I should probably start by apologising for that title, which is bad even by my standards…

From time to time, a random set of encounters crystallises into something greater than the sum of its parts, and this last week witnessed one such. Perhaps we should take from this something about the nature of learning itself, for I think that in the midst of the current heat of the research-based revolution, we are perhaps losing sight of a much more close-at-hand source of insight – our own experiences. After all, as largely-graduate professionals, we can surely consider ourselves to have some personal insights into learning, and the assumption that others inevitably experience something wildly different is not especially tenable.

The first of these recent experiences was a staff-meeting that re-exposed my colleagues and me to the work of John Hattie, and married it with Dweck’s growth mindset. It has to be said that the session seemed to create more heat than light – and I for one am not going to gainsay that. What kind of arrogance would it be to dismiss the hundreds of years of cumulative teaching experience that that staff body represents – and in an Outstanding school at that? Yet it has to be said that Hattie’s ideas were not well-received, nor indeed the implication that there is something wrong with our mind-sets…

Nonetheless, one moment stuck in my mind: in a clip of a TED lecture, Hattie asks something to the effect of “How can we ensure that people continue to value education as they grow up?” That is a question that I would imagine virtually all teachers could subscribe to – even if the answer might be “Not by using your methods!” I’m afraid I would probably concur. My ‘problem’ with the emphasis on knowing one’s impact is philosophical rather than technical: why does one need to? There is an assumption behind virtually all such thinking that it is a) possible and b) desirable to be able to identify closely what educational effect one has had. But why? Even Hattie himself admits that virtually everything teachers do has some positive effect.

Where did this zero-sum game evolve from? I’m afraid I simply cannot see the life-long, quixotic nature of personal cognitive-intellectual development as a high-stakes, all-or-nothing situation; to me this is a most bizarre and deeply-unrealistic reading of the phenomenon, that bears no resemblance whatsoever to my own experience. I’m afraid the only conclusion I can find is that the desperate ‘need to know’ really is more about validating the teaching profession (not to mention the careers of certain individuals within it) rather than anything fundamentally about what children get from the experience. Certainly exam results are important – but even then the correlation with life-experiences is not as direct as some would have us believe – and having good exam results most definitely is not the same as being a well-rounded, educated individual.

I have also been cautious about Carol Dweck’s work: to me, the claim that everything is simply about hard work and positive thinking flies in the face of the hard cognitive realities of life. But then I came across the following unattributed image, courtesy of Stephen Tierney’s blog:


In one simple page, some of Dweck’s ideas began to make rather more sense. I self-checked against those lists – and concluded that I can genuinely claim to do most of the things on the right-hand side. But something else immediately occurred to me: I was not aware that I was doing everything ‘right’. And maybe this is a very critical matter, which goes far beyond Dweck or Hattie or any of the research. I will return to this in a moment – but first, I need to pull in a couple of other threads.

Tierney asked the question: “What if Growth Mindset is just the latest Silver Bullet?” He also started speculating on the role of chance in life’s outcomes, and the degree of certainty which we can really exercise over our activities. These are real problems, which are currently being conveniently ignored by many pro-research advocates; is it a fixed mindset to accept that there are limits in the real world – or just a sign of realism and life-experience? And in this sense, is the constant quest for research-derived, closed-success-criteria silver bullets really getting us anywhere that a bit of intelligent introspection can’t?

Also this week, Rachel Jones reported here on a conference at the East London Science School  that started to address some of the issues central to my misgivings: for example, even supposing we could refine education down to the predictable process that some seem to want, what would it actually achieve? It would effectively reduce people – both teachers and pupils – to programmable robots, and thereby deny a significant part of what it is to be human. Whom would this actually benefit? I find it hard to accept that the answer is pupils and teachers. I wish I had been there.

The same session appears also to have considered the (false) analogy being made with evidence-based medicine, and it also questioned whether neuroscience really has much of help for teachers. Medicine is about curing bodily malfunctions; teaching is not. It is not a ‘cure’ – or even a treatment. It is simply helping people grow and develop as human beings, and those who see it in terms of remedial interventions are making questionable assumptions about what (if anything) needs ‘curing’, let alone our ability to do so. I prefer to see it as something developmental – a much more positive take. I suspect that much of the ‘fix’ they seem to think is needed is more about fixing schools’ exam results than anything really educational.

Formal education is simply the attempt by humans in intervene in a natural process – to structure and amplify it (admittedly with good cause) – but the more I think and read, the more I conclude that much of this increasingly formalised, strait-jacketed  approach is doing more harm than good. Real learning reacts badly to such direct prescriptions.

Finally, Tom Sherrington wrote a post here in which he questioned the usefulness of management as a form of micro-control. Here is at least one head teacher who has realised that people are essentially autonomous – and attempting to specify closely what they should do and how they should do it usually ends in tears.  What you have to do is create a culture where people ‘buy in’ because they can see that it both reflects their own values while leaving them enough space to be individuals. And that applies to pupils and teachers alike, even if pupils can benefit from more guidance.

As I drove home last Tuesday, the car-driving analogy I mentioned in my previous post plopped into my mind. It is, of course important that we have people who understand the mechanics of vehicles – but this kind of technical capability is not the best analogy for an educated mind. We need to define it in a way that comes closer to reflecting people’s real life-experiences. And that is where we come back to the value of introspection. Examining our own ‘driving’ experiences may be more useful than reading the vehicle-manual when it comes to deriving the general utility from the process.

To return to my small enlightenment with Dweck: the Growth Mindset suddenly made more sense – but as an ideal, not as an ‘intervention’.

The mistake is often not in the concept – but in the belief that such things can be specified and then deliberately imposed or commanded.

Directing someone that they somehow should do what Dweck (or any other theorist) says seems to be to invite self-defeat. You cannot make someone behave like that – any more than telling someone to be honest or reliable or happy will secure those ends. The person concerned has to be those things for and within themselves; the best an outsider can do is to encourage, perhaps by modelling, perhaps by creating a favourable climate. But if they are, then those qualities will become genuinely self-sustaining.

Using such things as though they are tools in a mechanic’s kit is more likely to destroy them. These are things that need to be in the ether, in the culture of an establishment, in the air that people breathe. The elements of the Growth Mindset cannot be commanded or imposed – they can only be cultivated – invisibly, indirectly, over time, and by collective subscription, not by the solo mandates of would-be superstar teacher-researchers. And this is why all of those well-meaning attempts to define ‘good education’ in terms of specific ‘interventions’ will fail: their aspirations are not (always) wrong – but their advocated solutions almost certainly are.

One of the comments added to Tierney’s post regrettably spoke about ‘using the Growth Mindset for seven years’ – as though it is a pot of face crème. Such things are not simply ‘products’ that you take down from the shelf and then apply to children and test for how much smoother it makes their brains – even though the same correspondent talked confidently about the proven benefits that their research had ‘demonstrated’. As if such things are this deterministic!

And as last week’s trip to Lille showed, real learning can embed itself in the most unlikely and unstructured of ways – nothing to do with what learning-lab results by interventionist teachers might suggest. If the technocratic approach is really so necessary, just why does learning happen in such un-technocratic situations, as it clearly did that day? It strikes me that rendering everything we do conscious and deliberate is leading us in completely the wrong direction. It risks destroying the very qualities in people that we all claim to seek.

There are three very elemental verb-defined conditions in human existence:

  • To do
  • To have
  • To be

Techo-education places all its attention on the first two – the first by intent and the second by implication. But the qualities such as those which really change lives are neither – and nor can they be future-proofed technically, in the way Hattie was pondering. The only way to do that is unconsciously by what we are, or become – not specifically what we do or have. The only way to embed educated values is through being educated – not owning it.

‘Being’ certainly involves more difficult science than doing or having – but that does not stop it being the place where the truly educated mind resides – in the realm of the unconsciously-enacted processes of someone’s very being, and finding the end of those rainbows will be as unhelpful as it is unlikely.

So what do we want to emphasise in schools? Doing or being? Extrinsic bolt-on techno-fixes, or fundamentally innate desirable qualities? Managerial diktats or growth cultures?

School: BE/DO/BE/DO?


3 thoughts on “Schoo-be-do-be-doo!!!

    • One would hope so, yes. In fact that was what I was trying, perhaps not very effectively to say. But I strongly get the feeling that is not how it largely seen – more as a form of incontrovertible ‘proof’ to win the battle for one side once and for all.

      For example Dweck’s ideas make sense as a statement of a cultural or intellectual ideal – but they seem to be getting used as a just another silver bullet. As with the debate on British values, you simply can’t teach such things explicitly.

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