The good, the bad and…crackers.

Illustration re corporal punishment of s

Conversations about our jobs often pop up around the table at Christmas time, but I didn’t expect a whole family debate on intelligence to rage across the crackers and cranberry sauce, but it did. I came away feeling that intelligence isn’t so much misunderstood, but rather terribly misapplied.

Anyone who reads my blogs will know that assessment is my thing, with a particular focus on  factors that promote or prevent formative assessment working well for pupils and teachers.

One of the biggest bees in my teacher bonnet here is mind set and how both pupils and teachers view intelligence or ability. During some action research I carried out a while ago, I was surprised by just how prevalent fixed mind sets are amongst pupils and how far this appeared to prevent them from taking hold of their own learning. Many of us will have read  Carol Dweck’s research into this, but I wanted to see how this might manifest in my setting.

I found that some pupils had created in their minds a kind of pecking order of cleverness within their class and ranked themselves within it so that they could quite literally order themselves and their peers in  intelligence with phrases such as ‘really clever,’ ‘quite clever’, ‘sort of brainy’ and ‘not that smart.’ This was despite a strong emphasis on choice in learning and mixed ability groupings in the class. It seemed that many of the children had long established ideas about intelligence that had not shifted with our work on learning how to learn or collaborative class ethos.

There were undesirable outcomes from these seemingly fixed views of intelligence, not least the palpable fear of revealing misunderstanding or ‘being stuck’. For pupils this meant revealing their ‘ranking’ in the intelligence order compared to everyone else and running the risk of being seen as ‘dumb’ (their words not mine). The result was that when some pupils needed help, or would have benefited from further explanation, they didn’t ask for it and preferred instead to sit ‘surviving’ by either copying or appearing to write lots of ‘stuff’ and look busy. Ring a bell with anyone?

Of course, some of the nifty formative assessment techniques seek to combat this secret survival thing kids do by forcing them to show their hands right there in the lesson. Using things like hinge questions on white boards and generally responsive teaching that will pick out this kind of quiet ‘wallowing’ well before you find the grim evidence in the books later when you mark…and when it’s really too late. Nevertheless, a teacher’s job shouldn’t be about finding out how far children can hide their misunderstanding; in the end, we’re doing our job really well when we teach children to recognise and use their misunderstanding and deal with ‘getting stuck’ positively. After all, that sticky point, that cognitive discomfort (posh word: dissonance) when learning, should be where learning begins, not ends.

It was no coincidence to me that the children who made the most progress in that class were the children who were never happy secretly surviving and actively sought out help whenever they needed it. “I don’t get it?” was and is a sign of a learner going places, as long as something is done about it of course.  That in itself seemed like an ‘ability’ that took the learner far: doing something about feeling challenged, not shrinking or hiding. When I talked to these few children about what they thought about being clever and ‘intelligent’ they seemed to think about this differently. Their ideas about intelligence lent more towards it being something to be built upon and cultivated rather than something endowed and fixed inside. These children weren’t always confident or optimistic or even enthusiastic in every lesson– things we always count as important factors in learning, but instead, they seemed secure in their feelings about learning itself– this was their confidence in effect: that with help and time, they could always improve, even if it seemed impossible at the start. Like this, their identity and self image did not seem attached to the tasks they undertook.

At the same time, these children could talk about another child being more intelligent, but they did this in a way that was more like talking about a journey when someone is ahead rather than about someone who possesses more of something. It seemed to me that these few children understood ability as an active process while many others, most in fact, engaged with it as a finite endowment or a fixed asset, just as Carol Dweck described. Both these ideas also appeared innate in that they were revealed to me mostly by the way the children were when operational in class rather than when they had rational conversations about intelligence.

This brings me back to the beginning and all that debate about ability. What is it then? What is this thing called ability that teachers still call high, low or middle? We’ve talked about it so much in education and for so long surely we must all know? Well, the more I teach and the more I watch children learning I know that views about intelligence are a potent force when it comes to learning. While on the one hand we all know that children learn, brains grow, connections are built and meaning made, we also know that not all children are the same or can do the same things at the same time, but how pupils and importantly teachers interact with this thing called ability really matters. It is all about how we apply our knowledge of these differences.  Without doubt some brains are quicker, synapses work faster and there are stronger connections; however, the salient point is that all healthy brains can build connections: intelligence is an active process not an entity. This means that defining pupils by ability is problematic and threatens to limit their prospects because no matter what we say, humans suck up self image like a sponge; we carry an image of ourselves that is shaped by what we and others think about us. The moment definitions come into play we start pinning them to ourselves. Defining those children who are further ahead as ‘high ability’ limits them because we all start to think of them as ‘children who always succeed’: a terrible burden for everyone. Pinning ‘low ability’ to a child all too often means they and others see them as low achievers for the foreseeable future.

This creates a problem for teachers. How can we talk about where children are without pinning these things on to them? And how can we really break down this thing that causes children to feel so self conscious about their image in class? Teaching a few lessons on the growth mind set and telling children they need to challenge themselves just isn’t going to touch instinctive ideas that children have developed and that are confirmed not only outside school in myriad ways, but often in school by peers and also teachers who might talk about growth mind set, but have the most fixed ideas of all. It is imperative that teachers think careful how they talk about children, even in the staff room because mud sticks and labels are hard to shift. We all declare we have high expectations for all children, but do we? Believing that all children can improve and build intelligence is not only essential, but I would say it is as imperative to being a teacher as elegance is to being a dancer.

Over the past few years, since that action research, these are the practices that I can say have made a difference in breaking down some of these problems with image and learning. For many these are probably old hat, but nevertheless, they’re worth noting:

  • Celebrate when pupils ask for help when they need it – deliberately create an ethos where questions are welcomed and enjoyed. Don’t forget that teaching is very much about creating the right atmosphere for learners to thrive – it’s not just transferring skills and knowledge (that would be easy).
  • Model being a learner who makes mistakes yourself – a lot. Scratch your head and get confused sometimes and ask your TA or another adult for help.
  • Be gracious when pupils point out you’ve made a mistake, show gratitude and humility rather than defensiveness – show that everyone is up for errors!
  • Watch how you praise pupils – avoid ‘good boy,’ ‘good girl’ type phrases that tickle the ego rather than focus on learning. Mostly, there’s too much praise of pupils in lessons which creates this image focused atmosphere we need to avoid. Think carefully about what you are praising? It is the ‘finishers’? If so is finishing always the same as achievement? Is it the ‘neat and tidy’ pieces? If so, is all learning neat and tidy? When you stop and check, you’d be surprised what and who you praise and how often. When I’ve checked on myself  – I’ve often cringed! What and how you praise contributes massively to how pupils feel about themselves and their peers. As far as you can, qualify your praise by making it clearly task focused, describing what the child did that  was positive. Remember: when you say things like: ‘excellent work’ or ‘well done’ often children have no idea what was ‘excellent’ or ‘well done’ at all and it just becomes another ego badge.  Stars and smiley faces are out  for me too, sorry! (In fact, I think the whole rewards thing needs a re-think… another blog perhaps.)
  • I know it’s been said before, but use the word ‘yet’ a lot. If I ask a child a question, I encourage them to say ‘I’m not there yet?’ rather than a plain ‘I don’t know’. I use it all the time too, ‘you’re not there yet’. It’s a small word that helps keep the doors open so it’s worth getting it well embedded into the class vocabulary.
  • Ban the phrase, ‘it’s easy,’ which children seem to like to say when they get something and see that others don’t. It’s designed to make children feel inadequate so stamp it out. Look out for all the other little gibes that mean the same thing. Talk about it and discuss these things as a class too – bring the bogey man out the cupboard!
  • Lastly, really drill home that struggling is the first sign of learning. Celebrate cognitive conflict and turn it into something you and children look for and prize. I’m not saying allow kids to sit in utter bewilderment either, that’s too far the other way. Vygotsky was clear that we need to take children to that special place where learning becomes possible and this isn’t a place where it’s easy, because you’ve already learnt it, or a place where it’s too hard for any meaning to be made. Get kids to recognise that place for themselves: not easy and not impossible.  Get them to look for it and want it.

These things have made a big impact on  the children I teach. I don’t always get it right and it’s easy to slip into ‘label talk’ so we need to be mindful of it all the time. It’s taken hundreds of years to embed this concept of ‘praising the good child who gets it right,’ so it will take a while to break it down – remember once it was OK to stick a child who got it wrong in the corner with a dunce hat on; my Nan used to get hit with a ruler for wrong answers. Ethos change needs work, time and reflection, but it’s worth it.

Happy New Year!

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