What Is The Why of Your School?


The Importance of Character in Education  is the title of the TEDx talk that I recently delivered. The talk is just a snippet of the reading, research and thinking that I’ve been doing over the last year. Delving into great work that I’d strongly recommend  by The Jubillee Centre for Character & Virtues , Tom Wright’s book, Virtue Reborn (not about education but a Christian understanding of what it means to be human), and Ken Robinson’s book, Creative Schools amongst other things.

I approached Character Education with a degree of scepticism a couple of years ago. Was this the governments attempt to provide a balance to the excessive focus on data, results and exam specs? Was character not already at the heart of any good school? Can character actually be ‘taught’? Now I still don’t have all the answers to my questions and perhaps, having begun researching this for myself I have even more questions. What I am convinced of is that education, if it is to mean anything needs to be underpinned and driven by an understanding and application of Character Education. Much of this I outline in my TEDx talk 

Simon Sinek in his explanation of the Golden Circle demonstrates the way that inspirational businesses and individuals succeed ipicture_simon_golden_circlen a way that the majority do not. He outlines their focus on the ‘why’ of their work not the ‘what’ or the ‘how’. He also explains the way in which the Golden Circle corresponds to the brain. I believe that this has relevance to education and to enabling each individual student to flourish towards what Tom Wright would call ‘completeness’.

The ‘why’ of any school should be the driver behind how the school does what it does and what the school does. In my experience the why is rarely given this position, and in schools where it is you find beacons of education. However the why is not ‘getting results’, no that is what schools do. Nor is it ‘equipping young people for the future through diverse courses and unique opportunities’, that too is both the what and why of schools. The why that Sinek’s thinking is pushing us to uncover is far more deep rooted than this.

For me, as I go into this new year, AHT in charge of Character and Ethos, the why is bigger and bolder. The why is about enabling all staff and students to move towards completeness, not simply as a function of school but as a wider process in our existence as humans. With this as the why, how we go about this and what we do is hugely affected.

Simply put if our why is human completeness then the process of how and what must build in opportunity for trial, error, exploration, problem solving, resolution, sacrifice, and reflection (to name but a few things!). Such education should naturally facilitate effective learners which measure up to the various data analysis/league tables that the government send our way.

Going into this new academic year have you identified the why of your school? I wonder what the implications are for the how and the what. And how does all this, if at all, link in  with character education?


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Growing in Grit


Since January I’ve taken on a new challenge. Running. Planned to do my first half marathon in April. Did it in 1 hour 59minutes. That was it, end of plan. Except somewhere along the way I’ve signed up to another half marathon in June, a full marathon in September and Tough Mudder in October. Oh yes, and the small matter of entering a ballot for another marathon! Hence finding myself on the treadmill in the garage on the hottest day half term has had to offer, plodding out 16miles. Now this blog is not all about my running exploits, nor my foolhardy, spur of the moment decision making. It is actually about grit. Yes the ‘Angela Duckworth’ popularised grit stuff!

Prior to taking up running I’d done a lot of reading, research and inset delivery on growth mindset in my own school. In the course of this I had come across the concept of grit and it’s importance in learning. I could write plenty about it, deliver assemblies on it and in the past I may even have claimed to think it was important to teach it. However with running comes revelation – genuinely.

It has been a long time since I have been well and truly challenged on a personal level. Challenged in an unavoidable way, so much so that I have had to dig deep, confront my own limiting mental attitude and overcome it. Running has done this. I’m no runner…yet. I have never run more than 1500metres, and that not since I was at school.It is through running that I have actually discovered what grit is, I’ve experienced the development of it in myself and recognised that even this is an ongoing process. As a result I think I’ve realised some important lessons to transfer over into my role as a leading learner aka teacher.

Lesson 1

You can read about grit. You can watch You Tube videos about grit. You can teach about grit. None of these things will enable you to develop grit.

Grit comes out of genuine inner challenge and perseverance. It is something that you determine in yourself every time you make the decision to push on when it’s tough. For me that decision not to turn the corner and do 5km but to keep going or choosing to keep running because the alternative of walking still requires the same motion, only slower and therefore not an option.

Lesson 2

If grit requires genuine experience I cannot go into my class room and teach it. I have been caused to reflect on how often in my classroom I create an environment where a)challenge is present b) the challenge is not just present but sufficiently engaging for the students c)where it becomes normal to struggle and for that struggle to be part of our dialogue about what it means to be a powerful learner.

Lesson 3

Grit happens by chunking. I think about my 16mile treadmill run today. 2 1/2 hours monotony stretches before me. How do I keep going? I break it down. 15minute chunks, maybe telling myself that at 10miles I could stop if I wanted, then getting to 10 and deciding 2 more is not impossible and so on. I have a big picture target but to get there, to dig deep, to be gritty, I break it down into chunks. I have significant inner dialogue that enables me to push on. In class, if I’m creating genuine challenges I need to help students develop methods for chunking the big targets, and for having that internal conversation with themselves. Here lies a significant role for meta-cognitive discussions in the classroom and time for individual reflections about learning.

Lesson 4

Finally grit can be spurred on by buddying. I run with a friend. When I run alone I share my run target with my friend. We are both aiming for our first marathon, it matters, to me it really matters because I want to do my best – whatever that turns out to be. When the running or training is hard, when Im not sure I want to get up and get running I remember I’m not in this alone. There it is, I grit my teeth (often literally) head down and I persevere that bit more. In my teaching I think I can make more of this very important element of buddying in helping students to develop grit in their learning. I’ve tried some peer mentoring, but I think this is an area to explore further and develop more.

Chrissie Wellington is a great athlete. On her water bottle she has the word “if”.  This sticks in my mind and at those bored, I can’t be bothered moments when I run, or in the ‘I can’t do another mile’ moments I place that word in the centre of my mind. I remember I want to do my best. I draw on my understanding of what it means to have grit and I push on those next steps. I want to help students in my school develop grit. I now understand that I can’t teach it, but this has enabled me to reconsider my teaching and learning strategies.

Growing grit has caused me to consider the ways in which I can give my students more opportunities to develop grit in my classroom.

What have are you doing that is causing you to develop grit in yourself? When was the last time you really stepped out of your comfort zone and kept putting yourself in that place until you began to experience some progress?


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Not Outstanding

Learning to Teach - Lorraine Abbott


This is the first time in my teaching career that the GCSE results were less than outstanding. Its quite an uncomfortable moment. Students and parents were all still congratulatory at their son or daughters results, many coming to show me their grades on results day. 60% A*-C, not the worst figure in the world, nor the various other pieces of data that I have since chomped my way through. How so?

This is the first year that I’ve been required to deliver RE GCSE on 50% curriculum time to the whole cohort. Myself and another teacher share 280 students in year 10 and 11 equally between us.

We have worked like crazy to provide improvement marking for every one of these students individually every half term at least, using pre-school sessions, lunchtimes and after school time to create specific revision or intervention sessions, used sixth formers to mentor students who needed…

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Not Outstanding


This is the first time in my teaching career that the GCSE results were less than outstanding. Its quite an uncomfortable moment. Students and parents were all still congratulatory at their son or daughters results, many coming to show me their grades on results day. 60% A*-C, not the worst figure in the world, nor the various other pieces of data that I have since chomped my way through. How so?

This is the first year that I’ve been required to deliver RE GCSE on 50% curriculum time to the whole cohort. Myself and another teacher share 280 students in year 10 and 11 equally between us.

We have worked like crazy to provide improvement marking for every one of these students individually every half term at least, using pre-school sessions, lunchtimes and after school time to create specific revision or intervention sessions, used sixth formers to mentor students who needed further support and devised strategies to help them structure their exam answers. That’s not to mention the padlets, videos and revision books produced and distributed by the department.

The danger, at least as I have observed in myself, is to reflect upon this and moan. Moan about under resourcing, lack of time, and the  disparity between the treatment of RE and every other GCSE subject taught in our school. But that is to waste precious time and energy. Furthermore it serves to undermine the hard work and success that these students did achieve, even if it doesn’t satisfy various data markers.

Instead I am reflecting on what we did that meant our results were not lower and what we can do to help more students make even more progress in this coming academic year. I am currently trying to identify all the small things we could change that together will add up to big gains for our students next year. It worked for the GB cycling team and I reckon it can work for us.

More on our small changes to follow.

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Feedback to Support Growth Mindset

This blog follows on from my previous one on growth mindset. All the resources and work I’ve used in relation to this can be found on this padlet. In that previous email I said that at my school we’d be focusing in on the research which has indicated that recursive processes help to ensure sustained impact on students, from a psychological intervention such as growth mindset. This approach also fits in with research from Stanford (Yaeger et al) that suggests we should create everyday experiences that reinforce  positive mindset. So recursive processes are one strand, in helping us sustain and develop GM at my school.

The second strand for sustaining and developing GM is, I believe, increasing a student’s self efficacy. Self efficacy is a measure of a students expectations about their performance in future tasks, it focuses on students successfully mastering specific tasks. Research has shown that this non-cognative skill has a positive outcome on students and a high impact. Good self efficacy predicts greater academic persistence and higher levels of achievement. Most importantly there is a reciprocal relationship between self efficacy and improved performance as my diagram below illustrates.

UntitledFor us the question has then become “what everyday recursive process exists in school, that could drive up self efficacy and enhance the GM message in the daily experience of our students’?”

Our answer to this has been ‘feedback’.

If improved self efficacy and improved performance are pedals on a bike, then feedback is the power which brings about the cyclical process. Good feedback is recursive in nature, building on what has been done previously to create what comes after. Hence uniting these two strands. Essentially feedback translates the “I can’t do it yet” into the “I can do it now”, reinforcing the psychological intervention of GM. GM equips them with the understanding they need in order to respond positively to the feedback that they should be receiving.

As if anymore support were needed on the significance of feedback within the development of GM we can turn to the work of Hattie, he records the impact of feedback at 0.90. Or as Black and William’s research showed feedback can add up to two grades to a students progress over time. And who is most effected by feedback? The student’s who are currently the ‘weakest’. Closing the gap a concern? Feedback is one key to this.

We are therefore continuing to develop the feedback that students receive from our staff. Making clear that on a rotational basis, of about three weeks, students receive feedback which requires immediate and direct action by them to improve its quality. This feedback may be verbal and then recorded by the student on a verbal feedback sticker, or written. We have developed a range of styles that the feedback may take. But all feedback must bring about improvement work by the student, that is then marked by the the teacher and the impact acknowledged. this may be an increase in a grade or score, or a comment on the quality achieved through such development. We are also exploring ways that students may become better equipped to offer peer feedback to one another, so they become part of that process.

On the padlet there are some of our sample strategies. We are in a process of learning and experimenting, to try and home the effectiveness of our feedback. What we are certain of is that feedback is central to our embedding of GM if we are genuine about it making a sustained and positive difference to our students. No more noisy banging of a mindset drum which was, in effect, never designed to be played constantly through sound bites and motivational posters.

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Growth Mindset: Where do we go now?

Before reading this blog it may be useful to read my first blog on mindset from this time last year which is here.

I have just completed the analysis of the mindset questionnaires that we repeated with our students this year. For us we identify any score in the 0 -3 range as fixed (red), scores in the 4 range are moving towards growth (yellow) and scores within 5 to 6 are significantly growth mindset (green). As you can see from the charts below there has been some shift from these three year groups towards growth mindset.

data 1

Year 7 – 9 2014

data 2

Year 8 – 10 2015

However this second pie chart does not take into account those students in red last year who have increased their questionnaire score but who are still within the 0 – 3 category. So the chart below shows all students who have an increasing score or who are already in the yellow/green zone.

data 3

These results suggest that it is possible that the work we have done on GM up until this point has had a positive impact for a significant number of students. Only 129 remain static in the fixed area. We have done a limited amount of GM work to achieve this so far, as I explained in my previous blog. The question for us now is ‘what next?’.

Ive done some reading recently about  sigmoid curves! A sigmoid is an S shape graph often used in business to describe the path to sustained growth and success, as shown below;


This model for progress is one that we are applying to our work as a school on GM.  Whilst we only introduced GM a year ago it is certainly true that there has been some significant progress in the school in relation to it. In addition to that further reading of research on GM and more generally psychological interventions has led me to reflect upon how we move into the new academic year. If we simply keep banging the drum of the mindset message and pop up a few more motivational posters I think we are going to go rapidly into decline, as the sigmoid curve would also suggest. More significantly, and unsurprisingly research by Yaeger, Walton and Cohen (2013) suggests that over repetition of any psychological message can undermine the credibility of that message and in fact be harmful. Their research points towards ‘light touch’ interventions. This has therefore led to the development of our next stage in GM work. I shall explain what we are planning to do and why. However I am mindful that there is little practical guidance ‘out there’ at present and we are far from experts. thus any feedback, comments or links to useful stuff would be most welcome.

1. Research by Yeager et al in 2013 refers to work carried out that shows that advocating a message to a receptive audience is a powerful means of persuasion. That is not just the audience becoming persuaded by the content of the message but significantly those delivering the message have a more genuine buy in to that message. The key to this is that the audience must be genuine.

In response to this we have matched up every current year 7 student with a year 6 student who will be joining us in September. The year 7 students have the job of writing to their year 6 partner and explaining what growth mindset is and how that effects learning at our school.

2. Research by Yaeger & Walton (2011) has demonstrated that early intervention is required for psychological messages before negative processes gain momentum. In order to improve student outcomes over a long period of time this is essential.

The earliest that we can ‘intervene’ is on the year 6 induction day in July. We have incorporated a growth mindset teaching session into the induction process. This slots in with an afternoon of challenges, potential fails and much risk taking.

3.Work by Garcia and Cohen (2013) suggests that the most likely way to bring about long term gains is when psychological interventions are used in recursive contexts. A recursive context is one in which what happens is dependant upon what has gone before. Rob Coe refers to this in ‘What Makes Teaching Great’.He writes “…even where attitudes are changed, it will have little long-term effect on behaviour unless the pupil enters that recursive, virtuous cycle of success”.

In terms of recursive processes in school we are focusing on just one, and that is feedback. Feedback when done effectively can have a significantly high impact upon learning, as is indicated in John Hattie’s work. It is an area that has great potential to be used powerfully to enhance GM, but as Black and Williams research (from Kings College London) indicates. This then is a key area for our school as we focus on GM in this coming year.

I will blog in the next week or so about some of our strategies for using feedback as a recursive process that supports the GM message.

If you are interested in doing some more reading on some of the research mentioned here, as well as the material that we are using to inform our feedback processes then I have put much of it on this padlet. I will also be adding various resources that we are trialling.

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Growth Mindset Update. 1 year on…

grow_your_mind_stickers-r29c3313db9ba44bd943c29aab131eb07_v9waf_8byvr_512About a year ago I was preparing to launch growth mindset to the whole staff. Questionnaires to staff and students were going out and I was beginning to number crunch, wanting to be able to share the ‘mindset picture’ of our school with staff. We needed to understand the precise nature of this concept within our context.

So now Im preparing the questionnaires to go out once again. More number crunching, some comparison of student flight paths for attainment. I don’t know what the information will show but I do know that the language and attitude of students is notably different. In class last week I had a year 9 compare Iranaeaus’ theodicy with growth mindset – the shared concept of moving towards perfection through failure and mistakes! Then there is the PE teacher telling me about the netball girls talk of growth mindset after a challenging match. These are all promising signs.

So in the next month I hope to be able to draw some conclusions from the new data. But more than this I hope to be able to identify what next. This is not a one year wonder, or a tick on a list, this is part of developing and embedding a can do culture. This can do culture will need staff who are also really of the growth mindset too.

More on what next in the next blog!

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