This Will Improve Academic Performance – But Our Schools Are Getting It Wrong.

An abundance of research has consistently demonstrated that a growth mindset – the belief that intelligence, ability and performance can all be improved with effort – will improve academic performance. The research is compelling.

Increasingly however, our schools are streaming students based on academic ability, a practiced steeped in the idea that ability and intelligence are fixed, and one that has been proven to undermine academic achievement.

Research has clearly demonstrated the plasticity of the brain and the capacity of students to become smarter through hard word and challenge.

The communication to students that learning comes with effort and is a process that takes time is critical in facilitating a growth mindset. Just as important is the message that neither ability nor intelligence are fixed and can be altered with time and effort.

The most successful countries in the world have growth mindset beliefs at the core of their schooling, communicating to students that learning takes time, and that effort and application will eventually improve academic performance.

The ranking of education systems is based upon international tests and education data, including the OECD’s Pisa tests and two major studies, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and Progess in International Reading Literacy Study.

In 2014 the top five education systems were (1) South Korea; (2) Japan; (3) Singapore; (4) Hong Kong; and (5) Finland. The UK was 6th, Canada 7th, with the US, Australia and New Zealand coming in at 14th, 15th and 16th respectively out of the 40 ranked.

Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Advisor of Pearson who publish The Learning Curve (an internationally respected quantitative and qualitative analysis of educational systems), writes,

‘… some conclusions from The Learning Curve can clearly be reached. One is the continuing rise of a number of Pacific Asian countries, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, which combine effective education systems with a culture that prizes effort above inherited ‘smartness.’ (The Learning Curve, 2014 Report)

Many Asian countries base their education on the idea that learning and achievement are determined by effort, as opposed to the idea that ability and intelligence are fixed. In line with this, the process of streaming students according to their academic ability is considered undesirable, even unacceptable. In Japan, the practice of streaming is seen as promoting inequality, and raises concerns that grouping students according to ability undermines children’s self-image, socialisation and academic performance.

However, schools in other countries that score lower on international tests, such as the US and Australia, base their schooling practices around ideas that ability is fixed. Despite extensive research demonstrating the plasticity of the brain, many countries persist with streaming students based on ability and achievement, communicating to students the message that their ability is fixed. The resulting fixed mindset beliefs have been consistently shown to undermine opportunities and performance.

Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University, writes, ‘In one primary school I attended in England that placed students into different groups for mathematics in Year 1, one of the students simply told me that ‘all the clever students had gone into a different class now’.

Students are very much aware of academic streaming practices at whatever age they are and the message they draw is clear – some students are clever and some are not.

Which Students Are Most At Risk?

Dweck has found that the students who are most at risk of being damaged by fixed ability beliefs are high-achieving girls.

From an early age, these students have generally been praised for their work, with attention drawn to how clever or smart they are – messages that promote a fixed mindset. The problem is that as soon as these students fail at something, the conclusion they are at risk of reaching is that they are not so smart after all.

High achieving girls with the mindset that people are either smart or not, when placed in a high academic stream group or an extension group, often suffer from the idea that they need to maintain the image of being clever. This mindset can undermine their ability to cope with failure and make them challenge aversive.

There are a number of studies which have shown that when schools move away from academic streaming to mixed or heterogeneous grouping, achievement and participation improves significantly.

A study by the University of Oxford of 14,000 children in England from years 4 through to 6 compared those taught in groups according to academic ability, with those grouped heterogeneously over the period of a year. They found that academic grouping undermined the progress of students, and that those taught in the mixed group performed significantly better on tests of mathematical reasoning.

According to Boaler the abundance of evidence internationally indicates clearly that academic streaming impedes the achievement of students in low and middle groups and does not improve the achievement of students in the higher groups.

A growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, has repeatedly been demonstrated to enhance academic performance. Currently, the subtle messages that are descending from an education system which streams according to academic ability at the time of testing, serve to reinforce a fixed idea of intelligence and ability. The undeniable effect of this is to undermine academic learning, effort and performance.

In order to ensure our children and adolescents are provided with every opportunity possible to reach their fullest potential, the message that needs to be delivered with unwavering confidence is that achievement and intelligence depend on effort, and that students have the capacity to influence the outcome and improve academic performance.  

For information on how to develop and nurture a growth mindset in children and adolescents, see here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This