Although I’ve been teaching and leading in schools for more than 20 years, I find this time in education to be the most exciting in terms of what works best. Recent developments in mind, brain and education science are leading the way in helping educators know what to focus on in order to maximise the impact of teaching and learning. After all, learning is not having the right answer. Learning is what happens during the process of figuring out the right answer and that process is complex. Research helps to demystify it.
Herne Bay Infant School and Seashell Nursery is a good example of how a leadership have used research to create a school culture that values the process. Last September, I tailored a training day for the staff at Herne Bay around the research of mindset, the belief that intelligence is malleable, which many readers will be very aware of. (More info on research can be found here) Based on over 35 years of work by Dr. Carol Dweck and others, the research shows that having what is termed a growth mindset leads to greater motivation in school, better grades and higher test scores. Dweck is not alone is stating that mindset impacts learning, but she is one of the first to popularise it. The popularity of growth mindset set it up for criticism, because it was simplified. It's a simple idea that is actually hard to implement.
Understanding research doesn’t bring about change. It has to be applied strategically. Embedding a growth mindset into schools takes time and practice, so several months after the training at Herne Bay, I returned to visit the school in order to see their progress and give feedback. According to headteacher Bernadette Lax, staff and students I interviewed, the initiative has made a significant impact on attitudes toward persistence and challenge compared to previous years and contributed to the above-National-average rise in Reading and Writing. The School to School review of Maths Problem Solving at the end of the year noted that confidence to “have a go” was part of the school culture, which also led to deeper learning. Underlying the success of the initiative was that leadership ensured it was inclusive, explicit and authentic. Here are some examples of how this happened.
1. A inclusive start
From the start, staff were surveyed. Any professional training should seek to find out what teachers already know. This helps to create training that is differentiated and builds relationships; it shows that leaders value staff opinions and strengths they bring to the table. I create a customised survey for schools at the start and end of most interventions. From a brain science perspective, this is also a smart strategy. The brain learns all information by relating it to prior knowledge. Eliciting and connecting to prior knowledge provides context for the brain and connects new information to existing neural pathways.
Although most schools understand the importance of training teaching assistants along with teachers. (see Education Endowment Foundation’s research and guidance), it is rare for them to include the entire school staff—any adult that works there. Herne Bay included all members of staff in the training. Conversations in the canteen where students have opportunities to explore new foods or persevere with cutlery are opportunities to teach perseverance and practise resilience. Behaviour on the playground benefits from mindset interventions and avoiding labels such as ‘the naughty one’ takes practice. Every child and every adult in the school have the capacity to get better—and to help each other get better. Growth mindset training is not reserved for schools. Companies, including big names like Micorosoft, have adapted strategies to instil values of perseverance and risk taking.
2. Walls of Process
School environments should reflect the process of planning as well as the final product. Some schools buy growth mindset posters or print out sayings or pictures from online sources, but these displays lack authenticity and soon become part of the wallpaper. At Herne Bay, display boards depict real stories about real challenges in the classroom whether it be a maths problem or writing assignment, showing the process to final product. Teachers include photographs of students trying to work out problems and things they say along the way (I’ll keep going”). Mistakes are documented along with steps for solving problems. Many schools have adopted the soundbite “marvellous mistakes”, but then neglect to highlight how we learned from them or what tools we used to fix them. Capture work from the start of the learning process and visually compare it to the final product. At Herne Bay, these approaches are not by accident. The headteacher specifically instructs teachers to include photographs of students actually working. This brings the process of learning alive throughout the entire school—not just for children but also for parents and any visitors to the school.
2. Student talk
A significant amount that the training is dedicated to developing teacher feedback that encourages perseverance and challenge, because it’s not good enough to simply say “good effort”. Again, make it explicit and authentic. I provide suggestion for teachers to use in different situations, for example, when students want to give up or are faced with struggle. Teachers are then prompted to be as specific as possible: "I noticed you tried to solve that problem by adding the wrong numbers, but then you thought more about the question and fixed your mistake. Well done for persevering!" We also provided prompts and questions to help students reflect and talk about about their own learning. When I interviewed the students at Herne Bay, they spoke about hard work and the desire to be challenged. Students explained how they completed a long-term project, mistakes made along the way and how they worked them out. Having students internalise a growth mindset is the ultimate result. Metacognition approaches, those that help students think about their learning, rank as one of the highest for closing the achievement gap. (See EEF’s research on metacognition and self-regulation.)
3. Think time
Although there are several different strategies teachers can use to teach perseverance and promote challenge, one very simple tool is explicit think time. When teachers make thinking hard explicit, they model that thinking deeply is how we learn. It is not a sign of being dumb. I caught one teacher modelling this with her students: “When I look around the room, I see everybody thinking really hard about this question I just asked.”
Often in our desire for kids to get the right answer, we rush them through the steps and we only focus on the one student who can explain how he/she worked it out. Engage the class with think time for a few seconds longer and then ask them, “What are you thinking?” In a school where growth mindset has infiltrated the culture, the students know they will be expected to give a response, and importantly, it doesn’t have to be the “right answer” but they should have thought deeply about it. “Intelligence isn’t something you have or don’t have, it’s something that can grow, dependent on the level of effort you put in,” according to Lucy Crehan in her book Cleverlands, which documents her journey to research what makes the most successful schools successful. Crehan explains that schools that make explicit that they value effort and thinking deeply are schools that do the best.
Herne Bay Infant School and Seashell Nursery is not alone. I work with many leaders, supporting them in various ways, to integrate mind, brain and education research for real impact. But spotlighting one school helps us to see the value of being inclusive, explicit and authentic.