Every Saturday, I take my three-year old son shopping. I must admit I am forever the teacher. My partner draws him a list of things to find and together we look for them. Today, we were after garlic, even if the biro sketch had more than a whiff of onion about it.
It was on our way past the Christmas tree, from the garlic to the carrots, that we saw him, dressed in the signature green and yellow of Morrisons. A stooped stockiness had replaced the gangliness of adolescence but, even so, the crooked smile, open and shy at the same time, instantly sent me back four years. Here was Tim [name changed] again. A delightful boy – who could barely write.
I tend to bump into a former student most weekends, more often than not in a retail outlet. Sometimes I find these meetings awkward. Now that the classroom relationship is over we are left with little but empty what-are-you-up-to-nows? With Tim it felt different. We were genuinely pleased to see each other this morning.
We got talking. He has been working at Morrisons for a month. He is enjoying it. And then he said something I hadn’t expected…
Tim: I’ve got my English now.
Me (badly masking my scepticism): Oh, that’s good. What do you mean?
Tim: I’ve got a C. I did the exam six times but I eventually got there. I kept missing out by one mark.
What you have to understand about Tim is that he was a very weak student. He was a bottom-five-percenter, an E/F border-liner if you must. He tried hard in every lesson, but always seemed to fail. Yet he would smile wistfully, shrug his shoulders, say ‘oh well’ and start again. There seems little justice in the world when such an affable, gentle child meets academic failure at every juncture.
That he has finally achieved his C is a classic tale of character over circumstance. It is, to me, the feel-good growth mindset story to end all. I am very wary of the Michael Jordan – I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying. – school of sayings. Underneath such aphorisms lie a suggestion that, with effort alone, you can become a worldwide success. Unfortunately, with the best will in the world, superstar basketball players are the exception not the norm. Tim’s story reveals a more earthy truth: that effort does not lead to outright success, but to more success than we might have once believed possible.
Yet, for me, there lies a more profound implication. Tim was not ready at sixteen to sit his GCSE. I do not think it was a case of low expectations; rather, that he genuinely could not do it. Sadly, others like him give up and decide that formal education – reading, writing and maths – is not for them. Tim’s determination, borne, I think, out of a placidness of personality and simplicity of worldview, led him there in the end. For others, failure and stigma lead to rejection and anger. It is complex and entirely understandable. But as schools we must do more to deliver our message carefully. Yes, good exam results are crucial – they are inextricably linked to higher earnings, better health and longer life expectancy – but how we help students to cope with failure and move on in life is also important. They might not be ready now, but they could be a little later on.
In schools like mine growth mindset has become the ethos. Not only are we celebrating the idea through assemblies and displays, but gradually structures are changing too – a move to formative-only feedback at KS3 (as part of our assessment-without-levels system) and ungraded lesson observations are just two examples. Yet a question remains. Is it really possible to foster and nurture grit and determination – or whatever you want to call them – at school? Or are personality traits such as Tim’s much more complex, harder-to-shape aspects of self and identity, impervious in reality to the intervention of school?
Furthermore, to link success and its opposite to exam results alone seems a distortion of Carol Dweck’s message. The growth mindset is to take into all areas of life, be it school, relationships or the workplace. Failure and rejection are to be learnt from, not define us. If we only consider promoting mindset as a crude mechanism to enhance exam results, we miss the richness of the message.
Who knows? Perhaps Tim will work in supermarkets all his life. I imagine he will move on when he is ready. Two things, however, are for sure. The refusal to give up, at school and beyond, must be modelled through the way we talk and work with children. And secondly: life does not have to be decided at sixteen.