The Growth Mindset : Telling Penguins to Flap Harder ?

Disappointed Idealist

I’m not sure whether this particular blog might lose me friends. It’s not intended to, but I’m going to stumble into an area where I know some people have very strong views. It was prompted by a post-parents’ evening trawl through some blogs, and I came across this blog by Dylan Wiliam :

I’m generally a fan of Dylan Wiliam, although I once tried to joke with him on Twitter, and I’m not sure my humour survived the transition to 140 characters. If I made any impression, it was almost certainly a bad one. Oh well. In any case, it’s not actually his blog on feedback which is at issue here – it’s a good piece, and I agree with the central message about marking/feedback. The bit I want to write about is this :

“Students must understand that they are not born with talent (or lack of it) and…

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Growth mindset: it’s not just for Christmas

Reflecting English

Growth-Not-Just-For-ChristmasWEBImage: @jasonramasami

Every Saturday, I take my three-year old son shopping. I must admit I am forever the teacher. My partner draws him a list of things to find and together we look for them. Today, we were after garlic, even if the biro sketch had more than a whiff of onion about it.

It was on our way past the Christmas tree, from the garlic to the carrots, that we saw him, dressed in the signature green and yellow of Morrisons. A stooped stockiness had replaced the gangliness of adolescence but, even so, the crooked smile, open and shy at the same time, instantly sent me back four years. Here was Tim [name changed] again. A delightful boy – who could barely write.

I tend to bump into a former student most weekends, more often than not in a retail outlet. Sometimes I find these meetings awkward. Now that…

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This much I know about…Excellence and Growth


I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about Excellence and Growth.

Here are my presentations, videos and questionnaires from my presentations at the Optimus Education Excellence and Growth Conference, London, 26 November 2014.

My introductory keynote…

On developing a Growth Mindset…

Dweck on Growth Mindset…

Why Excellence Matters…(not!)

Austin’s Butterfly (in case you’ve never seen it…)

Ron Berger on critique…

Fixed Mindsets try to look clever at all costs…

Dylan Wiliam on the power of YET…

Praise and Rewards can inhibit learning…

Will Smith on working hard…

Carol Dweck on process praise…

Student GM Questionnaire…

Student GM Questionnaire points scorer…

Staff GM Questionnaire…

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Perceptions of Failure: Is there a role for Positive Psychological Capital?


Consider the following two scenarios:

Matilda has just been given an essay back from her teacher and it’s not the result she hoped for. The teacher has given her lots of feedback and advice on how to improve on her essay and she reads it thoroughly and pledges to correct her errors and re-submit it in a few days time. She is disappointed but understands that if she acts on the feedback her grade should increase.

Matty has completed the same essay and, just like Matilda, didn’t get the result he wanted. With Matty this always seems to be the case and constant poor grades have left him demoralised. Again, there is lots of feedback and advice on how to improve but Matty doesn’t read it – he’s a failure, he always fails and there seems to be very little he can do to fix the problem.

There are several…

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In which I review ‘Walden Two’ by B. F. Skinner

At the start of November 2014, I wrote a review of Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards [1], in which he argues that rewards and punishments are part of a behaviourist system of operant conditioning that reduces students to a set of behaviours that can be reinforced or corrected until a specific stimulus achieves the desired response. As such, for Kohn, behaviourism ‘is by its very nature dehumanizing.’ [2] Instead, Kohn advocates a school environment in which all extrinsic motivators are removed and in which students have autonomy over their choice of what they learn, and when and with whom they learn it, so that all learning is driven entirely by intrinsic motivation. My edition even includes the text of a debate between Kohn and B. F. Skinner, who coined the term ‘operant conditioning’ and to whom Kohn positions himself and his educational philosophy in direct opposition.

It was in this light that I set out to read Walden Two, the utopian novel by B. F. Skinner himself. [3] The novel can be most charitably described as a ‘novel of ideas’, by which I mean it largely consists of expository dialogue between Frazier (the founder of Walden Two, the eponymous utopian community), Burris (the narrator) and Castle (the arch-sceptic, who is determined to prove that Walden Two is a crypto-fascist autocracy) as they go on a tour of the community and discuss the philosophy behind the various aspects of it.

Chapter fifteen is most pertinent here, since this is where the visiting party are taken on a tour of the educational facilities. After reading Kohn’s book, I was expecting a scene rather like this:

Future School

Imagine my surprise, then, to find that the students in Skinner’s utopian school appear to be engaging in something not dissimilar to discovery learning:

‘We visited some of the workshops, laboratories, studies, and reading rooms used in lieu of classrooms. They were occupied, but it was not entirely clear than the children were actually in school… We inspected a well-equipped gymnasium, a small assembly room, and other facilities… The doors and many of the windows stood open, and a fair share of the schoolwork, or whatever it was, took place outside. Children were constantly passing in and out… Everyone seemed to be enjoying extraordinary freedom.’ [4]

As Frazier goes on to explain:

“An educational institution spends most of its time, not in presenting facts or imparting techniques of learning, but in trying to make its students learn. It has to create spurious needs. Have you ever stopped to analyse them?”

Castle replies:

“I suppose they consist of fear of one’s family in the event of low grades or expulsion, the award of grades and honors, the snob value of a cap and gown, the cash value of a diploma,”

and Frazier reveals that, since operant conditioning is based on controlling the environment in order to achieve a desired behavioural outcome, this control can be achieved by removing external stimuli just as much as it can by their introduction:

“our substitute is simply the absence of these devices… We don’t need ‘grades.’ Everyone knows that talents and abilities don’t develop at the same rate in different children. A fourth-grade reader may be a sixth-grade mathematician. The grade is an administrative device which does violence to the nature of the developmental process. Here the child advances as rapidly as he likes in any field. No time is wasted in forcing him to participate in, or be bored by, activities he has outgrown.” [5]

Not only does Skinner (via Frazier) advocate a school environment in which all extrinsic motivators are removed and in which students have autonomy over their choice of what they learn, and when and with whom they learn it, so that all learning is driven entirely by intrinsic motivation, but he also appears to advocate a generic skills-based curriculum:

“Since our children remain happy, energetic, and curious, we don’t need to teach ‘subjects’ at all. We teach only the techniques of learning and thinking. As for geography, literature, the sciences – we give our children opportunity and guidance, and they learn for themselves. In that way we dispense with half the teachers required under the old system, and the education is incomparably better. Our children aren’t neglected, but they’re seldom, if ever, taught anything.” [6]

There is also an emphasis on authentic learning experiences:

“Our laboratories are good because they are real. Our workshops are really small engineering laboratories, any anyone with a genuine bent can go farther in them than the college student. We teach anatomy in the slaughterhouse, botany in the field, genetics in the dairy and poultry house, chemistry in the medical building and in the kitchen and dairy laboratory.”

Furthermore, when Castle suggests that one of the main purposes of education is to:

“provide techniques and abilities which will be valuable later… For example, the study of a language,”

Frazier replies:

“Why ‘late’? Why not acquire a language when it’s valuable? We acquire our own tongue in that way!”

He then comments, on the group of community members (aged between 10 and 50) who are currently learning French from some of the more fluent speakers within Walden Two, that:

“They’ll never get grades or credits, but they’re getting French. Is there really any choice? Either French is worth learning, at the time you learn it, or it’s not.” [7]

In conclusion, it is worth emphasising that Walden Two was first published in 1948, and Skinner based his utopia on the science of human behaviour at the time. Indeed, Skinner (via Frazier) reiterates at several points through the book that the Walden Code would be constantly revised and updated in light of new and better evidence. Despite this, his utopian school does anticipate the research since the 1970s into self-determination theory. That being the case, given more recent research into deliberate practice [8], cognitive load [9] and so on, I wonder – what would an evidence-based utopian school circa 2015 look like?


[1] C. Phillips (2014) ‘In which I review “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn’, (post dated 1 November 2014; site accessed 19 February 2015)

[2] A. Kohn (1999) Punished By Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, And Other Bribes (New York, Houghton Mifflin) p.25

[3] B. F. Skinner (2010 [1948, 1972]) Walden Two (Indianapolis / Cambridge, Hackett Publishing Co. [Kindle edition])

[4] Skinner, Walden Two (Kindle edition, no page numbers)

[5] Skinner, Walden Two (Kindle edition, no page numbers)

[6] Skinner, Walden Two (Kindle edition, no page numbers)

[7] Skinner, Walden Two (Kindle edition, no page numbers)

[8] K. Ericsson, R. Krampe and C. Tesch-Romer (1993) ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’, in Psychological Review 100 (3) 363-406

[9] P. A. Kirschner, J. Sweller and R. E. Clark (2006) ‘Why Minimal Instruction During Guidance Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching’, in Educational Psychologist 41 (2) 75-86; D. T. Willingham (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works And What It Means For The Classroom (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass)

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In which I discuss the difference between work, play and deliberate practice

As part of my research into Growth Mindset, I’ve read such works as Mindset [1], Quiet [2], Drive [3], Outliers [4], Talent Is Overrated [5] and The Talent Code [6]. One thing that these works have in common is that they all make more than a passing reference to Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer’s 1993 paper ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’ [7], so I decided that it was time for me to read the original source. This post is not a full review of their paper; rather, it is simply a discussion of one short section of the paper, in which Ericsson et al distinguish between work, play and deliberate practice.

For Ericsson et al, work ‘includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards… The costs of mistakes or failures to meet deadlines are generally great, which discourages learning and acquisition of new and possibly better methods during the time of work’ [8]. For students, the presence of external motivators like levels and grades would, by this argument, constitute work and, therefore, actively inhibit the ability of students and teachers to improve.

Play, for Ericsson et al, ‘includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable… Recent analyses of inherent enjoyment in adults reveal an enjoyable state of “flow,” in which individuals are completely immersed in an activity.’ However, this state (as identified by Csikszentmihalyi) ‘is almost antithetical to focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action’ [9]. The antidote to work, therefore, is not a totally immersive state of flow of the type that is central to certain kinds of discovery learning– indeed, for students, this state has exactly the same outcome as work, in that it actively inhibits their ability to improve.

In contrast to both work and play, Ericsson et al propose deliberate practice as the optimal condition for achieving mastery. Deliberate practice, by this argument, ‘is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further.’ Ericsson et al go on to claim that ‘deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance. In addition, engaging in deliberate practice generates no immediate monetary rewards and generates costs associated with access to teachers and training environments’ [10].

The implications for teaching are clear, in that deliberate practice represents the route to mastery for students; and deliberate practice involves students learning via direct instruction under the guidance of an expert teacher, with feedback given in the form of comment-only marking linked to clear success criteria. This is the way to promote a growth mindset, in which – in the words of Ericsson et al – students ‘are motivated to practice because practice improves performance.’


[1] C. Dweck (2012) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential [Kindle edition] (London, Constable & Robinson)

[2] S. Cain (2012) Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking (London, Penguin)

[3] D. H. Pink (2011) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Edinburgh, Canongate)

[4] M. Gladwell (2009) Outliers: The Story Of Success (London, Penguin)

[5] G. Colvin (2008) Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else (London, Nicholas Brealey)

[6] D. Coyle (2010) The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown (London, Arrow)

[7] K. Ericsson, R. Krampe and C. Tesch-Romer (1993) ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’, in Psychological Review 100 (3) 363-406

[8] ibid., p.368

[9] ibid., p.368

[10] ibid., p.368

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In which I write my first Nurture blogpost #nurture1415

I read a few #nurture1314 posts last year, and I’ve read a few #nurture1415 posts this year. I apologise for not having read more, and I have no right to expect that anyone will read this; but for those that do, as per >this< post by @ChocoTzar, here are my five positives from 2014, and my five hopes for 2015 (and, along the way, the reasons why I haven’t read more posts).

Positives from 2014

  1. My wife and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary. When 42% of UK marriages end in divorce, I remain a man with a hinterland. I don’t need to explain this point. do I?
  2. My middle son started full-time education and, like for his older brother, I was there to take him to school on his first day. His first few weeks were difficult – my wife actually started to dread going to school, in a “What’s he done today?” sort of way. Having an August birthday, he’s the youngest in his class, and I think (despite having had no problems with two days a week at nursery for the past couple of years) he suffered from a bit of separation anxiety. However, at his teacher’s suggestion, he’s started taking his teddy to school with him, and that genuinely seems to have made a world of difference, to the extent that his teacher told us that he was the best behaved at their Christmas party.
  3. I continue, as per Dylan Wiliam’s exhortation, to work at improving as a teacher. I feel more confident than ever at explaining, modelling, questioning, using summative and formative assessment, giving effective feedback, and generally finding that balance between teaching content and teaching the skills that make use of that content. My GCSE results this year were the best ever for one of my classes – I’m obviously doing something right.
  4. I remain part of the school’s research and development team, working with two colleagues to research Growth Mindset and how it can be implemented and embedded across the school. Most of my recent posts reflect this research. Our contracts were extended through to the end of this school year; as part of which, I have co-presented my first ever whole-school INSET session. Having spent four years (2003-2007) completing a PhD, it’s fair to say that I’ve well and truly got the research bug again.
  5. I have also, as of this month, become the de facto Subject Leader for GCSE Leisure and Tourism. I say ‘de facto’ – although my brief was to develop guidance materials for staff (and students) completing controlled assessments, I was also very quickly given the responsibility of organising a field trip for January so, until anybody tells me any differently, I can now claim to be a Head of Department. This has made me think about the kind of leader that I hope to be which, in turn, led me to discover >this< TED Talk by Simon Sinek on the difference between authority and leadership. I’ve also read his book, Leaders Eat Last. This has very quickly become something of a mantra for me, and will be central to everything that I do in 2015.

Hopes for 2015

  1. Spend more time with my family. At present, I leave the house before anybody else is awake, and get home somewhere between 5pm and 5:30pm. My children go to bed at 7pm – that means I see them for about an hour and a half per day during the week. In addition, I’ve worked every day this holiday, with the exception of Christmas Day and Boxing Day. To be fair, I’ve been working on contributing schemes of work to a new KS3 curriculum as part of my planning allocation, and on developing the aforementioned guidance materials for staff involved in teaching the GCSE Leisure and Tourism course, which are one-off jobs that will only need minor improvements in future years, but still… I’d like to be able to watch my children grow up without it being over the top of a laptop screen.
  2. Move house. We’ll be staying in the same town (Newark-on-Trent, in case you’re interested), because house prices are lower than where my parents-in-law live (Midlothian, in case you’re still interested); but, having lived in the same house for over 30 years (my mum died in 1987, and my dad died in 2004, so my sister and I inherited our house; my wife then bought my sister’s share and moved in with me, while my sister moved out with her now-husband), I’m still a little bit daunted by the logistics of it all.
  3. Become a Chartered Geography Teacher. I’ve had the idea to become a CGeog (Teacher) for a couple of years now, but I wrote it into this year’s PIP and I have written about half of the Professional Self Evaluation Report that is required as part of the application process. Early next year, I’ll need to contact the RGS-IBG to give me a bit of guidance on the application process. (Obviously, I’ll also see if any of the #geographyteacher Twitter community can offer any advice!) Once accredited, I will need to demonstrate a commitment to subject-specific CPD, which might just be the impetus I need to finally attend the Geographical Association Annual Conference in April, which I’ve not done before, despite being a Geography teacher for 8 years.
  4. I’ve started writing up my research and development work as a book, provisionally entitled Growth Mindset Teaching. It’s only 3,500 words long at present, I’d like to have finished a first draft of it by the end of 2015.
  5. My dream is to be a professional writer. Increasingly, I realise that the combination of working as a teacher and being married with three children is not especially conducive to writing in your spare time. However, I do have somewhere in the region of 15,000 words of a novel on my external hard drive, and my much of what I’ve read and watched this year has been chosen because it has something in common with what I hope the finished novel will be like, and has therefore helped me to plan the rest of the novel in my mind. It won’t be finished by the end of 2015, but I’d like one of next year’s Nurture hopes to be to finish it by the end of 2016.
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The subtle art of giving praise

the primary head's blog

I can still remember, as a young NQT, having the school’s celebration book presented to me at 2:00pm on a Friday afternoon, an hour before the weekly celebration assembly was due to begin. I can remember staring at it blankly whilst the direct order to nominate a child was being barked in my ear by a slightly harassed secretary who was running out of time to print the certificates. I remember standing there and thinking, trying to pluck a child’s name out of thin air and then trying to conjure up some reason as to why they had got it. I would frustratingly flick back through the pages to see who I had already picked, as I cursed the boy who I would have nominated had they not flushed someone’s homework down the toilet half an hour earlier. Finally, I would scribble the name of some child, and make up…

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Mindset: The things we say

Class Teaching



I’ve written before (lots!) about growth mindset and why I think it’s important.  I think we need to be careful though.  If it’s really going to make a difference, we need to think very deeply about what it really means as teachers and leaders to be supporting a growth mindset in our schools.  Posters, assemblies and pictures are fine – but the way we will really make a difference to our students, in terms of developing their mindset, is the way we interact with them on a day to day basis – in particular, in the things we say to them.

mindsetbennetTo me, Tom’s description above nails it.  The problem is though, the more you think about mindset, the more you start to question the way we talk to students and the way in which schools operate.  A few examples follow (most of which I have used at some point…

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The Problem with Growth Mindset | HuntingEnglish

The Echo Chamber

I was brought up by my family to believe that you got your just rewards for working hard. It is a belief that has stayed with me and nourished me throughout my life. Well, with some important qualifications. You see, we weren’t very good at mathematics in my family. In fact, nor were we naturally any good at the sciences. That was fine though – as we were naturally good at English, History and Art – that sort of thing.

The Problem with Growth Mindset | HuntingEnglish

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