Is Growth Mindset the new Brain Gym?

January 21, 2017

Earlier this month, an article on the Guardian website told us the following:

Schools and teachers across the world have embraced Carol Dweck’s theory of growth mindset in the hope of helping students to fulfil their potential. Popular strategies include tweaking the way teachers give feedback, encouraging self-reflection through questioning and, crucially, praising processes instead of natural ability.

But many educators feel they could be doing more. A recent survey found that 98% of teachers believe that if their students have a growth mindset it will lead to improved student learning, but only 20% of them believe they are good at fostering a growth mindset and 85% want more training and practical strategies.

This seems to suggest the idea of Growth Mindset is well-established within schools. Is it a fad that’s as disreputable as Brain Gym?  Probably not, but I couldn’t resist putting that in the title after I rediscovered this tweet earlier today:

However, it probably is time to start asking serious questions about the Growth Mindset fad.

Growth Mindset refers to some ideas about attitudes to learning associated with the psychologist Carole Dweck. She is a reputable psychologist and in no way a crank. The ideas, largely to do with accepting that making an effort can change ability, and encouraging effort, seem not only plausible but actually appealing to teachers who wish to motivate their students. For these reasons I’ve tended not to be particularly concerned about this fad, but perhaps I should have been.

About a week ago, BuzzFeed published an article A Mindset “Revolution” Sweeping Britain’s Classrooms May Be Based On Shaky Science that raised a number of questions about the science behind Growth Mindset. I would recommend reading the whole thing, particularly as I don’t think Dweck comes across as anything other than a serious professional in the article. However, doubt is raised about failures to replicate and about studies with statistically insignificant results that have been used to support Growth Mindset. The article does not give enough detail for us to know if this means we are anywhere near the point where the whole idea can be thrown out, but it would certainly appear that there is a lot more empirical work to be done before we should accept the idea wholesale.

Even if the theory does hold up, that does not mean there are going to be positive results from attempts to weaponise it into in-school interventions. After mentioning that BuzzFeed article on Twitter, it was pointed out to me that the EEF has done a RCT trial on a Growth Mindset intervention. While this has the usual problems of EEF research in reporting positive results in terms of months, it concluded that none of the effects on academic performance of were statistically significant. While the researchers put a remarkably positive spin on this, this strikes me as grounds for schools to steer clear until interventions with statistically significant results can be identified. In a blogpost in 2015, Nick Rose suggested why, even if a Growth Mindset was a good thing, interventions designed to develop a Growth Mindset in students might not work:

Rather than being a generic appeal, successful psychological interventions tend to be highly specific – crafted to the precise psychological process being manipulated… The intervention methods come from a solid understanding of the psychology of social influence and persuasion… This isn’t a non-specialist role, according to Yeager and Walton. They suggest that we need a new class of professional psychologist to scale the impact of social-psychological interventions in schools… Essentially, psychological interventions aren’t suited to generic attempts at amateur psychology. The people claiming to demonstrate some profoundly successful interventions suggest a level of expertise is involved; that to be successful, individuals designing and delivering an intervention require significant understanding of the psychological theories involved… “Well-intended practices can sometimes even do more harm than good.” A successful psychological intervention involves a quick, well-targeted ‘nudge’; not repeatedly hitting students over the head with a sledgehammer!

There are reasons to be sceptical about many of the specific interventions being used in schools to promote Growth Mindset. A lot of schools seem to have given Growth Mindset messages in assemblies, tutor time or PSHE lessons. While these may backfire, it is plausible that these are no more harmful than any other form of motivational talk in schools. Some of the other ideas schools have tried seem far more questionable. A lot of schools seem to have used surveys to measure Growth Mindset. While this may seem sensible, there are real problems with such an approach as Nick Rose explained.

We need to be very wary of these as measurements of impact. School mindset interventions which rely upon explicit mindset messages may temporarily alter student attitudes to their learning without actually changing their behaviour in the classroom or outside of school. Worse still, reliance upon ‘inspirational’ messages or explicit teaching of mindset may simply tell pupils the socially desirable response expected in surveys – giving the appearance of changing attitudes without genuinely changing the attitudes that pupils possess. This would render any attempt to measure ‘impact’ through – for instance – student surveys potentially meaningless.

Despite this, surveys are still on the more sensible end of the spectrum of Growth Mindset interventions. Here are some other things I found that just seem gimmicky:

…first the students had a bookmark with the four key characteristics of a growth mindset. This bookmark also formed a banner on their task sheet. It served as a constant reminder of of the way in which I wanted them to work. Secondly we introduced the use of brag boards. These were simply sheets on which I gave the students a sticker every time I saw them exhibit a particular growth mindset characteristics, the students seemed to respond well to these, the fact they were ‘stinky stickers’ may have helped.

From this blogpost.

Or how about these displays?

Or this reflection sheet?

(Both from this blogpost)

Or how about this as a way of using staff time?

Once we get to half term I will be meeting with those students who are recorded as having the most fixed mindsets. I will then be spending a tutor time each week for a term working on exploring growth mindset and helping them to change. I will be putting together a set of tutorials on this over the next few weeks. Ultimately the aim would be to equip these students to be growth mindset ambassadors, supporting the next student intake.

From this blogpost

More gimmicks are mentioned by Nick Rose, in a review of Growth Mindset Pocketbook,:

…I was dismayed by some of the suggested ways in which teachers could apply the growth mindset to their lessons. The worst involved dividing the class into three to roleplay a mock TV show called “Changing the Lives of Fixed Mindsets”. Other suggestions, such as “Mindset bingo!”, “Mindset Heroes” or creating a “Mindset wall”, displayed a similar level of subtlety.

One thing I noticed was how often a lot of effort was made, then it all appears to have been abandoned. One school created their own blog about developing Growth Mindsets which was updated intermittently over a year and a half. Elsewhere people designed complex diagrams:


Finally, though, Growth Mindset has been used to justify the same old progressive ideology that people already supported. The most ludicrous example of this has been on the part of maths educationalist, Jo Boaler, who has propagandised for mixed ability teaching and against teaching basic maths facts for decades. She decided that Growth Mindset research (which apparently now has something to do with neuroscience) meant the following:

A true  commitment to the communication and teaching of a growth mindset probably requires examination of all aspects of teaching. Even the tasks that teachers choose allow different opportunities for messages to be communicated to students. In mathematics for example, if students are working on short, closed questions that have right or wrong answers, and they are frequently getting wrong answers, it is hard to maintain a view that high achievement is possible with effort. When tasks are more open, offering opportunities for learning, students can see the possibility of higher achievement and respond to these opportunities to improve.

And inevitably:

Ability grouping as a practice rests upon fixed mindset beliefs — it is implemented by schools and teachers who themselves have fixed beliefs about learning and potential and it communicates damaging fixed ability beliefs to students. But the ways in which schools group students are difficult for individual teachers to change, even those who are aware of the negative impact of ability grouping and who are dedicated to implementing growth mindset messages and practices. Such changes require positive leadership from governments, local authorities, head teachers and heads of department…

Fancy that, Growth Mindset turns out to mean that we have to impose the very things she just happened to support all along.

Now there may still be something positive to be made of the Growth Mindset idea, but we should wait until the psychology experiments are replicated and the interventions are shown to have statistically significant results. I propose that until then we treat the phrase “Growth Mindset” as unnecessary jargon and those claiming to be able to instill Growth Mindset as either unlikely to be adding anything new to the mix, or worse, sneaking in the usual failed ideas under a new name.


The Obligatory Michaela Post

January 18, 2017

I visited Michaela Community School today.

Traditionally, posts about visits to the school tend to say:

  1. It was like no other school;
  2. The behaviour is the best ever;
  3. There are routines for everything;
  4. The levels of achievement are unprecedented;
  5. The pedagogy was new and exciting.

In a way it didn’t really live up to that for me. And I don’t mean that as a criticism, I just think the great things about the school are not so exotic or different. I think that much of what they do can be seen in schools up and down the country; I just think that few of those schools are state comprehensives.

I worked for a couple of terms at a selective, independent school and also a term in a girls grammar school. The behaviour  at those schools was just as good and the achievement probably better (although given I’m talking about highly selective schools it is impressive that I have to say “probably”). The description of Michaela as a “state school with a private school ethos” is probably the most accurate (not that there aren’t private schools out there with a terrible ethos). The real tragedy is not that there are no children out there already experiencing a Michaela-style education, but that you normally have to have parents able to pay school fees or for a private tutor to get that sort of education. While I can understand that many teachers have never seen anything like this, what makes it exceptional is simply that education with such high expectations can be found in a state comprehensive in Brent.

I think my view of the pedagogy was somewhat shaped by my subject. The language lessons and RE lessons I saw did seem unlike anything I had seen elsewhere, because of their intense, interactive, didactic style. The maths lessons didn’t seem so unfamiliar. I think good maths teaching looks pretty much the same everywhere: explanation and practice. Where the maths lessons stood out was in the quality of the resources and the behaviour of the students. Similarly the routines that I had heard so much about were, at least in lessons, not that different to what I have seen elsewhere; what was different was the willingness with which students complied with them.

And so I guess it all comes down to behaviour and motivation. This school appears to have shown that it is possible to create a culture in a state comprehensive that is similar to the best of the private sector. Everything else seems to flow from that. It is not obvious from walking round how they have created that culture, although their book gives a lot of indicators. What is going to be interesting is how much of a boost to results that culture actually creates. It feels like they are on course for breaking records, but who can tell at this point?

So if Michaela is exceptional because of who the education is provided for, rather than the education itself, what does that mean?

Well, firstly, we can dismiss the abuse the school has received from those who see their high expectations as cruel. They are simply what parents pay thousands for elsewhere. If Michaela is cruel then so are dozens of the most successful schools in the country, and thousands of schools across the globe. So is any institution supporting sustained and successful learning.

Secondly, we need to accept that Michaela should not be that difficult to replicate. Almost every city already has schools like this, they just aren’t open to everybody. It should be an aim to create a state comprehensive with this sort of ethos in every local authority.

Thirdly, we need to stop accepting that working class kids cannot behave. It really isn’t true. They just need help and support. We need to acknowledge how many schools routinely excuse the unacceptable.

Finally, I hope I am not downplaying what has been achieved. What is truly exceptional about Michaela is the vision and strength of purpose of the staff. Almost any other school would have long since settled for the “good enough” standard. Their achievement is not that they have done the impossible; it is that they have done what teachers have been told was impossible and that’s pretty impressive in itself. However, it is time to challenge low expectations everywhere. I see no reason there couldn’t be a thousand Michaela Schools.


A Review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers

January 18, 2017

battlehymnI am writing this on my way to visit Michaela School, as I realised that this would be my last chance to review the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, written by teachers at the school, without having my perceptions shaped by seeing the reality of what they describe.

The book consists of a series of essays about life at the school and their educational philosophy written by a variety of staff members. As you’d expect, if you’ve read any of the furious debate about the school, a lot of what is discussed are educational ideas I am already predisposed to like, in particular, zero tolerance discipline and a pedagogy based around explicit instruction in knowledge. The book would make a handy introduction to anyone interested in those issues, and would be full of ideas for a school leader hoping to implement those ideas.

Where this book differs from previous books about these topics, is in the claim that the results of consistently implementing such ideas are particularly spectacular. Throughout the book the writers indicate that while they believed in these ideas all along, even they were amazed at how well they worked in practice. It would be fair to argue that the credibility of the book depends entirely on whether the school lives up to these claims. The authors claim that their strict discipline has created an incredibly positive culture in the school. While this may, in part, be considered a reaction to those who claim that firm discipline is cruel and will make students miserable, the authors all seem agreed that firm boundaries have not only enabled students to learn more effectively, but has also affected their characters in a positive way. They also claim, and samples of students’ work seem to support this, that the focus on knowledge has enabled greater academic performance in almost every respect, including those skills whose development is often seen as in competition in the classroom with the transmission of knowledge.

Where the book has generated controversy it has been over the picture painted of other schools. As somebody who has worked in many secondary schools, in 4 different local authorities, and visited many more schools, and who knows teachers from all over the country, I see nothing that was not entirely truthful about what is normal in this country’s secondary schools. As ever, in the education debate, speaking the truth will generate more hostility than simply arguing for a controversial position. There has been little response to some of the more contentious parts of the book, like the chapter arguing against the need for qualified teachers.

Although I knew before I began reading that I would be sympathetic to the central ideas of the book, I was surprised how little I disagreed with. The school’s curriculum and pedagogy seem very carefully prescribed, and I expected to find myself disappointed at the lack of teacher autonomy. However, I actually found myself questioning my own assumptions about teachers planning lessons collaboratively. Perhaps my own experiences of this not being a good idea stem entirely from working with teachers with drastically different views of what works in the classroom. Perhaps an agreed approach to pedagogy makes all the difference in this respect. In which case, could it be that all schools should proclaim their philosophy as loudly as Michaela does?

As I said earlier, the credibility of this book will really depend on whether the school lives up to the claims in the book. I’m looking forward to visiting. In the longer term, I doubt many schools’ results will be scrutinised as closely as those of Michaela’s first cohort. One way or another, a lot of people will have to eat their words when those results are published.



Behaviour Consultants

January 14, 2017

A few years ago, I think it may have been around 2010, I worked at a school where a behaviour consultant came in for our INSET. He explained to us that if we were just nicer to the kids then they would behave better. Back in 2012, I wrote about observing a behaviour panel at an education conference where a well established behaviour consultant argued that we could improve behaviour by avoiding punishment and being nicer to the kids, perhaps just having “a quiet word” where necessary. Another post back in 2008 quoted multiple behaviour consultants who thought that teachers who were angered by poor behaviour were the problem, and if we didn’t react negatively to the disruption and abuse everything would be much better. More recently, I read this blogpost by another behaviour consultant, who claimed:

Behaviour, good or bad, is not an entity in itself. It is a dynamic construct created by environment and interaction. Have high expectations by all means, but if the required behaviour is not immediately there, it is a core function of a teachers role to create it. It is the adults responsibility to set the emotional tone of the classroom, to instruct, model, coach, adapt, seek help and support until it is established.

A philosophy which meant they could then claim that it was wrong to use disciplinary procedures to protect one’s self or one’s class from bad behaviour:

Excluding by sending out of the classroom, passing the problem on to someone else, suggesting another placement is rarely a solution. Understanding the core problem and applying individual solutions with care and consistency usually is.

Understanding the core problem and applying individual solutions with care and consistency usually is. I absolutely support the concept of ‘tough love’ and would never advocate ‘turning a blind eye’. Noticing, understanding, offering solutions to problems rather than passing the buck are infinitely preferable. My starting point is usually what would I want for my own child in this situation? It is more difficult for those who are not parents, have very young children or children who find learning easy to walk in others’ shoes. If a child close to you was struggling and expressing their despair in challenging ways what would you want for them? Apply this standard to the situation, behaviour is a form of communication – what are they telling you? (After the surface F**K Off that is).

So there you go, if a teenager tells you to “fuck off” in front of a class of 31 other teenagers when you ask them to do some work, it would be really nasty to actually have them removed from the classroom, rather than solving their personal problems.

Now you may think I have cherry picked cranks here, but all of these people are reasonably prominent. There are, no doubt, plenty of more sensible people giving behaviour advice. I seem to recall Tom Bennett doing some behaviour consultancy, and I’ve also had excellent INSET on physical restraint from Team Teach. However, there is a significant industry out there of people who managers hire to come into schools to tell teachers that behaviour, rather than being primarily a product of the systems and expectations school leaders put in place, is a result of whether teachers are nice/nasty. You can imagine why such a message appeals to incompetent managers, but morally, this form of consultancy is a way of financially exploiting both teachers and students in need of genuine help not lectures on why teachers are to be blamed.

I expressed this view on Twitter a few weeks back and also asked people what bad advice they have had from behaviour consultants. Here are some of the responses.


Nobody’s actually against knowledge are they?

December 25, 2016

I’ve written many times about those who wish to deny the debate in education. Sometimes the debate denial is so ridiculous it can be safely ignored, for instance when people express their disagreement with traditionalists and simultaneously claim that it’s all a false dichotomy and nobody really disagrees. Sometimes it’s just an attempt to disassociate one’s self from the history of one’s own ideas; for instance, when people complain about labels like “progressive” and “traditionalist” being recently introduced to the debate, even when those terms are over 100 years old. But occasionally, it is a sincere belief that what traditionalists are saying about something, particularly if it is something hard to argue against, is what everyone really believed all along.

The most recent outbreak of this seems to have been about knowledge. Traditionalists have recently been describing their position as being in favour of “knowledge based” education. I don’t really object to this term, but it has led to some progressives pretending to be mystified about the boundaries of the debate. So for instance:

Or (from this blogpost):

There’s a narrative, mostly found on Twitter, but also evident in other social media and education commentary in the press, that teachers somehow eschew teaching ‘knowledge’. That knowledge is almost incidental to ‘better’ ways of teaching like group work, problem solving etc. On top of this, teacher training, we are told by others, teach theory like ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ which is also ‘anti’ knowledge.

Such attacks are convenient sticks with which to beat the ‘progressives’ who, themselves, it is claimed, are anti-knowledge. To be honest, I’m getting quite tired of this obviously flawed logic and rhetoric.

Teachers are teaching ‘knowledge’ all the time – regardless of the methods they use. Even in group work knowledge is being delivered. I’ve yet to see any curriculum document that does not contain some form of knowledge. I’ve yet to see a lesson where a child has never engaged with any knowledge at all.

To imply that teachers – any teacher – does not deliver knowledge in teaching is frankly silly.

Of course, some of this is about a straw man, that those calling for more knowledge are simply opposing a position of teaching no knowledge and, therefore, their position is of no significance if you admit to occasionally passing on some information to your students. But it also seems to be an attempt to air brush out of the debate the anti-knowledge stance that was pretty mainstream among progressives until this sudden bout of denial. The same day I read the blogpost I quoted above, I also read another blogpost, that was advice for teachers in a school in England from a few weeks ago:

Skills Over Content

Whether or not we agree, there is a paradigm shift happening around us in education as knowledge becomes increasingly available and accessible. So our role as teachers must change to accommodate this. We need to start thinking of ourselves as developers of skills rather than deliverers of content.

In practice, this means starting our lesson planning by considering the skills which need to be developed rather than the content that’s next in the syllabus.

I think this sort of thing has been fairly common in recent years. I heard it very many times. I think it may have gone out of fashion now – I see it more often from overseas sources than English ones – but it is still in the culture. I find it hard to believe that this could have been missed completely by anybody. I gave this example because it was recent, not because there weren’t hundreds of other examples out there. If one really wanted to find multiple examples of people denying the importance of knowledge then I’d recommend buying Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou, as the vast majority of the myths she addresses are about the lack of importance of knowledge, and she gives multiple examples of each one, usually from influential and important sources.

If I could only pick one source to establish that a hostile attitude to the teaching of knowledge was the orthodoxy in recent years, I don’t think there’s a better example than the letter signed by 100 educationalists when Michael Gove tried to increase the amount of knowledge in the GCSE curriculum. Here are just some of the ways they described the teaching of knowledge.

…The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity…

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity…

…The mountains of detail for English, maths and science leave little space for other learning…

…A recent CBI report argued that “we need to end the culture of micro-management”, and (citing the Cambridge Primary Review) that “memorisation and recall are being valued over understanding and inquiry”…

…Schools in high-achieving Finland, Massachusetts and Alberta emphasise cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity, not rote learning…

This is what I, and most traditionalists, are opposing when we say we favour the teaching of knowledge. We support the teaching of actual specified knowledge over the teaching of vague generic qualities like “creativity” or “cognitive development”. We don’t think teaching more knowledge means understanding is not passed on. We don’t fear facts, detail, recall or memorisation. If you don’t disagree with us, then good, but let’s not pretend that there were not people fighting against these things. Let nobody pretend there weren’t those who were appalled by the idea of teaching more knowledge in the curriculum. We cannot forget all those comments about Gradgrind, regurgitating facts, or rote-learning out of the debate. Don’t pretend to be for knowledge if the moment anyone celebrates teaching it, or recommends testing it, you will be the first to complain.


Untruths in teacher training

December 6, 2016

There was an event at Michaela School the weekend before last. You can watch videos of it here. One of the points that stuck out for me was when Deputy Headteacher, Barry Smith, complained about the “lies” he was told when he was being trained to teach. I thought this was interesting because, even though we should expect teacher trainers to be experienced classroom practitioners who have also had every opportunity to study education, we tend to assume that when they tell us things that aren’t true then they are being sincere. We don’t question whether they actually believe it.

This lead to a bit of a discussion on Twitter which, with the help of @5N_Afzal, I present below. The general consensus was that teachers are told a lot of untruths by those training them, (I didn’t specify initial teacher training so this could also include INSET) but that we should give those that pass on the misinformation the benefit of the doubt about it being an honest mistake.


Is criticising learning styles an attack on the poor?

December 4, 2016


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