Try Harder

Like many schools, we’ve been embedding growth mindset into our school culture over the last couple of years. Although I find the overarching message an attractive and useful one, I’ve been persuaded by a couple of blogs about how honest we’re being with children when we talk about there being no such thing as talent. In particular, @disidealist makes the difficult case for excluding genes and background factors in the equation:

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David Didau (@learningspy) questions whether we practise what we preach; how many school leaders allow their teachers to have a growth mindset?

To balance this, @leadinglearner sets out a sensible approach to embedding GM into the classroom.

All of this was largely academic, for me, until a parents evening that I had last week. The conversation went something like this:

“Robert has made really fantastic progress so far this year, you should be really proud of yourself.”

“What do these numbers mean?” replied mum.

“Ah, they’re Robert’s levels. They are a bit of a shorthand for Robert’s attainment at the moment. As you can see, he’s currently at a level 3b.”

“Where should he be?”

“At this point in the year the national expectations are for children to be achieving a high level three or a low level four.”

Inside, I hate myself for talking this language, especially as we all now know how flawed the level system is. But the point remains. Robert is behind.

“I am trying Mr Findlay.” Robert sniffles.

“I know that you are. You’ve put in tremendous effort and that’s why you’ve made such great progress. Don’t worry about the overall level, concentrate on how much you’ve improved.”

Should I be telling him not to worry about his attainment? Will mum think that I don’t care that he is behind the rest of his peers?

“I know that I’ve improved, but I still find the work really tricky. And everyone on my table gets it so easily. They just get it straight away and I’m still thinking and I don’t have time to finish it,” Robert turns to his mum, “Sometimes I stay in at playtime and come back at lunch to finish it.”

“That’s true, Robert does do that. And it’s really helping. Well done Robert.”

“Why don’t I get it though. They’re all so much cleverer than me.”

“That’s not true Robert.”

“It is true. They get it straight away and always get green and I never get it and I always get pink [the colour we use to show that objectives haven’t been met].”

“OK. It might seem as though they get it straight away. Sometimes it can feel like that’s because they just naturally understand it. But actually, if someone gets something straight away and are really quick at it, it’s because they’ve done lots of practice before. Nobody is born talented, we improve the more that we do. So if it seems that they’re talented, underneath all of that is lots of practice that you haven’t seen.”

Neither Robert nor his mum seem convinced. I’m not surprised.

“But I have practiced loads. And I still don’t get it like them.”

This is true. Robert is perhaps the hardest working in the class.

“You don’t get it yet!” I smile. Robert doesn’t.

“You have made massive progress from last year, and that’s what you need to hold on to. You made that progress because you believe that you can improve and are putting in the hard work to do that.”

“I know. But I worked hard last year. And the year before that. And I’m still behind. I don’t think I’ll ever catch up. I just won’t be as clever as them.”

“But you have different talents in other areas. No, wait, not talents. You’re really great at other things. And people probably look at you and think ‘Robert’s such a great swimmer, I’ll never be that good,’ but what they don’t see is that mum takes you swimming twice a week.”

“The other kids go swimming twice a week too. I just find swimming easy. Not like writing.”

“But swimming became easier the more that you did it. That’s how it will be with your writing too.”

Mum clearly isn’t convinced, but she does a great show at smiling and consoling Robert. Nodding along.

She asks, “Do you think that Robert will get up to National Expectations by the end of the year?”

It’s incredibly unlikely.

“That’s what we should aim for! And Robert has the right attitude to give it his best shot. Let’s get those level fours!”

I don’t know what I’ll say to him when he doesn’t.

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6 thoughts on “Try Harder

  1. A really interesting read. We also have been thinking about mindset. After initial false starts it was clear that it had to be a whole school approach.
    http://ukteacherinspain.com/why-mindset-is-important-for-teachers-and-schools/
    I do think though that mindset is also part of a bigger picture. Mindset reflects attitudes and approaches that have been prevalent in education for decades but it has helped to provide a framework for practical approaches in school.
    http://ukteacherinspain.com/what-russian-tennis-tells-us-about-talent/

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  2. Sad, but common. I still don’t know whether if the Roberts of the world had been taught “better” earlier this situation would be able to be avoided.

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  3. First post, Stephen? Mindset is hard for everyone (perhaps mostly students) to grasp as it is counter-intuitive. Robert has been making ‘absolute’ gains (promised by GM) when what he wants to make is ‘relative’ gains. I think this presents a real challenge to gm approaches post-levels.

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