…and why my own daughter now hates me
There can’t be many school practitioners actively keeping up with the zeitgeist that haven’t heard of Professor Carol Dweck and her work on mindsets.
For an excellent overview, read this by Twitter Gandalf @johntomsett.
I first heard of and began looking into using growth mindset in my practice after an INSET session delivered by Barry Hymer over five years ago now. So, like, yeah, it’s been a Thing for me for a fair while now; I more or less INVENTED Carol Dweck. Ha. Even if that’s slightly stretching it, I have very consciously tried to instill the rudiments of growth mindset thinking in my teaching and also in my parenting, after hearing Hymer’s own experiences with his two children, whose personalities and attitudes have turned out to be not too dissimilar to my own two daughters.
Both Hymer and I had PFBs (Precious First Borns) who were praised for every nappy they filled, every hand-clap and every pencil mark made. After all, that’s what you do with PFBs; the constant delight at your own ability to make such a wonderful creature from your own loins makes it hard not to do so.
Later, my eldest daughter found reading easy, and writing quickly followed. In her first year of nursery and then reception, she was constantly told by us and by her teachers what a very clever girl she was. This continued into Year 1; her literacy was well above that of most of her peers. So clever! Well done! What a good girl! Which was all well and good, until she started getting to grips with the next step of numeracy work which began to take equal weighting to literacy.
And suddenly, here was something she did not find easy at all; it required a fair amount of thinking and working out and it was hard. She decided that she couldn’t do it and announced that she was ‘no good at maths’ and started to actively dislike it. This pattern has followed her throughout her school career: she’s an intelligent, vivacious, articulate young lady, who still calls herself ‘rubbish’ at maths, likewise much sciencey stuff and also DT; who will spend hours of her own time at debating and drama clubs but who will do the bare minimum to get work out of the way of those subjects she enjoys well enough but does not excel in, using ‘I can’t do it well, so what’s the point?’ or ‘I’m not much good at this, so it doesn’t matter if I make a hash of it’ as justification.
With four years between my children, Darling Daughter 2 was a mere babe when I heard Hymer speak about the dangers of praising outcomes over effort. He spoke about making those same ‘mistakes’ as we had made with his PFB, and that with his second child he and his wife were careful to consciously only praise effort. I decided we would do the same over the next few years and we, as much as possible made an effort to do so. It was much less of the ‘What a clever girl’ and much more of ‘Well done – you’ve tried so hard with that.’ Sounds cheesy and almost goes against the instincts of the loving and supportive parent, perhaps?
But so it continued and these days, like Hymer’s second child, DD2 is much more willing to get her head down and work at the things she finds hard; she’s a trier and does not let failure set her back. I can’t say the same for DD1, who has just turned 13, but is this due to a lack of early input of Dweck-style parenting? Hard to say. But Hymer and Dweck have had a profound effect on my teaching and my parenting, with absolutely no doubt.
So here follows the story of how my eldest daughter’s levels of resentment towards me grew this weekend. (Who knew teenagers could give out such effective death stares whilst also rolling their eyes?)
DD1 attends the school I work at. In fact 17 students have parents that work at our school, so it's not a novelty. DD1 had a Geography ELP (Extended Learning Project) to complete, and she’s been working on it for the last week. It required research into the (real) development of an incinerator locally and an evaluation of the pros and cons. There were a number of tasks, including an interview with an adult explaining what the student had learned and asking the adult’s opinion. There was the analysis of a couple of newspaper articles to assess any bias. Lastly, students were asked to decide where they stood on the project and then write a letter to the council trying to persuade them of the project’s merits or reasons why it should be abandoned.
This is DD1’s first attempt:
I’m pretty sure it would have attained a fair grade overall, if the other tasks were taken into consideration. I asked DD1 what she would award herself for effort.
“I think it’s OK, actually” she replied.
I pressed her. “What grade then? O, G, R or U?”
“Er, I think G?” she asked (notice, she didn’t state it).
I asked her to look at the new school effort grade definitions for O, G, R, U which have this year replaced the old Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory and Poor. If we were using these old grades, I know her teachers would find it hard to award her a Satisfactory. Her letter is presented well; it contains a couple of points reinforcing her argument and it’s clearly-written. Plus, she’s a good kid.
But would her Geography teacher know that this letter took her less than ten minutes to complete? She’s only been teaching her for three weeks, so maybe not. But the data says that DD1 is amongst the higher ability students in her year group. And if we now know this was rattled off in less time that it takes to make a proper brew, is it still OK? Is it ‘Good’?
Here are the new effort grade definitions:
O or * (star) = Outstanding
You have made an outstanding effort in this piece of work or over time.
· the very best effort a person can give
· extra self-motivated work, that is over and above what would be expected
· a person who is prepared to ask questions to further their understanding and who act upon advice
· someone keen to contribute to discussions and who listen well and support others
· much time and care with presentation of work and always meets deadlines
· a willingness to develop excellent communication and team skills
G = Good
You have put a good level of effort into this piece of work or over time. Generally, a ‘Good’ grade describes:
· all a person should give and often more
· great contributions in class and a willingness to learn
· time and care taken with homework and with meeting deadlines
· perseverance with a problem until it is resolved
· work that has been reviewed, with encouragement, and a positive response to guidance
· effective group work and a keenness to communicate effectively
R = Requires Improvement
You have completed work but it shows a lack of effort. Work completed at this level is unlikely to meet the standards needed for success, so you should ask yourself and/or your teacher: ‘How can I do better?’ Generally, a ‘Requires Improvement’ grade is awarded for:
· the minimum effort possible to complete work and meet deadlines
· a level of attention or contribution in class that should be
improved upon most of the time
· work that might lead to prompts to redo the work or add to it in order to improve it
· contributions to group work that need to be more regular and useful
· a lack of willingness to ask for help when it is needed.
U = Requires Urgent Improvement
You have put an inadequate level of effort into a piece of work or over time. ‘U’ is not good enough for a student who is learning and making progress at Christopher Whitehead so you will need to address urgently what has led to this grade and what you can do to improve it next time. Generally, a ‘U’ grade reflects:
· a level of effort that can result in underachievement
· work being incomplete and/or finished to an unacceptable standard
· a lack of organisation
· an attitude to learning that is not acceptable
· an unwillingness in seeking help and guidance or to act on support when it is given.
A ‘U’ grade will result in intervention.
If we stick to these definitions, and we know a bright and able student took only 10 minutes to write what was supposed to be the culmination of the whole project, surely she has to be awarded ‘R’?
After our discussion, I asked DD1 to now have another go at this task, with the new effort grades in mind.
This is what she came up with after 45 minutes, although I can’t say it was completed with a smile. But as her parent, I can live with that. We have a vested interest in getting along together and besides, I’m far too irresistible to ignore for more than an hour.
I know that DD1 needs more support in growing her mindset, as effort doesn’t come naturally to her. (It shouldn’t: that’s why it’s called bloody EFFORT!) So her dad and I will plug away at developing a work ethic in her, with the support of her fantastic teachers.
But as teachers, it can be very hard to give truthful and useful feedback to able students who seem hard-working, who behave well and who hand work in on time, if we know that the full effort has not gone into their work; if they have found the work easy. We, as teachers, need to be careful that we do not crush the fragile self-esteem of some students when we try to challenge them. So we need to know them very well. And we need to make sure they are aware of the principles and undoubted benefit of developing a growth mindset in all that we do in the classroom.
We are not doing our students any favours by accepting their first attempts; we need to make it desirable to strive and sometimes struggle. And sometimes we need to be brave, and risk a bit of shock, upset and even resentment from students who are used to being told they are bright and clever - and good and outstanding. They might actually believe they have put enough effort into work to deserve praise but if you know they have not, you shouldn’t reward them.