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The Collective Power of Relationships, Memory and Mindset—and 9 practical Ideas for Leaders

With so much research available and educationalists abound, figuring out which pedagogical approach to follow is a bit like picking the latest diet plan, each having its own promise to get you fit in the next 6 weeks.

After 20 years of teaching, five years consulting and the last two writing a book on learning, I've been fortunate enough to accumulate a fair amount of experience in real classrooms and an understanding of the research. Three important themes have surfaced – relationships, memory and mindset – but I can’t seem to talk about one without the other. I’ll do a session on memory but feel compelled to discuss mindset. (For the memory strategies to work, students have to value effort over time.) Or we’ll explore the importance of mindset, but I couldn’t help but give strategies on memory. (To make sure their effort pays off, we must teach learners the most efficient strategies.) And no matter what the topic, I always start with the power of positive relationships as the bedrock of them all. Each area has its merit; but together there is a collective power.


When Andria Zafirakou won the Global Teacher Prize in 2018, she told reporters, 'Build trust with your kids – then everything else can happen.’ Zafirakou was referring to the act of intentionally creating a sense of belonging for all students. There is an abundance of research that supports her claim, showing that positive school-based relationships lead to willingness to take academic risks and set higher goals; enhanced openness to feedback; self-control and increased attendance. When educators focus on positive relationships they also are more open to exploring their blind spots, such as unconscious bias and low expectations. This can be a game changer.

Put it into practice

Teach staff about the research relating to teacher-student relationships and its impact on learning. Help staff to be aware of unintentional blindspots. For example, when a teacher expects less of particular students, these expectations manifest in many aspects of daily teaching practice: failing to give detailed feedback; not waiting as long for their answers; and calling on them less frequently. (Ofsted, 2019),

‘When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur.’ Robert Rosenthal (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985).

Create systems and provide space for staff to intentionally get to know each other and students better. Post a list of student names, pics and interests for staff to easily access. Are all students equally 'seen' at your school? Watch this great video, The Power of Being Seen, about a school that created a side-wide system to connect with each child.

Model the importance of personal connection: Have 10-minute meetings with all members of your staff in order to learn more about them. Take notes, so you can easily refer back to personal details. Keep on top of the little things to show you value everyone’s time and opinions. Model that these micro moments matter.


Why memory matters: Everything we learn is based on our prior memories, what is stored in long-term memory. Two of our biggest challenges 1) figuring out what our students have stored in their long-term memory; and 2) managing instruction in order to maximise memory potential to make new learning permanent and transferable. When educators have solid understanding of cognitive science, they tend to be better teachers and better leaders as well as better managers of our own working memory capacity. It’s a no brainer.

Put it into practice:

Train staff in the science of learning through on-going professional development. Some great starting points are the Deans of Impact and the Learning Scientists.

Create systems and routines. Help teachers manage their cognitive load. Be aware of the number of new initiatives and processes staff need to learn, especially novice teachers and those new to the school. Create systems that are consistent and long-lasting and make resources easy-to-find and navigate. Avoid last minute changes and spur of the moment decisions.

Use spaced retrieval practice to help staff remember the key concepts and strategies introduced in the professional learning session. Use quizzes to encourage lots of recall and practice!

The forgetting curve shows that the first time we learn something, we forget most of it quite quickly; but each time we review it, we forget less. This is as true for teachers after a day’s training as it for students in our classrooms.


Why does mindset matter: A learning mindset is an understanding of the process of learning and the value of putting in more effort, seeking higher challenges and not being afraid to ask for help or change course when they need to. The learning mindset for teachers is no different from that of students. Teachers must also be willing to make mistakes, try new strategies and get out of their comfort zones. According to Rachel Eells's 2011 meta-analysis of studies related to teacher mindset and achievement in schools, teacher beliefs are 'strongly and positively associated with student achievement across subject areas ... and in multiple locations' (Eells, 2011).

Put into Practice:

Reflect on learning with an anonymous survey about how staff feel about their own learning. Use it as a discussion starter and make explicit that learning is a process for both adults and children. A teacher who lacks confidence in their own practice is less likely to push students, try new strategies, or persevere when things don’t work out as planned.

Organise practice partners by grouping colleagues who want to work on the same strategies. Create time for them to plan and visit each other’s rooms for feedback: what worked, what might need to be adapted, the impact on students, etc. Practice partners can share their findings with the entire staff.

Be part of the process: During professional learning sessions, get involved to show your interest and investment. Ask for feedback after the event and acknowledge how the feedback was used.

These three areas—relationships, memory and mindset—each support the other and create a spark greater the sum of their parts.

This blog is based on Tricia Taylor’s new book called, Connect the Dots: The Collective Power of Relationships, Memory and Mindset in the Classroom with Nina Dibner and Oliver Caviglioli, published by John Catt. Illustrations by Oliver Caviglioli. For more about Tricia, see Tricia tweets at @triciatailored. First posted on Leadership Matters


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