The ladder of life is full of splinters, but they always prick the hardest when we’re sliding down.

Samuel Clemens

I spoke at a Growth Mindset conference with Olympian and sports journalist Matthew Syed today. Needless to say, he got star billing.

I took the view that whilst we may all profess to value a growth mindset in pupils we have a very fixed mindset to teaching and education. Syed made the point that there are important differences between how the aviation industry and surgeons treat failure. When an aeroplane crashes, airlines go to great lengths retrieve the black box flight recorder in order to find out what happened. They learn from any mistakes that were made and go to great lengths to avoid the possibility of the same mistakes ever happening again. Surgeons, by contrast, are prone to dismiss patient deaths. They say things like, “It was just one of those things.” Or, “There was nothing that could be done.” In this way mistakes are perpetuated and surgeons carry on killing people in the same ways. The implication was that aviation has a growth mindset whereas surgery has a fixed mindset.

Now, this sounds plausible enough, but I think it’s worth considering why these industries behave the way they do. In aviation there’s a good chance that the pilot and anyone else responsible for the disaster is dead. There’s no further risk for having the consequences for failure unearthed. Also, airlines have gone to great lengths to systematise their means for gathering feedback: it’s not left up to vagaries like an individuals’ mindset. In surgery, on the other hand, there are severe consequences for surgeons acknowledging culpability in the event of a patient’s death. Admitting error could easily result in a lawsuit and is probably career suicide. There is no ‘black box’ mechanism to ensure that other surgeons can learn from mistakes, it’s left entirely to individuals to ‘fess up to their mistakes.

I think there’s an analogy here with education. Teaching has become increasingly high stakes. The consequences for having a poor lesson observation or a bad set of exam results can be pretty awful. It’s all very well to embrace challenges and mistakes but if some bastard is waiting to clobber you for them, you won’t last long. Teachers are incentivised to cover their backs and find excuses for any mistakes. And let’s be clear: we all make mistakes. If we want to engender a growth mindset in education we need to remove the consequences for failure. We need to make it OK for teachers to admit their mistakes and, in so doing, learn from them.

How could we do this?

Here a few off the cuff suggestions:

1) Start trusting teachers. No one goes into teaching for the financial rewards or to bask in the warm glow in which the profession is held. Teachers teach because they think it matters. Why not assume most teachers are doing a good job and relieve some of the appalling burden of accountability? Trust is a far more effective way to improve teaching and learning.

2) Equality is unfair. Treating all teachers the same might seem superficially reasonable but in fact it’s incredibly unjust.


If as a senior leader you don’t know who your struggling teachers are, you don’t deserve your salary. Treating every teacher as if they’re potentially at risk of failing might demonstrate equality but as a way to win hearts and minds, it’s absurd. If you know teachers are doing a good job, leave them alone. Or, better: learn from them.

3) Stop judging lessons. The average teacher will teach between 750-800 lessons per year. Sampling 2 or 3 of them is no way to judge effectiveness even if the evidence about the absolute lack of validity and reliability of lesson grading wasn’t so compelling.

4) Make ‘support’ supportive. Rather than putting people of capability and trying to drive them out of the profession, actually try to help them. Some of their problems might be the school’s fault. Are they struggling to mark their books? Maybe their workload is too great? Are they struggling to maintain discipline in class? Maybe the school’s behaviour system isn’t up to snuff.

I no longer teach. I get to swan about the country spouting off about whatever’s on my mind. Last night, on the dawn of a new term, my wife (who’s also recently left the classroom) and I commented on the lack of dread we felt about the week ahead. Why is it considered reasonable that teachers feel like this? Why is it acceptable for young teachers to sob in the toilets about their workload and children’s dreadful behaviour? And how is possible to defend a system in which 50% of teachers leave with the first five years?

This is my bottom line: It is morally reprehensible to expect teachers to sacrifice their home lives on the altar of professional responsibility. If we really valued a growth mindset approach to education we’d make damn sure it was safer for teachers to learn from failure.