True Grit

18th September 2015

Lisa Botwright discovers the educational benefits of challenging children not praising them

Imagine the scenario. A little boy has just drawn a picture and can’t wait to show his parents. He’s bursting with pride. “You’re so talented!” his mum tells him. “The next Picasso,” dad agrees. Now, imagine instead that mum says: “Well, I can see that you’ve put a lot of work into that drawing; I like the way you’ve tried to re-create exactly the same colours that you can see. If you give me a pencil too, maybe we can see how a little shading would improve the effect. Have you learnt about shading before?” And so on. It doesn’t feel familiar, does it? In our bid to improve our children’s self-esteem, our natural instinct is to shower with praise. But in a pioneering book, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, Dr Carol Dweck writes that it is essential to praise effort rather than talent; to teach children that rather than possessing innate gifts, they must work hard to achieve their goals, acquiring resilience and a ‘growth mindset’ along the way.

Teaching youngsters to embrace new challenges with a more resilient mindset is not a new idea, but progressive ideas about its importance have been gathering momentum within education debate. Key reformers such as Guy Claxton argue that education is less about test scores than about becoming a productive member of society – with all that entails. In a foreword to Claxton’s persuasive Educating Ruby, Octavius Black reflects on the education he wants for his young daughter. “Much of the knowledge she acquires at school is likely to be redundant by the time she starts her first job. Far more important will be the ability to respond healthily to whatever challenges come her way.”

Professor Tanya Byron – who attended prestigious North London Collegiate School and who has achieved enormous success both academically and in popular culture, in spite of (or maybe because of?) the fact that she was famously told at a parents’ consultation that ‘she would never amount to anything’ – argues cogently that “it’s not either/or: either good grades or life skills.” She says, “We have to go beyond the weary old Punch and Judy battle between education ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives.’ Children and young people who are helped to become confident and powerful learners are happier, more adventurous and take greater pleasure in reading – and they do better on the tests.”

The government has publicly concurred and last year the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Mobility, produced a report urging schools to avoid concentrating solely on academic measures of success as children move through the education system and into the workplace. It also calls for Ofsted to build ‘character and resilience’ measures into its inspection framework, and for teacher training and career development programmes to ‘explicitly focus’ on the area.

One practical suggestion was for extra-curricular activities to be made a formal aspect of teachers’ contracts of employment and for independent schools to share with maintained schools both professional expertise and facilities that promote character and resilience. ‘As top heads and teachers already know, sports clubs, orchestras and choirs, school plays, cadets, debating competitions all help to build character, to give children’s talents an opportunity to grow and to allow them to discover new talents they never knew they had.’

The importance of resilience has been borne out by measured scientific study, with Dr Angela Duckworth at the forefront of research. In her former life as a maths teacher, she had come to realise that there was rarely a correlation between IQ and success and became so fascinated by understanding the root of the question ‘who is successful and why?’ that she turned her attentions to an academic career in psychology. After studying everyone from officer cadets at West Point to ‘gifted and talented’ pupils at schools, she found that far above health, intelligence, family background and all the most obvious indicators, the overwhelming universal trait which all ‘successful’ children shared was something that she called ‘grit’. What she found most startling was not just that IQ was rarely a contributory factor, but that often there was an inverse correlation – the rather bizarre conclusion that intelligence could almost be a hindrance rather than a help.

The flipside of Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ is the damaging ‘fixed mindset’. We all understand the dangers of children developing a firm belief that they are ‘thick’, and the self-fulfilling prophecy that they will never amount to anything. It’s why we dish out the praise so liberally. “You’re so clever, darling!” we repeat, frequently. However, just as damaging to a child’s self esteem can be the idea that they are ‘naturally clever’, that they don’t have to work hard because things just ‘come naturally’ to them. In this fixed mindset, once these children come up against a challenge they find it difficult to cope, because their whole sense of self could potentially become eroded. Constructive criticism might be taken on board as an entirely personal judgement, rather than something to spur them on and ‘do better next time’. Dweck suggests that we can help to foster a growth mindset by reflecting on our feedback and stimulating discussion with questions such as: “What did you learn today?” or “What mistake did you make that taught you something?”.

The most progressive schools are already employing practical strategies to reinforce this important message. At St Hilda’s in Bushey, a preparatory school for girls aged 4-11 years, teachers have taken Duckworth’s ‘grit’, and broken it down into the accessible and age-appropriate acronym of Get...Really... Into...Trying. Headmistress Sarah Jane Styles says: “There is a lot of talk about teachers being reflective practitioners, but it is also important for pupils to be reflective and resilient learners. We encourage this in many ways, for example ‘peer assessment’ where pupils get used to constructive criticism from their friends.” The school has also introduced a ‘question of the week’, often something quite abstract, “so that children will learn that there isn’t always a right or wrong answer, thus taking safer risks in their learning. I call it the new, improved ‘three Rs’: resilience, resourcefulness and risk-taking.”

Often girls are traditionally perceived as more passive learners, reluctant to take risks, but nearby boys’ school, Merchant Taylors’ Prep (formerly Northwood Prep), also places great emphasis on boosting the boys’ resilience. “We found that pupils are not always ready to take a risk in their learning,” explained the Head of School, Dr Karen McNerney. “They seem naturally conditioned into wanting to be right rather than make mistakes.” The school now focuses on eight learning dispositions, which they believe are essential for pupils to be successful learners: collaboration, concentration, perseverance, independence, risk-taking, curiosity, imagination and empathy. “We find ways within lessons and assemblies to recognise pupils for specific examples of demonstrating one of the learning dispositions so that we can continually reinforce what we value in the pupils as learners,” continues Dr McNerney. “Our Forest School has been a big influence in initiating the process of taking calculated risks and we have definitely noticed that pupils are transferring their ability to take a risk when they return to the classroom.”

Senior schools are also addressing the issue. Wimbledon High School, for example, is a highly academic independent school where competition for entry is fierce and pupils see themselves as ‘the best of the best’ after gaining entry. As Dr Elyse Waites, Head of Year Seven, says, “The girls are high achievers who often reach the end of their school career having never ‘failed’ at anything.”

The parent of a former student, who prefers to remain anonymous, agrees. “My daughter was very well taught at school and went on to Oxford University. However, when she ran into problems during her ‘year in industry’ she had difficulty coping, which was something of a shock.”

Dr Waites instigated a ‘Failure Week’ during which pupils were encouraged to ask offbeat questions, which previously they might have felt embarrassed to raise, or to try clubs and activities outside their comfort zone. “Risk-taking can bring greater success and happiness,” Dr Waites concludes. “The longer you leave it ‘to fail’, the more crippling it is when, inevitably, it does happen.”

The government has even launched the 2015 DfE Character Awards, with schools and colleges being encouraged to prove that they are working towards ‘developing character traits, attributes and behaviours that underpin success in school and work’, including – yes you’ve guessed it – perseverance, resilience and grit. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says that the government “wants to celebrate the excellence and diversity in this field, recognising that character is already being encouraged, nurtured and developed alongside academic rigour through a variety of programmes in and outside schools across the county. Character education can be found within a school’s ethos, in the classroom and on the playground, as much as it can be found on the sports field and outside of school in the local community.”

At the epicentre of all this political and academic debate are the children themselves; what does it mean for them to be encouraged to be resilient? I look back on my own education several – ahem – decades ago, and I see how utterly fixed my mindset was… and continues to be. I was ‘good’ at English, and yes, great, here I am writing features for magazines. But on the other hand I was ‘rubbish’ at maths, and to this day am thrown into a panic if I have to calculate a percentage or help my own offspring with their homework. How I admire this twelve year old boy, whose teacher posted his letter onto an education blog: “In my maths work I constantly get setbacks. I always find the work difficult. Having said that, I still remain optimistic and try hard because one day I will understand. I have proven to myself that I can do well when I keep trying, as I went from receiving a D grade to my most recent B grade.” No wonder his teacher was so proud and wanted to share his attitude. Grit in spades, I’d say.

Guy Claxton: ‘Educating Ruby’ (Crown House)
Dr Carol Dweck: ‘Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential’ (Robinson)
Ken Robinson: ‘Creative Schools’ (Allen Lane) Search Angela Duckworth

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