Can you change how intelligent you are? Can you alter your personality? Can a student predicted a D grade get an A*? Are there things it is simply impossible for us to do?

I’ve always fancied the idea of being able to play the guitar but have made excuses like, I haven’t the patience to learn. The truth is, I’m not prepared to put in the effort required. I took lessons when I was about 10 years old and gave up after a few weeks. But why? Cos, my stupid teacher wanted me to learn stupid chords and I just wanted to play Beatles tracks. The fact that I couldn’t made me feel like a failure. When I strummed away I sounded awful. So I stopped. It was easier to give up than it was to go though the pain of wanting, but not being able to play. If I couldn’t be perfect I wouldn’t try.

I had similar issues with maths. Maths lessons made me feel really stupid. Feeling stupid made me deeply uncomfortable. So I decided maths was stupid and stopped trying. Predictably, I left school with a D grade. But who cares, maths is stupid, right? When I decided to train to become a teacher, that D grade hung, albatross-like, around my neck. Going to night school and retaking the old intermediate tier GCSE maths is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I hated it. Probability made me feel like crying with frustration and I seriously considered paying someone to sit the exam for me. In the weeks before the exam I slogged through a past paper every day. On the day of the exam I remember thinking that I had got every single question right. I got a B grade. A few weeks later I had forgotten everything I’d learnt because maths is stupid.

When it comes to guitar playing and mathematics, I have what Dr Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, the new psychology of success, calls a ‘fixed mindset’. This means that I struggle with failure. Failing is evidence that I am failure; success is about being successful. Often people with fixed mindsets want to achieve without making effort; if something’s hard that means they’re not good enough. Success should be effortless. If they fail, there must be an excuse; it must be someone else’s fault.

In other areas, I have a ‘growth mindset’. When I started out as a teacher I was rubbish. I cringe now to think how woeful I was and I very nearly quit the profession after my NQT year. I’m not entirely sure what changed, but somewhere along the line I decided I quite enjoyed teaching. At about the same time I also decided I wanted to be a better teacher. In fact I wanted to be outstanding. I was prepared to take risks and get things wrong. For some reason failing felt like progress.

The growth mindset enjoys learning and making effort for their own sakes. They are intrinsically motivated to, in the words of Samuel Beckett, “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” I love experimenting, tinkering and trying out new ideas in the classroom. I don’t do it because someone is watching; I don’t even do it for any high-minded principles. I do it because it’s fun.

I first encountered Dweck’s work last year due to the work of North Somerset’s AST team and it had an immediate impact on me. We’ve all encountered students who fit into these two categories and possibly we have a ‘fixed’ view of them. The good news is that we can all cultivate a growth mindset. Students (and teachers) can be taught to see failure as progress and to be intrinsically motivated to learn. Dweck asserts that anyone can succeed. Instead of asking ‘how can I teach these kids?’ instead ask, ‘How can I teach them?’ She cites tons of evidence that anyone, with the right attitude can succeed.

So maybe we should approach our classes with a 100% attitude. 100% of students can make three (and perhaps four) levels of progress. Even those kids.

OK, so how do we do it? As teachers, there’s a number of things we have to do:

  • Teach students about mindsets theory and encourage them to adopt a growth mindset.
  • Praise effort, not ability. When we say, “You’re really clever” we are fixing their view of how intelligent they are. Saying, “You really worked hard” reinforces the fact that the effort we make is the biggest factor in our likely success. It also shows that you value the process of learning over the end product.
  • Use formative assessment to help students understand exactly what they need to do to be successful. Avoid making summative judgments wherever possible – these just fix mindsets and make students either give up because they’re crap, or coast because they’re clever.
  • Have very high standards: don’t accept minimal effort and insist that students produce work that they can take pride in. Don’t accept excuses and don’t make any excuses for them.
  • Don’t offer extrinsic rewards – these prevent students from valuing the learning and remove intrinsic motivatin – there’s a great post on the Creative Education blog here.
  • Build a nurturing environment where it is safe to make mistakes and above all, don’t give up on the difficult ones; that’s what they’re expecting so prove them wrong. Know that they can achieve.
Here’s a link to a scheme of learning called the Learning Loop which tries to include some of these ideas.

So, this is my manifesto for being a brilliant teacher. What else would you add?