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Saturday, 10 May 2014

The challenges of promoting a growth mindset

Carole Dweck’s growth mindset theory is powerful, compelling and liberating. I came across it in my first couple of weeks of teacher training during the Teach First summer institute and I have been convinced by it ever since.

To summarise, Dweck's research sorts students into two categories: those with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset. Students with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and skills are limited by their natural ability. They aim to look smart and they fear failure because they think it will make them look dumb. They don’t want to take risks and they quickly become anxious or bored if they think that they are not naturally good at a specific subject.  On the other hand, students with a growth mindset believe that their skills and intelligence can grow and develop. They embrace challenges because they understand that challenges help them learn. They are not particularly concerned about looking smart or accomplished; they are more interested in learning and improving their skills. They react calmly to setbacks and reflect on what they can do to improve next time.

Since her initial research, Dweck has conducted multiple studies into the impact of these different mindsets and shown time and again that students with a growth mindset (and students who are specifically taught about the concept of a growth mindset), are more resilient and more likely to be successful than students with a fixed mindset.

The theory is powerful, compelling and liberating because it tells us that our intelligence and capabilities are not pre-determined. Our actions, our choices, our effort is what makes the difference to our attainment and skills. We are not stuck as either “smart” or “dumb”; we are what we make of ourselves.

At this point, some people become sceptical. This is a good thing. A healthy dose of scepticism is often very useful. Most teachers will be able to pinpoint a student who seems to have a natural aptitude for their subject and another student who faces significant struggles in even the most basic tasks. This would suggest that the fixed mindset camp have some valid points. Isn’t it the case that some people are just naturally good at things?

Well I don’t think growth mindset theorists argue that everyone is born with identical traits or that everyone can  achieve identical outcomes. The theory is more about how malleable the brain is, and about not putting ceilings on attainment.

I like to frame the discussion about “natural ability” by considering some people as “high starters”. They may have certain physical or mental advantages and they may make faster progress. But high starters also need a growth mindset – if they don’t practice, reflect on critical feedback, embrace challenges and take risks, they won’t continue to improve. Indeed, it is sometimes the most able students who suffer most from a fixed mindset. If they are used to finding things easy, when a challenge eventually arises, they’re not prepared to deal with it.   

And just because someone isn’t a high starter, it doesn’t mean that they won’t make accelerated progress later on in their development. After all, Einstein wasn’t able to speak until he was 4. Do we think of him as a “slow learner” and therefore someone who was “dumb”? No, his name is a byword for intrinsic genius, which is ironic considering that the man himself understood that success comes about through hard work, taking risks and making mistakes.

As an educator, I feel that Dweck’s growth mindset theories are at their most powerful when also coupled with Vygotsky’s theory of the Zone of Proximal Development. I’m not a psychologist, and I recognise that Vygotsky’s work is quite old now (1970s), but his ideas ring true with all my experiences as a practicing maths teacher and I hope that I’m not wildly outdated in setting store by his theory.

Vygotsky explained the “Zone of Proximal Development” as being  the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”. In other words, students can learn new things with the help of others but they need to be related to skills and attributes that they already have.

As a maths teacher, this theory is fundamental in informing my planning. If you try to teach something that is beyond the students’ zone of proximal development, they are not able to process the new concepts and they often either panic or blindly follow a set of steps with no real understanding of what they are doing. This really hit home when I taught a relatively high ability year 11 class who were following a modular maths course. They could do complicated things like solve quadratic equations by completing the square, but they hadn’t done any shape or space work for two years. Consequently, their visualisation skills were very weak and at the start of y11 we had to go back to counting squares to find the area of a rectangle before they stood any chance of conquering more complex formulae. We had to practice estimating the size of angles for a whole lesson before we could even begin to start calculating them. (Many students couldn’t use a protractor and would measure an acute angle as being 1500 without any understanding that they had made a mistake). Time constraints meant we then had to rush, and a lesson on circle theorems made some of them nearly hysterical.

The modular course cemented a fixed mindset viewpoint in most of those students. I started year 11 with work that should not have been taxing for them, but because they didn’t have good visualisation skills, the work was beyond their zone of proximal development and they ended up feeling inadequate. I built a good relationship with the class and by the end of the year they achieved very good grades, but the process was exhausting. They relied heavily on me and had very little self belief. The thank you cards I received at the end of the year were very telling. “Thanks for making maths bearable! “ one of the said. “We couldn’t have done it without you!” exclaimed another.

In contrast, my exam class from this November told me how much they enjoyed the challenges of maths, how they wanted to take extra algebra courses before doing A level maths.  One girl simply wrote: “Thanks miss. You made us believe we could do anything”.

So here is the challenge of promoting growth mindset for teachers. If we tell students that hard work, effort and reflection will lead to progress, we need to make sure our curriculums are designed to support this. If we throw students in at the deep end without proper preparation, they are likely to fail and not learn much from it. Conversely, if we protect them from failure and never give them a true challenge, they cannot stretch to their full potential and they won’t know how to deal with challenges when they inevitably come along.

In truth, as with so many aspects of teaching, building a growth mindset in students is going to be a balancing act for all of us.







Sunday, 27 April 2014

Suprise take-over by year 7!

This post is about how great students can be and how important it is to consider the culture you are creating with your classes, day in day out........

On Friday I was very busy. It had been parents evening the night before so I hadn’t had any time after school to prepare for the day ahead. We also had a very important visitor to our department – a new teacher from South Africa who will be joining us next year – and I wanted to spend as much time with her as I could. So when it came to period 3, year 7, I had a vague idea of what I was going to do, but I hadn’t put together a set of resources like I usually do.

I can’t say I was panicked – I’m sure I would have come up with something on the spot, but what happened when I arrived at my classroom really made my day.

 The students had got there before me and it was raining so I let them straight in before setting anything up. Whilst I was busy with the logistics of the beginning of a lesson: writing the title and objectives on the board, logging in to the computer, looking for the equipment I needed, getting students to hand books out, reassuring some of the anxious ones that the homework wasn’t due for today etc, etc, two of the girls in the class came up to me and said they had planned a starter for me and they asked if they could do it that lesson.

Of course I said yes and watched as they handed out bingo grids that they’d painstakingly drawn out by hand. They got the whole class to listen to them and started pulling out carefully folded pieces of paper from a tin. Each piece had a calculation on it and the answers were on the grids that had been handed out.

I stood back, finished organising myself and got the resources ready for the rest of the lesson. The class were in deep concentration as they tried to figure out the answer for each calculation before the next one came along. When eventually someone shouted “BINGO!” a small prize was handed out (I think it was a bracelet) and the two girls who had been in charge were given a round of applause.

As you can imagine, I was quite a happy teacher! Those girls had not only given me chance to get the rest of the lesson organised, they’d put together a really effective starter that went down very well with the rest of the class.

Now for the all important context :  I have been allowing year 7s to run starters since just after Christmas, so this did not come entirely out of the blue. The main difference was that on all the other occasions I helped the students to design the starter and I told them exactly when they could do it. As this is the first week back after Easter, I hadn’t got round to meeting up with any of the students to plan a starter together, but I was hugely impressed that these two girls had decided to make one themselves.

Their efforts helped me realise two things. Firstly I realised that my idea of getting y7 to run starters now has the potential to save me some time (hooray!!). (It was more time-consuming previously because I met with students outside of lesson time). Secondly, it reinforced my opinion that getting students to be outstanding learners is not about how they perform in one off lessons: it is about the culture that is created in the classroom. Do they feel that they can take the initiative? Do they think they can act in a leadership role? Do they worry about making mistakes or do they just get stuck in and have a go? Do they work individually and competitively or do they seek out opportunities to help each other and work collaboratively?

In all honesty, my year 7 class have a long way to go before they become outstanding learners. They still worry too much and they are still learning how to help themselves when they get stuck. But Friday’s lesson gave me lots of hope for the future. I wonder what they'll get up to next week!


Friday, 11 April 2014

You mean... you have an arts degree? *pulls horrified face*

Note: For a powerful argument about why we should stop drawing dividing lines between arts and sciences read this summary of the views of Eric Schmidt (chairman of google).

If you’ve had a look through this blog before, you might have read the “about me” section at the side where I explain that I did a history degree before going on to become a maths teacher. This information mildly interests some people, worries others, and sends a select bunch into a heightened state of moral outrage.

This last group – the righteously indignant - are of course the most entertaining, and I’ve learned to develop a thick skin when they air their short-sighted opinions. Upon hearing the news that I had a history degree, one man abruptly stopped the perfectly pleasant conversation we were having and started spluttering “I wouldn’t let you anywhere near children” before walking off.  Another person reacted by saying that I could never be taken seriously as a professional and surely I should be teaching primary school children.

I perfectly understand that most people are curious about the transition and they have legitimate questions about how I am able to teach secondary level maths. If the boot was on the other foot and someone told me they had a maths degree but they were going to teach history, I’d also find it strange.  I’d want to know 1) how they intended to improve their subject knowledge and 2) what their motivation was.

So I’m taking the opportunity to answer these two questions about myself. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while not just because I want to defend my professional integrity (although clearly I do – so apologies if this post occasionally sounds defensive!) but also because I know there are other people out there who are thinking about making the jump from an arts degree to teaching maths.  I want those people to know that if they have the right attitude, they should ignore the doubters and go for it. Maths is fun!!

The question about subject knowledge is always the one that seems to cause most concern and I can understand why. Of course you need to know what you are talking about. But if I could get one point across in this whole debate I would emphasise that teachers can learn things too. We don’t pop out of university as though we are plastic dolls leaving a production line, pre-programmed with certain features, only capable of parroting what our lecturers taught us. I started my maths-teacher training with A level maths and AS level further maths and a desire to learn more about the subject than I’d ever known at school. I bought books, read articles, watched videos on you tube, and opened my eyes and ears to things I hadn’t heard of before. When I decided that I wanted to improve my subject knowledge so I could teach A level maths, I enrolled on an Open University course (M208) which was 2nd year maths degree standard. It covered things like group theory, linear algebra and analysis, and I spent a year studying the 6 modules (which were supposed to be 600 hours worth of work). I passed with distinction.

For me, there have certainly been benefits to this approach. My lack of a maths degree means that improving my subject knowledge is a constant goal, so I’m always on the lookout to learn something new. I don’t feel like the finished article and I never will, so I’m not going to be complacent.  My AS and GCSE classes have also benefitted from the fact that I took a maths exam last summer, because I’ve been able to talk to them about my revision strategies and I’ve been able to empathise with the feeling that some things don’t “click” straight away.  I think it did me a lot of good to learn challenging things and put myself in the same position as my students, especially with the pressure of an exam. Last year, my OU exam was on the same day as the GCSE maths exam and my year 11 class told me that they really appreciated the way I had treated them during the revision period. “You get us” said one girl, “you don’t put us under too much pressure”. In that class, every student who sat their GCSE exam that summer met or exceeded their target grade. I’m biased of course, but I think that suggests that I know what I’m doing.

The second question about what motivated me to go from history to maths is, I think, a more interesting one, but I don’t get asked it as often. I’m going to give a longer (and hopefully more eloquent!) answer here than I ever manage to achieve in conversation.  Basically, I loved studying history at university because history is such as vast and varied subject and it relates to everything. Every country, every person, every academic subject, every religion has a history and (knowingly or unknowingly) we are all shaped by those histories. I also loved studying history because it’s about finding out how different people think. The Puritan idea of predestination (where they believe that some people are destined for eternal salvation, while others doomed to eternal damnation and we do not have the power to change our own path) always struck me as horrifying and I was fascinated by why so many people embraced this idea and how it affected their society. There’s a great article about it all here

In teaching, I see similarities with the fixed vs growth mindset debate, where some people are certain that intelligence is fixed and cannot be altered (the “predestination” view) whereas others think that with effort and the right kind of feedback they can improve (the “free will” view).

How is maths similar? Well, maths is also a vast and varied subject that can be related to everything else. We can appreciate art, nature, and music, more deeply because of mathematics. We have a greater understanding of politics and economics because of mathematics. In lessons, I’m constantly looking for links between maths and other subjects and the opportunities are boundless. I love bringing context into lessons and I love the creativity and freedom that comes with it. There is simply so much choice in how you can deliver each topic – just as there was so much choice for me as an undergraduate when I realised that I could pick any time period I wanted from the Vikings onwards.

Also, every decent maths teacher knows that teaching maths is about understanding how different people think. Some students need to see the bigger picture first – they need context, they need a reason for doing things, they need to know what the end result will be. Others are happy to discover things for themselves and they enjoy the process as much as the outcome. Some are comfortable thinking in an abstract way; others need a more concrete approach. Many students impose their own rules which don’t quite work and we need to unpick what they are doing and figure out what their underlying thinking is.  I like this challenge of figuring out how people think. Studying history gave me a good grounding in understanding that not everyone sees the world in the same way.

In truth, I chose to teach maths rather than history because Teach First were recruiting maths teachers rather than history teachers. At the time I thought I’d only teach for a few years before doing something else and maths had always been my favourite subject at school, so I thought I’d give it a go. Five and a half years later, as I get ready to take on the role of Head of Department next year, I can see that the diversity and intellectual challenge I loved in my history degree has been equalled by the diversity and intellectual challenge of planning and delivering decent maths lessons for my many and varied students.

I’d like to finish by arguing that, rather than being afraid of people who cross the invisible arts/science divide, more of us should come out and celebrate it. Eric Schmidt is completely right to point out that great thinkers have often been polymaths; especially those of the Victorian era. Steve Jobs also once said: "The Macintosh turned out so well because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians – who also happened to be excellent computer scientists". I find it sad that more people don’t embrace this viewpoint. In fact, it seems to me that people within education are often the ones most desperate to sort everyone into either the luvvy-artsy box or the nerdy-sciencey box. Surely we should be the ones arguing against this unhelpful divide?

All I can say is, if anyone tries to put me in a box, I’ll soon be fighting my way out.

Friday, 21 March 2014

If only I knew then what I know now: behaviour management for friendly teachers

I’ve been musing recently on behaviour management.  After five and a half years in the classroom, I’ve gone from being a nervous and na├»ve 21 year old, with a very limited set of behaviour management strategies, to a much more confident practitioner who’s (usually!) able to create a sustain a positive and welcoming atmosphere in the classroom. I’m not for a minute suggesting that I always get it right or that I don’t have any issues.... the phrase “pride comes before a fall” springs to mind here... but I never get that feeling of dread that I used to have when facing “that” class or “that” student.

So I suppose this post is really addressed to my younger self. To the person who sometimes questioned whether she would ever be able to succeed in teaching. To the person who sometimes assumed that behaviour management would always be a battle because she wasn’t “scary” enough. And also to the person who disliked the idea of the “us vs. them” culture, which can build up between teachers and students. I’m not trying to tell anyone else what to do – you need to find what works for you - but if you’re new to the profession, it might help to hear what works for someone else.

Having reflected on it all this evening, I’ve decided that it boils down to three key things

1)      Lesson planning

2)      Building relationships

3)      Body language and tone of voice

I suppose I could add a fourth element: rewards and sanctions. I know rewards are important to recognise student achievement and reinforce positive attitudes and I know that sanctions are sometimes vital to help students understand that there are consequences to their actions. But neither rewards nor sanctions will act as a magic wand. They just reinforce other things you are doing. On their own, they are hollow tools. Too many rewards will make you seem like a push-over, too many sanctions will make you seem vindictive.

So back to the things that do matter. Well, it’s no accident that lesson planning is at the top of the list. Students need to be engaged by interesting work that is pitched at the right level and undertaken at the right pace. In maths, I always find that they respond best to really clear explanations and precise instructions. If they understand the topic, they’re much more likely to engage. If you confuse them, they lose trust in you and they lose faith in their own ability. Similarly, pace is vital because if you go too fast they will get lost, but if you go too slowly they’ll feel bored and patronised. It’s not easy! But if you are struggling with a class, focussing on lesson planning is often a good place to start. Can you shorten your explanations? Can you scaffold the work? Can you give them small successes so they know they are making progress? Can you make the tasks more engaging?

Second on the list is building relationships. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Above all, you need to give students the message that you are on their side and that everything you do – even giving them sanctions – is designed to help them be the best they can be. I try to make this clear as often as possible. So when setting detentions, I make it very clear that this is to help the student catch up and make progress on work they should have completed. The message doesn’t always get through, but it’s hard to argue with! Even better – try to show students that you actually like them. Catch them being good, focus on the positive things they do, and enjoy their quirks. Kids can really make you laugh if you let them. In fact, if you play to their strengths, the characters in your class can often become a real asset. 

Body language and tone of voice. This is partly about reminding yourself that you are the adult, the paid professional, and they are a child in compulsory education, where there isn’t a great deal of choice or freedom. If they are wound up, you need to make an extra effort to stay calm. If they are shouting, you need to speak either quietly or at normal volume (although be careful with speaking too quietly because this can really infuriate some students). Never mirror their negative body language or tone of voice; it will just exacerbate the situation.  The best thing you can do is calm them and reassure them so that you help them to make the right choices in their behaviour. And do bear in mind that the right choice can sometimes be time out of the lesson for stressed out students. 

When dealing with a whole class, if you want their attention, make sure that you stand still facing the group and don’t move about. I find it useful to stand at the front in the middle and look around the room saying things like “girls at the back, time to focus now” or name a specific student saying things like “Emily, thank you”. If you ask them to “put pens down and listen” whilst at the same time picking up a worksheet from your desk, or writing something on the board, you are subconsciously giving the message that it isn’t really time to stop talking – you’re still faffing about, so they can carry on too. When you are ready to start talking to the class, make sure that everyone is listening and calmly insist on silence. If anyone starts to talk I say things like “we need everyone to listen now” or “this is an explanation part of the lesson – everyone needs to be able to focus on the instructions”.

In general, if I was able to say anything to my 21 year old self, I would say that you shouldn’t expect students to get their behaviour right every time, so when they do get it wrong, you don’t need to panic, you just need to support them to help them deal with situations more positively in the future. Misbehaviour isn’t a direct challenge to your authority – it comes from a variety of different root causes. It’s sometimes to do with the nature of the work in the lesson, maybe due to lack of confidence or confusion about that particular topic; and sometimes it’s to do with personal issues that you might not be able to detect. If you have got students with personal issues, they don’t need your sympathy. Far from it. They really need you to have high expectations of them. But you also need to be willing to listen to them: to the spoken and unspoken messages they are giving. Really effective behaviour managers are teachers who can decode those unspoken messages and know how to deal with them. The best way to do it, is to make sure your students know you're on their side.