The problem with praise

Doubts about Dweck?

Back in 2010 I was introduced to Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and growth mindsets and the scales feel from my eyes. It was an epiphany. A veritable Damascene conversion. And like Saul before me, I quickly became an evangelist.

The basic theory is that folk with growth mindsets will make effort for its own sake and when they encounter setbacks will see them as opportunities for learning. Your fixed mindset is all about success. Failure at a task is seen as evidence of personal failure. Struggle is seen as evidence of lack of ability. This is particularly toxic as hard work is the only real route to mastery, and if hard work is seen as something only losers have to dirty theirs hands with, well, why would you bother?

All this seemed very reasonable and I could see the benefits to teaching students about these mindsets and how to move from fixed to growth. One of the key strategies for ecouraging this move is to praise effort rather than ability. Dweck says, “when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted challenging new tasks they could learn from. ” This is pretty clear, isn’t it? She goes on to say that in contrast to ability praised students who gave up at tasks as they got difficult,  ‘The effort-praised students still loved the problems, and many of them said that the hard problems were the most fun.”

There it is in black and white: if you praise students’ effort it will increase their likelihood of persevering at challenging tasks.

So, like a goodun’ that’s what I’ve been training myself to do. I try to make sure my praise of students is always specific to the task they are engaged in and is focused on bigging them up for sticking with the hard stuff and mastering difficult concepts. And it seemed to be working (although it’s impossible to say for sure as having a control group seemed unethical!) Students seem to have genuinely moved from having a fixed view of their ability to accepting failure and difficulty as part of the normal cycle of learning. I have posters all round my room exhorting them to, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Imagine my surprise when I read this yesterday:

There is now increasing evidence for [the] dilution effect of praise on learning. Kessels, Warnet, Holle & Hannover (2008) provided students with feedback with and without praise; praise led to lower engagement and effort, Kamins and Dweck (1999) compared the effects of praising a person as a whole (for example, “You’re a clever girl”) with the effect of prasing a person’s efforts (“You’re excellent in putting in the effort”). Both led to zero or negative effects on achievement. The effects of praise are particularly not when students succeed, but when they begin to fail or not to understand the lesson. Hyland and Hyland (2006) noted that almost half of teachers’ feedback was praise, and that premature and gratuitous praise confused students and discouraged revisions. Perhaps the most deleterious  effect of praise is that it supports learned helplessness: students come to depend on the presence of praise to be involved in their schoolwork. At best, praising effort has a nuetral or no efffect when students are successful, but is likely to be negative when students are not successful, because this leads to a more ‘helpless or hopeless’ reaction (Skipper & Douglas, 2011).

John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers p 121

Well. What are we to make of that?

Is it just me or do Dweck’s earlier research findings directly contradict the claims made in her 2006 book Mindset, the New Psychology of Success? It certainly looks that way, doesn’t it?

If anyone can cast an light on this troubling piece of information, I’d be glad to hear it.

Before anyone tells me otherwise, Hattie does allow that praise is important in making students feel like they ‘belong’ and for there to be a high level of trust between teachers and students. His point is that, “for feedback to be effective in the act of learning, praise dissipates the message.”

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Easy vs Hard

We choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard. – JFK

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle

A teachers’ job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult. If you are not challenged, you do not make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless. – John Hattie – Visible Learning

Our attitude to effort is embedded in our language: easy does it, hard luck, easy on the eye, don’t take it so hard. Why is it that we have come to view things that are ‘hard’ as bad?

I spoke to my new Year 10 class today about their upcoming Controlled Assessment and encountered some students complaining that it sounded ‘too hard’. I pounced. ‘So,’ said I, ‘Would you prefer to do something easier?’

‘Yes!’ came a ragged, but hopeful chorus. I then proceeded to give them a series of insultingly simple wordsearches to do. ‘Happy now?’

‘No sir, it’s too easy,’ they chanted in wide eyed bewilderment. ‘We’re not learning anything!’

‘Aha. So what do you want? To learn, or to do something easy?’

That stumped ’em. I asked them what grade they wanted to achieve for their assessment. Most of them dutifully said that wanted to get their target grade. When challenged that perhaps they weren’t aiming high enough some of them said, somewhat sheepishly, that they wanted As or A*s. Other’s scoffed. ‘How’s Luke ever going to get an A*?’ one youngster called derisively.

‘By working hard,’ I told them.

You see, it’s fairly easy to settle for a low grade. You don’t have work very hard to coast. But getting an A*? That’d require blood, sweat and tears. It’d be hard bloody graft. It’d be uncomfortable. It would be a damn sight easier not to try!

In a Guardian interview with Sir Michael Wilshaw, Gove’s hero and head of the spectacularly successful Mossbourne Academy, the interviewer, Susanna Rustin says of Wilshaw’s message of exacting standards and high expectations,

I know what he means about standards, and about promoting a culture of effort and hard work. I went to a London comprehensive, and I gave up science subjects at 16 largely because humanities came more easily to me. I’d like to have a science A-level, or speak German, or have learned the trombone. Then again, I had fun in the sixth form, spending time with my friends.

What does this tell us? Should we value having fun in the sixth form over speaking German? Ideologically, I feel myself opposed to Wilshaw’s brand of ‘old fashioned discipline’ and ‘non-negotiable respect for those in charge’. But perhaps the complacency I see in my Year 10 students is no different to schools taking the ‘easy’ route to improved performance i.e. BTECs, Diplomas and other courses which produce high gains in terms of league table points and little in terms of improved outcomes for students. Is it easier to do well in BTEC sport than GCSE French? Perhaps this is something we’re all guilty of? Perhaps we should be grateful for Gove and his E-bacc?

Or maybe I’m being cynical? John Fowles said in The Magus, “all cynicism masks a failure to cope– an impotence, in short; and that to despise all effort is the greatest effort of all.” Dr Carol Dweck points out in Mindset that it is a fairly standard fixed mindset response to see effort as evidence of failure. I see this attitude all around: success should be easy. Only plodders and thickos have to try. This is not only pernicious, it’s untrue. I think this holds true for contemporary views on relationships: if they’re not easy, they’re bad. Hence divorce. The alternative is hard work and no wants to do that! Here’s Michael Jordan on the subject:

Back in the classroom, I told my Year 10s that anyone can be better than they are currently; anyone can improve. Sadly though, it requires effort. It’s not easy.

When I was at school I was pretty good at English and I found it easy. I coasted and got a B. Now though I’m amazing at English; I can turn out A* star essays effortlessly. Because I’ve working at it day in day out for 12 years, I have become an English machine. I read over the summer that if you wouldn’t be prepared to do your job for free you should quit. I told my class that I would do my job for free (if my boss is reading this, please take with a pinch of salt!) and that I taught because I loved it. And teaching isn’t easy! I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone who doesn’t love it would put themselves through it. If I didn’t love it, it’d be too hard.

This sort of gushing makes teenagers uneasy. Is he for real? Should we mock him, or love him for it? Whatever they might say, they love hearing this kind of thing. Who wouldn’t? It makes them feel special. I understand that I’m not going to get them all to love English overnight. Doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying though. It would certainly be ‘easier’ to let them coast and not bother too much about their motivation. Easy, as I explained to my eager young charges, is not good enough.

At the end of the lesson I asked them who wants to do something easy next week? And who wants to do something hard? I was gratified to see that many of them seemed to have shifted into the hard work camp. Does this mean my students’ grades will rocket? Probably not. Not straight away, anyway.

I have told them all them my mission is to get them all to have growth mindsets and to be able to motivate themselves to work hard. Wish me luck.

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Sir, I’m stuck!

Do It Yourself

There is a certain amount of irony in the title of today’s post in that I haven’t written it myself. Instead it comes from the typing fingers of the marvellous Kenny Pieper. His excellent blog Just Trying to be Better than Yesterday is well worth a read.

There are two reasons for this:

1. I’m knackered after the first day back at school – even though it was only an INSET day.

2. Kenny has already written exactly what I would have wanted to write.

So without further ado:

Over the summer holidays I caught up with a few Ted talks, especially the ones which had such an effect on me when I watched them over the last couple of years. One of my new resolutions has been to try and read more educational articles and to watch TED talks whenever possible and I felt the same awe watching Ken Robinson and the like as I did first time round. However it is Sugata Mitra’s ‘The child-driven education’ which continues to knock my socks off. His witty and eloquent discussion on the way kids learn without teachers should be essential viewing for every single teacher starting a new year.

After two weeks of this new term, it came back to me. It came back to me sitting with a glass of wine on a Friday night when I was exhausted. Two weeks in and I was absolutely drained, completely empty and very quickly eyeing a second big glass. I fired up the old Ipad and watched it again. It came at a good time. We teachers spend the summer thinking of new things to do in our classrooms. We listen to others, read about great strategies, pick up tips from Twitter and our favourite Blogs. But when we start back again and we’re thrown head first into the hugely stressful, never stop whirlwind of a day in our schools, it is so easy to revert to type and creak out the lessons that we have used before. It seemed that some of my good intentions were already being consigned to next year. Sugata Mitra cured me of that.

By Monday I’d decided to test out his theories for myself. My S2 English class (13 years old) were proving to be a tough nut to crack. We set in S2 – an argument for another day – and I have set nine out of twelve. They seem nice kids but they are very aware that they are in class nine out of twelve. Our system has placed a value on their ability and they know it. A very passive ‘learned helplessness’ seemed to have overcome them. I had intended to work on Mindsets with them, hoping to convince them that, yes, they can get better at English. Sugata Mitra’s talk gave me an idea.

There was nothing especially scientific about what I did. I wrote four questions on the board and gave each group of four one netbook.

1. What are Mindsets and does everyone have one?

2. What different Mindsets are there and what are the main differences?

3. In what ways can you change your Mindset?

4. How might knowing about Mindsets help you in school?

I sat down. I asked them to stand up and put their chairs to the side of the class becaue I wanted a bit of movement and a bit of active learning. The only ‘rule’ I imposed was that every member of the group of four had to be able to answer the four questions convincingly i.e. know what the words meant without reading notes.

They did it, of course. It took a wee bit of reassurance at times, along with a few ‘you have the whole world at your fingertips, why ask me?’ responses along the way. But with what Sugata Mitra calls a ‘granny’ approach to praising and prompting, every student could respond to a difficult concept they’d never heard of fifty minutes before.

And, do you know what, this simple short lesson might even be the life saver I’ve been looking for. I cannot continue to be so utterly exhausted on a Friday night. If this is ‘flipping the classroom’ then I’m in. This may seem like simple thing to learn, perhaps even obvious, but at a time when our lives as teachers are so completely taken over, I must remember that if I’m working harder than my students while they are in the classroom then something’s wrong. I did nothing original. The point was to reclaim the creative ideas I’d planned over the summer and drag myself away from ‘safety’. As teachers everywhere go back to school today – three weeks after me – you should try to retain that creativity and those great ideas. You will soon become so submerged that it is easy to lose that energy. Watching this TED talk could help you.

Thank you, Sugata Mitra. Thank you.

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How to fix your attitude

Can you change how intelligent you are? Can you alter your personality? Can a student predicted a D grade get an A*? Are there things it is simply impossible for us to do?

I’ve always fancied the idea of being able to play the guitar but have made excuses like, I haven’t the patience to learn. The truth is, I’m not prepared to put in the effort required. I took lessons when I was about 10 years old and gave up after a few weeks. But why? Cos, my stupid teacher wanted me to learn stupid chords and I just wanted to play Beatles tracks. The fact that I couldn’t made me feel like a failure. When I strummed away I sounded awful. So I stopped. It was easier to give up than it was to go though the pain of wanting, but not being able to play. If I couldn’t be perfect I wouldn’t try.

I had similar issues with maths. Maths lessons made me feel really stupid. Feeling stupid made me deeply uncomfortable. So I decided maths was stupid and stopped trying. Predictably, I left school with a D grade. But who cares, maths is stupid, right? When I decided to train to become a teacher, that D grade hung, albatross-like, around my neck. Going to night school and retaking the old intermediate tier GCSE maths is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I hated it. Probability made me feel like crying with frustration and I seriously considered paying someone to sit the exam for me. In the weeks before the exam I slogged through a past paper every day. On the day of the exam I remember thinking that I had got every single question right. I got a B grade. A few weeks later I had forgotten everything I’d learnt because maths is stupid.

When it comes to guitar playing and mathematics, I have what Dr Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, the new psychology of success, calls a ‘fixed mindset’. This means that I struggle with failure. Failing is evidence that I am failure; success is about being successful. Often people with fixed mindsets want to achieve without making effort; if something’s hard that means they’re not good enough. Success should be effortless. If they fail, there must be an excuse; it must be someone else’s fault.

In other areas, I have a ‘growth mindset’. When I started out as a teacher I was rubbish. I cringe now to think how woeful I was and I very nearly quit the profession after my NQT year. I’m not entirely sure what changed, but somewhere along the line I decided I quite enjoyed teaching. At about the same time I also decided I wanted to be a better teacher. In fact I wanted to be outstanding. I was prepared to take risks and get things wrong. For some reason failing felt like progress.

The growth mindset enjoys learning and making effort for their own sakes. They are intrinsically motivated to, in the words of Samuel Beckett, “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” I love experimenting, tinkering and trying out new ideas in the classroom. I don’t do it because someone is watching; I don’t even do it for any high-minded principles. I do it because it’s fun.

I first encountered Dweck’s work last year due to the work of North Somerset’s AST team and it had an immediate impact on me. We’ve all encountered students who fit into these two categories and possibly we have a ‘fixed’ view of them. The good news is that we can all cultivate a growth mindset. Students (and teachers) can be taught to see failure as progress and to be intrinsically motivated to learn. Dweck asserts that anyone can succeed. Instead of asking ‘how can I teach these kids?’ instead ask, ‘How can I teach them?’ She cites tons of evidence that anyone, with the right attitude can succeed.

So maybe we should approach our classes with a 100% attitude. 100% of students can make three (and perhaps four) levels of progress. Even those kids.

OK, so how do we do it? As teachers, there’s a number of things we have to do:

  • Teach students about mindsets theory and encourage them to adopt a growth mindset.
  • Praise effort, not ability. When we say, “You’re really clever” we are fixing their view of how intelligent they are. Saying, “You really worked hard” reinforces the fact that the effort we make is the biggest factor in our likely success. It also shows that you value the process of learning over the end product.
  • Use formative assessment to help students understand exactly what they need to do to be successful. Avoid making summative judgments wherever possible – these just fix mindsets and make students either give up because they’re crap, or coast because they’re clever.
  • Have very high standards: don’t accept minimal effort and insist that students produce work that they can take pride in. Don’t accept excuses and don’t make any excuses for them.
  • Don’t offer extrinsic rewards – these prevent students from valuing the learning and remove intrinsic motivatin – there’s a great post on the Creative Education blog here.
  • Build a nurturing environment where it is safe to make mistakes and above all, don’t give up on the difficult ones; that’s what they’re expecting so prove them wrong. Know that they can achieve.
Here’s a link to a scheme of learning called the Learning Loop which tries to include some of these ideas.

So, this is my manifesto for being a brilliant teacher. What else would you add?

The Learning Loop

For last few years we (the English faculty) have been teaching our GCSE course over 3 years. I made the decision this time last year to begin our three year programme of study with a scheme of learning which would encapsulate everything I believe education should be about. I had recently had some training on the impact of intrinsic motivation & growth mindsets and wanted to see if this was something we could foster in our learners. The other rationale (or perhaps, excuse is a better word) was to introduce the skills needed to successfully navigate the new GCSE course. We wanted students be be as prepared for the rigours of Controlled Assessment as possible and that would require independence, resilience, problem solving, creativity etc.

Sound ambitious? Well, if you aim at the bull’s eye you’ll probably hit the board!

Of course, none of this would be at all possible without being surrounded by a team of energetic, passionate educators who were prepared to take the leap of faith all this required. I sat down with our AST to plan it all out and the rag bad of stuff we wanted to cover included: Critical Skills (of course!), the PLTS, Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets, the valuing of process as well as product and the concept of “messy” learning. The other decision I made was that this shouldn’t be subject specific and was not meant to be “Englishy”. This felt like a bit of risk – what would happen if we spent 6 weeks not teaching punctuation and sentence structure? Would their literacy skills survive? After some debate, I pressed ahead with the concession that some members of the team could adapt the scheme to include some English if they felt it appropriate and necessary. The focus though had to be on HOW students were learning and not WHAT they were learning. This valuing of the process of learning is, I think, especially important in out product (exams) obsessed education system.

We began by asking students to self assess where they were with the PLTS using this simplified form:

PLTS self assessment tool

PLTS self assessment tool

We wanted to make sure that students knew the strategies/techniques we were using with them and so it was important to teach them explicitly. With this in mind, we next taught them about fixed and growth mindsets and explained about the need to praise effort not ability and the importance of focussing on the process not the product to encourage intrinsic motivation. We gave them a test which revealed their views on whether people’s intelligence and personality could change – this let us – and them – know what sort of mindset they were starting out with.

Another important strand was the idea of observing learning in order to have ‘quality learning conversations’. To make sure this could happen, it was crucial to be able to take a step back from students’ learning and get them to reflect on our observations – great practice is to use Post-its to note down  observations for later discussions and digital cameras to take quick snaps – we need to give students the freedom to fail.

As always, I wanted students to have the opportunity to be learning spies which gives them the responsibility for observing learning and frees you up to reflect on what’s going on in the classroom and to be able to offer quality feedback as and when you spot an opportunity. I also wanted to explicitly teach dispositions – whilst we were focussing on skills, we also needed to be teaching students about the dispositions needed to exemplify a skill. E.g. teamwork is a skill but what do you have to be like to be good a team worker?

Over the term, students were given a series of Apprentice style challenges, using the Critical Skills format, with a team ‘winning’ each week’s challenge. To introduce this way of working, we started by giving students a Murder Mystery challenge. The idea here was to try to make students completely responsible for their learning and to ensure that they all participated effectively. To do this, we needed to take a number of risks.

Firstly, we decided to give students minimal information – the only ‘rules’ they were given were that they couldn’t leave the room and that they couldn’t do anything dangerous. Everything else was up to them. It was vital that teachers did not get bogged down by answering questions – they needed to be free to observe what was happening. In order to cope with the inevitable needy students who absolutely had to ask a question, we gave each student a question token and told them that was the only question they could ask for the next 3 lessons. Interestingly, there was was brisk business which some students ‘buying’ extra questions from less dependent classmates. One useful strategy to get students to think for themselves was to show them the following YouTube clip:

Secondly, we needed to give them the option to fail. Deliberately, there was no “answer” to the mystery – it was designed to be an impossible task. This frustrated the hell out of some students (and some teachers) but the focus was to reflect on the fact that this was all about valuing the process of working together.


One tweak on the normal Critical Skills roles was that students were made Detectives, Forensic Investigators, Medical Examiners and Prosecutors. However, they were given complete freedom as to who they would work with. Some realised quite quickly that the different roles had access to different information and that it would make sense to pool resources and become a team. This was all part of the process – early on, many students grouped themselves badly and then rearrange themselves as the challenge progressed. One important rule here was that no one should be excluded. I explained this and then left the room for a minute – if anyone was unhappy when I returned, I made them do it again.

20 minutes into the murder mystery challenge

20 minutes into the murder mystery challenge

As students were trying to make sense of the (misleading) information they’d been given, teachers had the opportunity to take start taking notes on what they saw and heard as well as taking photos. Observations had to be factual e.g. I heard Jason say “…”, or, I saw you looking under the desk. We really tried not to interpret our observations (this is very difficult) and get students to reflect on them later in the lesson. Towards the end of the first lesson, students were asked to reflect on the skills they’d used and given the choice of writing a reflection log or recording their thoughts on a dictaphone.


After discovering that there wasn’t a right answer, learners were asked to consider why we did it – what was the point? We got them to revisit their PLTS self assessment to see if they had changed their minds about where they were with any of the skills areas, but more importantly, I wanted to how they felt about the process. Needless to say, the fixed mindsets ranged from frustrated to furious – what is the point of doing a task if there is no ‘right’ answer? The growth mindsets, however, quickly realised that they had actually learnt a lot and were able to see how the experience could be applied in the future.


Over the course of the next 3 weeks, students were given a series of Apprentice style challenges to complete. The purpose was to get them used to working together in Critical Skills groups and to give them repeated opportunities to reflect on how their skills and dispositions were developing. This is why we eventually called the scheme The Learning Loop. Each week followed the same format – 2 lessons to ‘do the work’, 1 lesson to pitch and 1 lesson to reflect on the process. Each challenge had a winning group and the Reflection Point lesson allowed students to consider how it felt to be either a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’ and how this related to their mindsets. These ‘loops’ of learning allowed us to reinforce our formative assessment as the students would essentially repeat a similar task the following week with clear and focussed targets on how they could improve.

We experimented with several different ways of forming teams including 100% student choice, 100% teacher choice and combinations of the two. Students were given the Belbin test so that they had access to information about themselves and each other which would enable them to organise themselves into teams with a mix of roles. According to the team roles theory of Dr. Meredith Belbin, there are nine different team roles. These roles can be functional, organisational, or personal. Functional teams should consist of different team roles, depending on the specific goals the team wants to achieve. A team that does not have the ideal composition may run into problems. For example, a team consisting of only creative individuals will generate many ideas, but none of them will be implemented. A team consisting of only specialists may lose sight of the big picture. A team will perform better if it is aware of the different roles required to reach a specific goal and is able to include those roles within the team.

One important consideration was who got to be Team leaders. These individuals would be given the responsibility of allocating roles & responsibilities amongst their team and were vital for the success of the team they worked with. If we allowed the most popular students to be ‘elected’ what would happen? In the end I used the Belbin test results to determine who would make effective team leaders, but should I have allowed the students more freedom?

This information fed neatly into the standard Critical Skills roles: teams could include a resources manager, a time keeper, an ideas generator, a quality checker etc. The important thing was that each member of the team had to have a specific area of responsibility so that their performance could be assessed. There were clear and differentiated success criteria for each of the challenges and the winning team was the one who did the best job of meeting these criteria. But who would judge this?

Before the first lesson of each challenge, learning spies were selected. Their role was to act like Nick and Margaret in The Apprentice. They were given their own Learning Spies’ Challenge sheet as well as an Observing Learning pro forma to record their observations. They were be attached to a particular teams for the duration of a lesson but were actually their own team. After they had fed back their observations to the teams they had been working with, they had to meet to discuss the progress of the rest of the class and how they felt about their task. Almost universally the spies loved their job although some did express frustration at not being part of the challenges.

A learning spy in action

A learning spy in action

At the end of the six week term, the plan was for students to feed back to an invited audience on what and how they had learnt. What they had to say was really articulate and crucially, some of the students we’d identified as ‘fixed’ early on had started to show signs of becoming more ‘growth’. Even though the end of unit ‘show’ ended up being cancelled at the last minute, the skills and dispositions for effective collaborative work were firmly in place and students’ resilience and independence were way more developed compared to the beginning of the year. This coming year the show will happen now that I have got my head around the vagueries of hall booking and caretaker liaison!

The question I’ve been asked more than any other is, yes, all very well, but what’s the impact?

Well, Controlled Assessment results in Year 9 show that most students are meeting or exceeding target grades and this is of course a good thing. But for me it is far more important that these students have been given a toolkit which they can apply to all sorts of different situations. I’m constantly being told how so-and-so mentioned in the DT/PE/Maths lesson, “Oh yeah, this is like that stuff we did in English.” and then applying their skills in new and interesting ways. Ideally this will have implications beyond school and I like to think that in some small way we might have made a difference to their life chances. Who knows? I do know, however, that whether they loved it or found it intensely uncomfortable, they all still remember the experience and often refer to ‘mindsets’ or ‘PLTS’ in lessons.

Anyway, we’ve all learned from our mistakes and grown as a result. And we’re doing it again in September 2011.