And so the summer madness begins…

crazy face

Recently, I went to a cross-borough moderation for mathematics and came away thoroughly depressed about just where teaching his going, and indeed where it’s come from.  I’ve no doubt that at any time education in this country can turn a corner and become about learning rather than about accounting for teaching, but it’s so far away from that now, and it’s all the more depressing because I thought there was window when it could have all been different. Education has dropped the ball.  There are still too many teachers, and importantly leaders of teachers, who don’t seem to understand how children learn well and how teachers teach well too.

At the start of this ‘moderation’ (or general panic), teachers spent that first part pawing over the interim frameworks for maths, gasping and moaning about how they would be able to show evidence for this or that criteria. Fair enough. After a while, the PowerPoint presentation flicked over to ‘What makes good formative assessment?’  Oh good, I thought, something useful for a change. A muffled silence followed as teachers looked at each other hopefully, until the presenter began.

‘So in assessing these criteria, what makes good formative assessment here? What can you do to find out what the children know? Come on, what do you do to assess your children here?’  Gradually, arms went up. ‘Children’s recording in books, listening to discussions,  making observations, taking pictures, getting children to write explanations….’ and so the list went on.  Then the presenter rounded the discussion up with her own list of good ‘formative assessment’.

I now kick myself that I only sat there, frowning and scratching my head rather than challenging this obvious and complete misconception about what formative assessment really is, because one thing I know for certain is that ticking an interim teacher assessment framework sheet as you look through a set of books is not formative assessment at all and for a borough moderator to stand up and talk about such as formative assessment is more than a little worrying. As the great man himself * has said – continually and quite clearly, formative assessment only becomes such if it is used to change teaching in the future; it ‘forms’ practice, that’s what formative means.  Once again it seems teaching has tripped over its tangled understanding of assessment, stacking all its cards on the side of measuring learning rather than effecting learning, not unlike a small child who measures himself everyday against his wall in the vain hope that somehow this act will cause him actually getting taller.

The fact that no one around me at this moderation seemed to notice this clear and obvious misuse of the term ‘formative’ disturbed me more than anything I’ve heard or read recently about DfE blunders and botched testing. Apparently we had to get this ‘formative assessment’ done by July 28th too? Now, I know some people might say I’m just being pedantic, it’s just a word – but I’m not backing down here. Assessment against the ITAF is only going to be summative and to call it formative is no different from calling an autopsy a medical checkup – there’s a big difference, not least for the patient!  It’s even more worrying that so much time and energy is going into this great big autopsy we’re all tied up in rather than allowing us all to get on with the business of helping children learn. I also wonder how many schools are using those ITAFs as their new curriculum too?  One thing that also bugged me was that STILL most teachers around me were grouping their children by ability and calling them all sorts of dubious terms like my ‘highers’ and my ‘lowers’.  One teacher even had her books colour coded for ability: red was for the real ‘lowers’, yellow for the ‘middlers’, green for ‘middle aboves’ and blue for the real ‘high flyers’.  Good grief! I wonder how that kid who keeps getting that book with the red label on feels about that?

Having kept my raging thoughts to myself, I began to chat a little more to my colleagues, all of whom I’d never met before and were from schools right outside my borough. After a while, a woman shared her stress about the expectations put on her by her SLT. They had thoughtfully based her performance management  pay progression target this year on her pupils achieving 98% expected and 50% greater depth, this is despite her leaders having no idea what working at  ‘expected’  or working at ‘greater depth’ means – never having looked at the ITAFs (that’s only for teachers to see, right?).

It is fundamentally wrong to use data for holding teachers to account, not because teachers shouldn’t be held to account, they should, but because using data to do this is unreliable and more importantly, often distorts assessment practice to the detriment of pupils’ learning. Let’s face it, if a pay rise depends on ticking a box for a child who’s ‘nearly there, but not quite,’ how many teachers are going to leave that box unticked and forgo the pay rise? And how many teachers are going to narrow their teaching focus on to only those criteria that will lead to the pay rise?  If you set up teaching as a sales commission exercise then you’re going to get salesman’s tactics, aren’t you.

In addition, we know that the effects on learning don’t come in neat twelve months packages. As the great man himself* explains, you might have a teacher who spends a year getting the children’s behaviour under control and ensuring they are working well collaboratively together, but after all this, they don’t learn that much academically. Then the next year, the new teacher gets all the benefit that the previous teacher put in to getting those children ready to learn, with all the behaviours for learning that really matter.  Now, a decent leader who knows the pupils and teachers well would be able to know that the first teacher deserves that pay rise, even though according to the data they technically ‘did nothing’.  This is why connecting pay raises to data stinks. Yes, in this bureaucratic world you have to measure and record teacher performance, but make it over time, make it descriptive, wide and with a huge measure of flipping common sense. I even have a  friend who once had a small class of twenty children, two of whom had Down’s syndrome and were years behind in their learning. She was given a PM target of 98% of children reaching expectation, despite the fact that this was  an impossibility. She was told all teachers had to have the same PM target to make it fair. Really? Argh.

As you can see, I’m taking all this SUMMATIVE assessment madness calmly and not getting upset by the whole shambles teaching finds itself in.

My only solace is that on the inside, where I work, people have sense, but out there, in so many schools, I fear this is far from true.

* Thanks to Dylan Wiliam – a constant source of knowledge and insight.


Learning or performance? Where are you?

In thinking about assessment, data and ‘everything’, I was reminded about learning and performance orientations and realised what great significance this concept continues to have. (Chris Watkins is the master in this area). I’ve made a kind of scale based on the idea of what certain school aspects might look like under a full learning or performance orientation. I expect most schools are a bit here and there (ones in trouble further over toward a full performance orientation). In my humble opinion, the best place would be for everyone to have a full learning orientation and for us all to get away from performance being a motivator in education.

This is a work in progress and I know I’ll keep changing it! Needs refining…

See below, or for PDF here’s a link Learning or performance orientation1

Learning or performance.PNG

Whatever happened to the growth mindset?


At one time, the ‘growth mind set’ was a phrase on every school leader’s lips and Carol Dweck, its progenitor, was the ‘it’ person in education. But where did it all lead? And where are we now in thinking about how pupils think about themselves as learners? It seems to me that for many schools, the new curriculum and so called new approaches to assessment have not led to any real change in learning orientation, as people like Tim Oates might have hoped for. There seems widespread confusion in what  mastery in learning really means. Yes, people on twitter seem to get it, and educators that put themselves out there may not be confused, but these are the minority I feel.  There are hundreds of teachers and leaders who are very much stuck in ‘level land’. Teachers are still asked every few weeks to sort children into numerical data groups and pressured to get children to a certain threshold by a set time resulting in just what the abandonment of levels sought to do away with: the sacrifice of deep learning for speedy surface progress. Worst still, many schools still reserve mastery for the ‘top’ children and  have the so called ‘bottom’ children sat counting their fingers in the corner with a teaching assistant while the teacher gets the rest to ‘expected,’ and ‘challenges’ those pupils who are ‘exceeding’.  This got me to thinking – where is the precious growth mind set in all this?

To remind myself: what does it mean to have a growth mind set?

To being with, the term growth mind set is a phrase created by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe a belief system built on the understanding that intelligence is incremental and ultimately changeable. In her book, ‘Self Theories,’ she explains why some pupils possess a ‘mastery –oriented’ approach to learning, where they seek challenge and persist in the face of obstacles, while others avoid failure at all cost and rarely enjoy challenge.

As educators, we know that children who love learning, are motivated by effort and enjoy overcoming setbacks fair better, not just at school, but also in life. We also know that assessment for learning techniques work better for pupils hooked into learning in this way. These are the children who don’t slump into a miserable pile over the desk when learning gets tough, or go quiet and try not to get noticed, but rather become energized by  difficulties and won’t rest  until they ‘get it’. These are the children who keep us on our toes because they aren’t satisfied going over old learning for long, but they also make the fastest progress and have an infectious way of motivating others too. We want children to be like this. If we want schools to be truly effective and for children to leave school imbued with this love of learning, then we need to understand that this attitude can be cultivated in all pupils and we owe it to them to ensure this happens.

So what happened to the mind set?

The problem is that, as with many new things in education, complex ideas are quickly précised into bite sized bullet points so that leaders can feed this to teachers in hourly staff meetings, then tick off evidence of implementation  in learning walks and observations so they can tell themselves they have disseminated this new practice across the school. Sometimes this might work, but this cannot work with the growth mind set because, as Dweck says, ‘people develop beliefs that organise their world and give meaning to their experiences;’ this creates our ‘meaning systems.’ People’s beliefs about themselves and others, their ‘self theories,’ are not something that can change in a few staff meetings. Whether or not one has a growth mind set goes to the heart of who you are and how you think, feel and act.

Too many school initiatives have used Dweck’s theory merely as an motivational device to attempt to get pupils to work harder rather than committing the whole school community to a complete change of heart in relation to learning and ability. Importantly, this applies to everyone, including teachers, parents and most definitely leaders as well. Some of the most fixed mind sets in schools can exist in the minds of leaders in how they think about their staff and in the way they treat them, which ultimately sets the tone of the whole school environment.

If leaders and teachers really want to cultivate a growth mind set in their pupils the whole school needs to check up on what they think and feel about ability and intelligence. It is my firm belief that schools who still label children by ability, and separate pupils into closed ability groups might very well pay lip service to the growth mind set vogue, but do not really believe in it all.

At the heart of the growth mind set is the understanding that wherever a pupil is, their intelligence can be increased; there is no set quota of intelligence that a child is endowed with at birth. This goes against the way many teachers think and talk about children because our theories about others, and indeed ourselves, tend towards being fixed in nature. Let’s face it, first impressions stick, just like first loves; once you feel something about someone or something it’s hard to shift it and nine times out of ten we spiral into a repetition of the same thoughts and feelings about people and situations. Intelligence is no different. It is after all only the sum total of one’s present skills and knowledge which is open to change during every waking hour; we must get away from the idea that somehow intelligence is a sealed box inside the head that is, to a greater or lesser degree, filled with a kind of mental elixir.

Dweck found that pupils who had a less fixed theory of intelligence regularly sacrificed opportunities to appear ‘clever’ in favour of opportunities to learn something new. We all know pupils like this: those tenacious kids who ask question after question and won’t rest until they have succeeded.  Whereas, pupils with more fixed ideas about intelligence feel the need to look clever and avoid looking ‘stupid’. They seek easy success to demonstrate this and regularly disengage from tasks that pose a threat to their perceived intelligence. We all know plenty of children like this too! (We know plenty of adults too.)

In practice, we know that children (and adults) who will persevere through adversity regardless achieve more because for them failure motivates rather than undermines. If you think and feel that you have a fixed amount of intelligence then whatever you do it will remain the same, therefore failure only exposes the truth about how much intelligence you have. If this is true then it makes sense to hide failure and avoid anything that exposes this unchangeable truth. However, if for you intelligence is fluid and can be built upon through effort and practice, then a failure is a signal for you that growth and change are just around the corner – so failure takes on a whole different meaning, it becomes a motivator.

In truth, too many classrooms have too little cognitive discomfort for places of learning. A classroom should be a place full of quizzical looks, small frowns and lightly chewed lips, interspersed with eureka moments followed by yet more finger tapping and head scratching. Why this seems to frighten teachers is not a mystery, but a result of intense pressure for progress and evidence of lots of ‘learning success’ with little or no mention of the horrible F word.  These days, there is little time to fail in class. Why failure seems to frighten pupils is because we’ve disconnected failure from the concept of learning when there is no learning without failure first, as Samuel Becket said: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Growth mind set:  Failure = a challenge which leads to future learning.

Fixed mind set:  Failure= an intelligence deficit which can’t be changed so only leads to looking stupid! Avoid it!

This is why growth mind set initiatives in schools need to be much more than a simple motivational driver. Any initiatives need to challenge everyone’s beliefs about intelligence and then lead to real change in thinking and behaviour. This means that the shared ‘meaning systems’ of the school community support change in the individual meaning systems of all. If this doesn’t happen, children’s feelings about being ‘stupid,’ ‘slow’ ‘bright’ or ‘clever’ are only reinforced and behaviour will not change.

There’s much more to say on this, not least about how teachers communicate with pupils in confirming or breaking down fixed mindsets. Teachers can have a dramatic affect on how pupils view intelligence just by changing how they talk about learning and deliberately making pupils conscious of when they are literally building their own intelligence.   However, this needs to go hand in hand with a school ethos that mirrors a mastery-approach to learning  for all – including teachers and leaders, a place where failure is recognised positively and utilised by learners rather than desperately feared, and certainly a place where  we get away from the same old cavalry charge for data that has driven shoddy practice for years. Data never leads to learning, but it might do the other way around.