Growth mindset: it’s not just for Christmas

Growth-Not-Just-For-ChristmasWEBImage: @jasonramasami

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.

Feedback: let’s build it in, not add it on

Attachment-1Image: @jasonramasami

The quantity of feedback our students need after completing a task is largely dictated by the quality of teaching they have received before and during this task. I would argue that much of the best and most useful feedback our students receive happens as they are working, not necessarily after they have finished working.

Let me explain. Last week, I was off sick for three days in a row, the longest illness I have had in nine years of teaching. (Don’t ask – it wasn’t pleasant!) It meant that my year 11 students had to plan and write a full piece of iGCSE English language coursework without my help or guidance. As a result, their first drafts were patchy to say the least, littered with very avoidable errors. As I teach just short of sixty year 11s in two ‘middle-sets’, the marking has been a gargantuan task, one I have still yet to complete. Without me to steer them, many students went way off-track.

This episode has got me thinking about feedback and its role as an in-built part of teaching. For me, feedback is an ingrained element of adaptive, reflective practice, often indistinguishable from other elements of instruction such as explanation and questioning. Too often feedback is solely equated with marking and the associated reams of red pen on paper and weekends slaving at the kitchen table. Marking, it must not be forgotten, is only an instrument of feedback, not the process itself.

Feedback – both from and to the students – informs almost every decision teachers make, whether we are planning or delivering lessons. It influences many pivotal moments:

1) During initial planning. Once a topic has been taught a few times, we become aware of the pitfalls associated with it. Our initial instruction should improve and, as a result, pre-empt much of the obvious feedback we will be required to give.

2) At an individual level as students are working.
There are countless ways to intervene with an individual – from sitting with them for a few minutes to tapping a spelling error on their work as you glide past without saying a word.

3) At a whole-class level. By peering over shoulders at work or listening to verbal responses during discussion we can quickly collect data. With this to work on, we may need to stop the lesson to re-explain, model again, show an exemplar, scrap the task completely or take any number of similar actions. Or, of course, we might decide to take no action at all.

4) In between lessons. A quick sample of work from the previous lesson usually gives some indication as to whether we should circle back over previous content in our next lesson. Even just a clear-sighted reflection on the previous lesson can be enough: What did they grasp? What did they struggle with? What should they not forget?

Last week, my year 11 classes missed out on the constant reframing and adaption that forms the nuts-and-bolts of my teaching. To offset this shortfall, lots of written feedback was required.

There is a persuasive school of thought that argues that teachers should give students lots of room to make mistakes so that feedback becomes meaningful. It is no use feeding back on something that has not challenged them beyond what they already know or can do. This, however, must be offset against the concern that mistakes can become embedded without quick remedying. Take the student who misunderstands an essay question from the word go. A quick word from his teacher as he writes his introduction would steer him on the right course. To let him languish under this misconception for the remainder of the essay might well be counterproductive.

A balance needs to be struck to ensure a high level of ‘correctness’ without the unintentional creation of a dependency culture. Barak Rosenshine (2010, 2012), who has summarised over 40 years of research into ten ‘principles for instruction’, outlines as his seventh principle the importance of a ‘high success rate’ in the classroom. In other words, successful classrooms are those in which students become used to getting things right. It is hard to imagine how this could happen without skilful and regular feedback.

I am particularly uncomfortable about the way that the research into the effectiveness of feedback has been used in some schools as the rationale for increasing expectations of marking quantity. Yes, this week, my students have required more written feedback than usual; at other times, however, these classes have only needed a lighter touch. I think quantity of written feedback should be guided by need and nothing else.

I am currently working on a number of strategies to speed up feedback and bring it into the classroom and out of my living room. These include marking with symbols, live marking/editing and gallery critique as well as staple verbal feedback.

Imagine if a school were to make two daring policy decisions.

1) We aim to ensure that the vast majority of marking and feedback will take place during lessons..
2) We aim to ensure that all students get the highest quality feedback at all times.

Are the two mutually exclusive? I am becoming more and more convinced that a nuanced understanding of how to give high-quality feedback is more essential than the quantity and format of that feedback. And what better way to engage teachers in educational research and pedagogy than by offering them a scenario that could potentially decrease workload and improve practice in equal measure?

Feedback. Let’s build it in, not add it on.

Related posts:

What if we didn’t mark any books?

Stategic marking for the DIRTy-minded teacher


Closed-question quizzing – unfashionable yet effective

tharby open closed final
Image: @jasonramasami

Back in the misty past of teacher training I was introduced to two golden nuggets of wisdom:

1. Closed questions are the devil.
2. Open questions are the apotheosis of virtue.

We green-behind-the-ears newbies were encouraged to observe the lessons of experienced teachers with a clipboard so that we could tally up the ratio of closed questions to open questions. I left many a classroom shaking my head in disbelief! Why were teachers still wallowing in the ignominious shame of when, what, who and where?

In my quest to become the all-conquering teaching equivalent of Genghis Khan, I vowed to build my empire on the solid ground of why and how, and in doing so consign their backward cousins to the windswept steppe of deepest, darkest teaching Mongolia…

Recently, however, I have come to think of the closed question as a really quite wonderful thing. I would now go as far to say that lists of closed-questions, especially in the form of quizzing, are amongst the most dependable and useful of everyday resources. Not only do they have multiple functions in the English lesson and beyond, but they pave the way for analytical thought rather than stand in its way.

Quizzes are like raincoats – unfashionable and effective in equal measure. (Apologies in advance if this post points out the bleedin’ obvious!)

Retrieval practice

The evidence collated by Dunlosky et al (2013) – nicely summarised here – asserts that retrieval practice is one of the most effective learning strategies there is. If students are encouraged to actively recall information from memory they are more likely to remember it in the long-term than if they are encouraged to re-read their notes or other material. Re-reading creates ‘illusions of fluency’ – it feels secure as we read the material, yet it quickly decays from memory. I use short, low-stakes quizzes at the starts of lessons to encourage students to recall information from the last lesson and further back. If I have not got time to write out a quiz before a lesson, I will write a list of answers on a piece of paper and make up the quiz verbally as I go. Read this post for more.

A quick assessment tool

A quick closed-question quiz at the start of a lesson, or indeed at any point during the lesson, can double up as an assessment tool. The great advantage of quizzes held during lessons (rather than at the end) is that we receive student feedback there and then. We can quickly ascertain misconceptions and knowledge gaps and act fast. I find it best to create a dialogue as answers are fed back so that I can re-explain material when necessary or encourage students to elaborate.

A five-minute quiz is a great way of testing the temperature and retrieving in-the-moment data. I cannot hear every students’ answer during feedback (and hands-up are not always trustworthy) so I simply circulate the classroom and peer over a few shoulders as they are writing.

Fine reading

Any densely-packed piece of writing – or indeed verbal or media presentation – presents a problem. Many children will scan the words but fail to digest the finer nuances of meaning. Closed questions encourage close reading and also allow us to guide students towards the key information. Questions can be provided before reading – to prime students for what to look for – or later if you would prefer them to establish the gist first. Whenever I teach a poem now, students complete a closed-question short answer quiz. I used this one only on Monday with Ted Hughes’ ‘Bayonet Charge’:

1. What was the soldier doing just before the poem started?
2. Which ‘r’ is repeated in the 1st and 2nd lines?
3. What is coming from ‘a green hedge’?
4. What simile is used to describe the rifle he is lugging?
5. Which ‘p’ is used to describe the tear that he once had?
6. What does he ‘almost’ do?
7. What is he said to be running like?
8. What simile is used to describe his foot?
9. What creature brings him back to reality?
10. What are this animal’s mouth and eyes doing?
11. Which four items drop from his mind?
12. What does he want to escape from?

These questions help students to target key evidence and break down complex and dense meaning into manageable chunks. As they feed back the answers, we elaborate together on the greater significance of this information.

Closed questions encourage comprehension and more acute understanding. Students will almost always perform better in later open-ended tasks when they have time to build their knowledge of basic meaning first. Some would argue that this kind of simple quzziing is not challenging; I would argue that on the contrary it makes challenge all the more possible later down the line.

Focused research

Most students struggle with research. When we say “Go and look it up” rather than tell a child a piece of information we are relying on their existing world knowledge to pull them through. Let’s say I asked a child to look up ‘volcanoes’ for homework. Here’s Wikipedia on the topic:

“Earth’s volcanoes occur because the planet’s crust is broken into 17 major, rigid tectonic plates that float on a hotter, softer layer in the Earth’s mantle.[1] Therefore, on Earth, volcanoes are generally found where tectonic plates are diverging or converging. For example, a mid-oceanic ridge, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, has volcanoes caused by divergent tectonic plates pulling apart; the Pacific Ring of Fire has volcanoes caused by convergent tectonic plates coming together….”

The vocabulary here – converging and diverging for instance – is very tough for novice learners, as is discriminating  between the important and less important information. Such tasks are simply inaccessible to most but the very able. However, a series of very simple questions to research before the lesson can help to manage focus so that they arrive with something useful and concrete. The question “How many major tectonic plates are there on our planet?” means that all can find the answer (17) and will come to the lesson primed and ready for an explanation of just exactly what a tectonic plate is.

Encourage thinking

Last of all quizzes are highly efficient. Children know how to complete them and no time is wasted explaining unnecessarily complex tasks. They allow for total focus on subject content and so fit comfortably with Daniel Willingham’s now-famous maxim, “Memory is the residue of thought.” Questions cut away the unnecessary.

I would argue, too, that children genuinely like doing them. Even the most restless of classes can be pacified with a list of twenty-five juicy questions – and, yes, on those Thursday afternoons in November too! If, like me, you are sometimes sceptical of collaborative tasks, students are usually well-focused when answering quiz questions in pairs.

Children answer questions at different rates, so it is always worth your while to have an extension question planned too. I tend to choose an open one that hinges on developing the closed question answers – e.g. Now that you have answered these questions, which of the three pigs has the qualities to become the leader of Animal Farm?

They are great, too, if you use exemplars as a modelling tool. How many quotations does the exemplar use? Which word is used instead of ‘walk’? Does the writer use a topic sentence? Once again, you are ensuring a close reading that will ensure that students identify the writing techniques you would like them to emulate themselves.


I am not in the least suggesting that we dispose of open questions, just that they are often best answered when a child has mastered the basic knowledge beforehand. Quizzes provide a simple, effective and powerful tool to bring this about and ensure that every student is compelled to take part.

Come into my lessons with a clipboard and I will  happily disappoint you.