goal of consistency across the school.
Students’ behaviour was very good in all lessons visited. All students were focused on their work, and showed enthusiasm in lessons; many were confident to contribute, showing a climate of trust.
I was impressed with the very obvious prioritising of student well-being and support. Staff morale has been greatly boosted. Staff workload is being positively impacted. The whole-school focus on learning behaviours will make students enjoy being at school even more.”

Our SSAT moderator said:

“Planning has been under-pinned by a vision of learning that recognises that expectations about behaviour for learning are grounded in challenge and aspiration in the classroom and this has ensured that all staff recognise that fostering effective learning behaviour is the responsibility of all staff. There is a strong community ‘buy in’ because staff and students have contributed to both planning and evidence gathering. As a consequence transactions with students focus on positive communication. This ‘buy in’ is evident in the ethos of classrooms. Work was purposeful with a strong sense of teacher student partnership. Assessment practice aids students in identifying how they can improve thus promoting engagement and aspiration. On- going work in profiling attitude to learning reinforces the positive and supports a more evidenced approach to intervention.”

It is fantastic that visitors to Churchill recognise the highly effective culture that we are building at the Academy. All the staff and students at Churchill contribute to developing this climate for learning: they deserve to feel as proud as I do that our hard work has been recognised in this way.

New College, Oxford

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New College Oxford’s 1993 intake. Can you find the 19-year-old me?

I will never forget the day I got the letter telling me that I’d got an offer from Oxford University. It was the last day of the Christmas term in 1992, when I was in Year 13. I remember because it was also the last night of our senior school play that year, a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – so I celebrated the last night of the show and the offer of a place to study English Language and Literature at New College, Oxford, on the same night.

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New College Old Quad (source)

New College was new when it was founded, in 1379. The name has stuck, even though it is now one of the oldest colleges in Oxford! I was struck by the beauty of the place when I went to look round with my Mum in the summer of 1992. It remains one of my favourite places to visit – a little oasis of tranquility in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city.

I studied at Oxford between 1993 and 1996. They were three wonderful years spent studying the subject that I loved – and still love! The system at Oxford suited me down to the ground. The University itself is divided up into 35 different colleges. The colleges provide students’ accommodation, food, teaching and pastoral care. This enables the tutors to know the students really well. New College is one of the biggest colleges – when I went, there were twelve students taking English in my year – but there were three English tutors, so we were very well looked after!

We were taught mainly in tutorials, where two students would sit with a tutor for an hour each week. One of us would read our essay out loud, and the tutor and the other student would then pick it apart, looking for the strengths and weaknesses in what we had written and asking us to defend our arguments. This taught me to prepare well, think on my feet, and know when to admit when I have got something wrong! Doing this three times a week, every week, also taught me a huge amount about organising myself to make sure that everything got done. When there’s only two of you in the tutorial, with a world-leading expert in your subject, there’s nowhere to hide!

Going back to New College

This week, I took twenty three Year 11 students back to New College for a visit. They spent the day learning about university in general and Oxford in particular. They spent time with second-year undergraduates, asking lots of questions to try and find out what studying at Oxford is really like. They also had a tour of nearby St Catherine’s College, which has a much more modern feel than the ancient buildings of New College. Finally, they got to grips with ideas for A-level choices which would inform future university plans, and took on board just how stiff the competition is for places at the UK’s top universities. For example, only 9% of applicants for Medicine at Oxford are successful in gaining one of the 151 places. But, as the tutor at New College said, why shouldn’t you be one of the 9%? You can only get in if you apply in the first place!

I have been really encouraged by the work Oxford and Cambridge are doing to ensure that students from state schools are properly represented in their universities. Part of the battle is making sure that students from schools like Churchill Academy & Sixth Form see top universities as viable, realistic options for their further study. I will certainly do all I can to encourage our students to aim high, believe in themselves, and to have the confidence to put themselves forward – whatever they are aiming for.

Memory Hooks

…or “how to spell millennium.”

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Last week we had the first round of our annual staff spelling bee. This is a hotly contested competition, and the final takes place immediately before the students’ spelling bee competition in February. I have made it to the final for the past three years, so I have a reputation to uphold!

Round one consisted of six words:

  1. Definitely
  2. Indefatigable
  3. Melancholy
  4. Millennium
  5. Acquiesce
  6. Tracheotomy

I was delighted to get them all right! So at least I’m through to round two…

However, the presence of the word “millennium” was a bit of a gift for me, because I definitely know how to spell it. At least, I do now…and I have for the past nineteen years.

Back in the year 1999, I was in my first teaching job at a school in Nottinghamshire. My tutor group and I did an activity thinking about our hopes and wishes for the year 2000 – we called them our “millennium pledges” and we were going to use them for the display board in our tutor room. I duly stayed after school one day, backed and edged the board in new display paper, got my tutor group’s pledges arranged artistically on the backing paper, and cut out and stuck every letter of the display title using letter stencils, in silver and then in black. I stuck the black behind the silver to create a neat shadow effect. I then covered the display in clear sticky-backed plastic covering film to protect the children’s work. Two hours after school, I was standing back to admire my handiwork, when my Head of Department came in to have a look.

“There are two “n”s in ‘millennium,'” she said.

Yes, you’ve guessed it, my display said “our millenium pledges” – with one “n.”

bookfilm

It turns out, once you’ve covered a display board in clear sticky-backed plastic covering film, you can’t peel it off again without ripping the paper. And ruining the students’ work. And the backing paper. And the edging paper. And, really, the whole display, which had to be completely re-done from scratch, including the children’s millennium pledges. I did make a teaching point out of it, and I hope that those children (who will now be about 33 years old!) can still spell ‘millennium’ correctly too…

Memory hooks

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Whenever I see the word ‘millennium’ now, I am reminded of those hours of time cutting stencil letters out. Twice. The memory is painful, and very funny – in hindsight. But it is strong and powerful. It is a memory I can return to when I am thinking about how to spell that tricky word, and it provides a “way in” for me to the knowledge that I need to ensure I never spell it incorrectly again. Although this memory hook was created by accident, it is also possible to use this technique to enable you to remember key information, for example when revising for tests, by deliberately creating a memory hook to link you to the information you want.

The memory hooks can be anything – an emotion, an image, a place, a person, a piece of music…I have a strong emotional hook to the spelling of the word ‘millennium’! Find something that you can use to trigger your memory, and you will find it easier to remember the things you are trying to learn.

One way to do this might be by putting revision reminders in different rooms of your home. Let’s say you were revising for a History test: you could put facts about people around the bathroom mirror, facts about places on your bedroom door, and information about causes and consequences on the refrigerator in your kitchen. Then, if you’re trying to recall the name of a key person, you can visualise your bathroom mirror and the post-it note you’d stuck just to the left of it…and hopefully, that will give you the memory hook to bring the name to mind.

Memory hooks really work…and that’s why my Joint First Place trophy from the 2018 Staff Spelling Bee has pride of place on the bookshelf in my office, just next to my Lego Millennium Falcon.

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Assembly: marginal gains and resolutions

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

In this week’s assembly, I’ve been talking about marginal gains and resolutions. I started with the picture above: many students had a go at guessing what these objects were! The answer is that these are ‘bum warmers’, used to warm the muscles of Olympic cyclists before a race. The extra warmth means the cyclists can start one hundredth of a second faster than their opponents.

These curious devices are one example of the British cycling team’s approach to the “aggregation of marginal gains.” This approach means making tiny improvements in lots of different areas, adding up to a big overall effect. Other examples include the the cyclists always taking their own pillows and bedding with them when they travel, to reduce the chance of picking up an infection which might interfere with their training. The team tweak every aspect of the bikes, the cyclists’ equipment and clothing, their diet, sleep, schedule and training regime to try and eke out an extra 1% of performance.

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

It’s an approach which seems to have worked. In the four Olympic Games between 1992 and 2004, the cycling team managed to win eight medals; following the adoption of the marginal gains approach, the team won 41 medals across Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Marginal gains in school

I want us all to think about what marginal gains we could make in school. What small changes could we make to our approach which, sustained and added up over time, could result in a big improvement?

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One change could be in making the most of the time we have. Spending five minutes of a lesson off task – daydreaming, chatting to a friend, looking out of the window – doesn’t seem like too much of a problem. But adding it up over a year can result in a lot of lost time…

  • We have five lessons every day for 190 school days in a year
  • That’s 5 x 190 = 950 lessons per year
  • Five minutes wasted in every lesson is 5 x 950 = 4,750 minutes
  • 4,750 minutes is just over 79 hours
  • That’s over THREE WHOLE DAYS of learning lost per year, just from five minutes in each lesson (three days, seven hours and ten minutes, for precision fans).

Ensuring we attend every lesson punctually, and staying focused when we are there, is a marginal gain we can all make that could add up to a big overall effect over time.

Making a resolution

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New Year’s resolutions are notoriously hard to keep. This can be because they are too ambitious. But the advantage of resolving to make a marginal gain is that it involves a small change – or perhaps a number of them! Making resolutions to stay focused, to ensure that all equipment for school is prepared the night before, to avoid distractions, or to be more punctual to every lesson…these are not impossible goals to set ourselves, but added up they could make a significant difference.

What will your New Year’s resolution be?

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

 

Thanks to Keith Neville for the inspiration for this assembly.

Making a good start

I am writing this blog post on Wednesday 19th September, exactly two weeks (or one complete timetable cycle) since the start of the school year. I can confidently say: “we’ve made a good start.”

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Since the start of term teachers have awarded 8530 reward points, set against 482 points for concerns. This ratio of nearly 18 to 1 rewards over concerns shows that our students have begun the year in the right frame of mind, with the right attitude, and they are setting themselves up on the path to success.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect! As ever with the start of term, there have been some issues to resolve and some teething troubles. Some students have had to adjust their behaviour or their uniform, and we as staff have had to make some adjustments to put a few things right. This is a really important process: nobody can get everything right all of the time, but when things aren’t right we are committed to sorting them out. This is what we ask of our students, and it is only right that we lead by example.

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A good start is just that: a beginning. Now that we are through the first two weeks, students have been to every class and lesson, and met all their teachers. The novelty of a new school year has worn away. What matters now is settling into the routine and rhythm of the Academy, maintaining the high standards set at at the start. That means continuing to show those learning behaviours which we know give students the best chance of success in their studies:

  • 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

And, even if you haven’t made a good start, it’s important to never give up. The video below shows the 1972 Olympic 800m final, featuring American athlete Dave Wottle (in the white hat). He made a slow start, falling way behind the field made up of the finest runners in the world. But he kept trying, and he never gave up. What happened next went down in Olympic history. We could all do with a bit of Dave Wottle’s determination:

Process over product

 

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

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.

Churchill School day 2 June 5th  2018

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.

Churchill School day 1 June 5th  2018

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.

 

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.