Good Stress and Competition

A few days ago I wrote about the changing views in education relating to grit/ resilience/ perseverance and the recognition of mistakes made in the past when educators somehow believed that everything in education had to be about ‘unburdening’. Even as recently as the last few years, education authorities in India believed the answer to student stress, anxiety and even high rates of suicide was to make the examinations ‘low stakes’.

This is closely tied to Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth of Fixed Mindsets. The implications for the growing child, and in to later adult life are enormous in terms of their willingness to take on challenges, how well they deal with stress, the extent to which they perform up to their potential in situations that carry stress.

In this connection, I was fascinated to reread this article I first came across a couple of years ago from the New York Times;

New York Times – Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?
(Right click on the link above to open the article and read. You should be able to read without taking out a New York Times subscription)

The article is fascinating for what it reveals are clues as to the interrelationship between different factors that shape an individual’s ability to cope or even flourish under pressure and to respond effectively to stress. It highlights a genetic factor linked to the rate at which dopamine is cleared from the prefrontal cortex – which makes worriers of some and warriors of others.

Those who had the gene that only cleared the dopamine slowly were the worriers. What was particularly interesting was that they had higher IQ levels on average and that they could overcome the negative implications from the stress if they were trained and competent in what they were doing. This, to me, reinforces the need for a focus on the ‘how’ of studying and exam preparation as much on the ‘what’.

What is a little surprising is that this article came out in 2012, but i’m not aware of any further developments relating to these lines of research. What would be particularly valuable would be to treat this as a further element for differentiation of learning experiences for different children, based upon the cues and clues about which gene is at work for them – and therefore whether they need to be pressured, but with appropriate training or experience reduced pressure.

Finally, the article reinforced for me that when we applaud certain students for their academic achievements over others, sometimes we’re merely praising them for something that happened by chance and over which they had no overt or direct control. In the meantime, others are missing out on the motivation from praise and recognition even though they may be producing performance that challenges their genetic and other limitations.

Stress is a factor in most lives, especially for anyone who wants to achieve or aspire to rise above the commonplace. In such circumstances, young people need to acquire the tools and learn the strategies to not only cope with it, but to even, potentially relish it and flourish on it.

Tenby Educators – Academic Year End

Dear Tenby Educators
Following on from my end of term letter to you all, I promised you some more information here!
As educators who espouse the virtues of ‘lifelong learning’, it is vitally important that we too make lifelong learning a natural part of our day to day life. As educators, we are in a unique position to model the values of the school for our children.
I also happen to believe that this value of ‘lifelong learning’ is a win-win for all of us – growing feels positive, learning is enriching. I also believe that educators share knowledge, so for me that’s the biggest reason why this blog exists.
Vacation time is important for us to recharge our batteries, to reflect on our professional practice and to set goals for ourselves that motivate, inspire and excite. I believe humans are a bit like bicycles – we’re at our best when moving forward and standing still really does us no good at all.
I take this opportunity to share with you my personal selection of great reading, perfect for vacation.

1. Mindset, Carol Dweck
This is a book I’ve been very fond of recommending to both colleagues and parents, ever since I read it for the first time. I believe it deserves to be right up at the top of the reading list. Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford University. Her book explores, through research findings the impact of the Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset. The starting premise is a simple one, but as the book highlights the implications are massive. Educators and parents who are not aware of the findings in this book can be inadvertently reinforcing fixed mindset that can blight the lives of children as it infects their beliefs about academic abilities, propensity and skill in learning, creativity, sports and physical skills and abilities.
If you choose to read only one of the books on this list, this is the one I recommend.

2. Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar
A small slim book, but one of of my favourite books. The book is a bi-product of Tal’s course that he used to teach at Harvard – the most popular and most attended course there. Yes, indeed, the young under and post-grads of Harvard are smart enough to realise that they can have all the skills, intelligence and ability to get in to one of the world’s great academic institutes, they might be destined for great professional success – but, none of that guarantees them happiness in life. Tal is a part of the ‘Positive Psychology’ movement that is applying the rigour of academic research and thinking to what might previously have been strictly the domain of the self-help movement.
Very thought provoking and well worth exploring.

3. Flow or Finding Flow, both by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
I’ve read both of these books twice, and took something new away each time. Both are fascinating and well written books about how to ‘get in the groove’ so that tasks don’t feel like tasks and we get more done of what we need to do to achieve our goals and aspirations.
These have occasionally provoked some really interesting conversations with students about how to create meaning and purpose in mundane tasks. I talked about how when I had menial manual jobs as a youngster I would set myself targets related to how quickly I might complete a task, how accurately, estimating various aspects and then seeing how close I could get to those estimates. As I did this I found time on task flew by, I avoided boredom, got the job done and felt satisfaction afterwards.

4. Linchpin by Seth Godin
In a changing world, everyone needs to pay careful attention to how they ‘make meaning’ in the world, carve out a niche for themselves and do work that is engaging to them.
On my first reading of this book I found so much that was significant both for us as adults and for children in school, being prepared for life.
In short – it’s about how people make themselves indispensable (and that includes reading and learning!)

5. Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen
A Harvard Business School professor who has built his reputation on work about how technology does so much more than just lead to incremental changes in any industry, turned his attention to how technology can radically disrupt the field of education.

6. Schools That Learn by Peter Senge
This certainly wins the prize on this list for the biggest and heaviest of the books – maybe a bit too heavy for your hand luggage if travelling. Peter Senge is one of the world’s leading authorities on Systems Thinking. In this book he turned his attention to schools, education and parents. There is an accompanying website that provides more information:
http://www.schoolsthatlearn.com

7. Good to Great by Jim Collins
One of a series of books that looks at companies and organisations from various fields, exploring how they get beyond just merely being good companies or organisations, but become outstanding – and, maybe more important, sustain it.

8. The Leader Within by Stephen Covey
Most people know Covey for the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (and subsequently, the Eighth Habit). In this book he translates the habits in to a set of principles that can be used to create a school culture, following through in some detail some of the first schools in the USA that did so.

9. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson
The man best known for his groundbreaking TED talk that challenged some of what he perceived as wrong in education today. It’s the most watched TED talk ever and has been the inspiration for many educators to bring meaningful change to schools and their teaching.

10. Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, or
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
A somewhat controversial and provocative, New York based educator who has published many books setting out well-reasoned arguments that challenge some fashionable and accepted orthodoxies when it comes to teaching, schools and parenting. Reading Alfie Kohn’s work leads us to start to question things we may have taken for granted in many ways about children.

Bonuses:

11. Drive, Daniel Pink
As a long time reader of Pink’s books and his blog this book had been on my ‘to be read’ list for quite some time. It’s a fascinating exploration of human motivation. It’s relevant for us to understand our motivation as adults, but also to understand children’s motivation to learn.

12. Giving Voice to Values, Mary C Gentile
I originally received this book as a gift from a professional colleague. Ms Gentile is a professor of Babson College, USA and the book explores the issues of finding courage to lead through values and inspire others. It explores how values can be the driving force for an organisation and for leadership.

Growth Mindset – Revisited

When a new idea comes along, educators can be just as guilty as any group of people for seeing it simplistically and as a holy grail. In recent years there have been few concepts that have made more waves (or been more abused) than Dr Carol Dweck’s concept of Mindsets.

So, it’s great to see a video presentation like this where she sets the record straight on some of the key issues. She also does an excellent job of reminding all how potentially significant this research is when treated with proper sense and in the full understanding that anything concerned with human nature will be inherently complex.

Firstly, this was never about a new way of putting labels on people, children or teachers. Whenever this has been done, it’s caused more harm than good. Too many teachers have felt the need to be very phony and workplace pressure has, at times, led teachers to pretend they matched up to the growth mindset, instead of really reflecting and thinking about what they could change in their teaching practice and communication with children to reflect more of a growth mindset approach. The plain, simple, honest reality as Dr Dweck makes clear – is that we’re all a mixture of the two mindsets and each one can be prevalent in different circumstances. I loved the idea that she’d picked up from a colleague of naming our fixed mindset part, making it easier to acknowledge, to own up and be honest about it (and when it tends to emerge or get stronger).

Second big issue – Mindset was never just simply about a simple equation with effort, grit, rigour or whatever other label we choose. This was very clear to me from reading Dr Dweck’s book. However, she acknowledges that too many teachers have made a simplistic connection and simply latched on to the idea that if they praise effort then they are “doing mindset”.

I loved her emphasis in the video on teachers and adults ‘walking their talk’ on growth mindset, especially when communicating with children and how this needs to reflect that this is not some simple, short term project, but a lifelong journey that’s never complete. She goes out of her way to emphasise that it should not be seen as a simplistic tool for ‘fixing’ children, or for boosting their scores in standardised tests.

The final thing that stood out for me was her ideas about using mindset as a perspective to look at whole school culture. This was an aspect that had occurred to me and that I had discussed off and on with colleagues over the last couple of years. I think it is a topic worthy of action research and closer, deeper exploration for how it can be used to strengthen whole schools and make them more empathic, shared learning spaces in which children don’t fear failure or experimentation – in fact where all community members celebrate and support efforts to innovate and try different strategies towards effective learning.

Here’s an article that reflects on Dr Dweck’s presentation and key thoughts;

Education Week – Nurturing Growth Mindsets – Six Tips From Carol Dweck – Rules For Engagement

Amazon Dives in to Maths Education

It's intriguing to see one of the giants of online business diving in to the online Maths market

The Seattle Times - Amazon Launches Math Education Movement

The article suggests a particular aim to overcome fear of Maths which can pose such a very real challenge for some children. Interestingly, they have latched on to the concept of the Growth Mindset of Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University.

They are promising resources to support teachers, so this is going to be a very interesting initiative to follow.

Ability Grouping and the Fixed Mindset

Here is an excellent scholarly article, a bit longer than some, but well worth the 10 minutes or so to read. It explores the issues of ability grouping so prevalent in British schools and sometimes elsewhere, especially in relation to Maths.

Jo Boaler Professor of Maths Education Stanford University – Ability and Mathematics
(Click on the link above to open the file as a pdf)

The article is very interesting from a number of perspectives. Firstly, it draws on Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset to explain why ability grouping doesn’t work and in fact why it causes poorer performance for lower and average achieving students.

I also found it really interesting when talking about neuro-plasticity and the implications for learning Maths, especially when it comes to how mistakes are treated. I was reminded of a classmate when I was in school. He was a high achiever in Maths and it tended to come quite easily and naturally to him. However, he was so traumatised by the sight of a cross on the page in his exercise book if he got a question wrong that he would carefully remove the page from his book with a knife and reproduce all the sums on the page on a fresh page with the error corrected (and all on the reverse side of the page if necessary). Then, after some time, he even took to asking the teacher to re-mark the work so that it would be seen to have only ticks and no crosses or evidence of failure (in his mind). I’m sure that teacher loved him!

I believe the article has lessons for those teachers practicing differentiation, especially in the ways that it has been encouraged by KHDA in Dubai. Here, vast numbers of schools are not physically segregating the students, but the teachers are confidentially categorizing them in to one of four categories (High, mid, low and SEN). Whilst they stay physically in the same classroom they are given different work, especially in the form of different levels of complexity and challenge in worksheets. We shouldn’t be too surprised that the UK OfSTED (Office of Standards in Education – responsible for UK school inspections) has had a strong influence on KHDA. My suspicion is that most of the time, consciously or unconsciously, the children know what’s going on and understand it as a form of ability segregation – in other words, they’re buying in to a fixed mindset as a point of principle.

So, the three big takeaways for me – we need to create classroom setups where every student can strive to achieve at high levels. Secondly, we need to inculcate a mindset that emphasises rigour, effort, practice and thoughtful experimentation so as to develop the growth mindset in a bigger proportion of the pupils (and teachers). Finally, we need a cultural change with regard to how success and failure are defined and treated in the classroom, especially as regards the handling of mistakes.

Another Book List

More high quality reading – another great list of business books to enhance personal and professional growth.

Agenda – 30 Business Books Every Professional Should Read Before turning 30

I might be a little past that age right now, but I still think there’s a lot of quality in this list. Personally, I’ve read 13 out of the list so far and have a further 9 of them on my ‘To Read’ list.

Grit and Perseverance

Closely associated to ‘Growth Mindset’ on which i wrote a few days ago, recent months have seen increasing focus on grit and perseverance as qualities that reflect the positive inclination to stick at tasks and to see effort and ‘trying’ as the means to effective learning (as opposed to the fixed mindset belief that intelligence and ability to learn is just innate and shouldn’t require effort).

I was so pleased to find that Edutopia had done a great job of bringing together a wealth of resources on these subjects.

The first link contains a curated collection of articles, websites, videos and other resources related to grit and perseverance:;

Resilience and Grit – Edutopia Resource Rounup
(Click on the link above to access all the resources)

The next is an interesting article about the value and merit of the growth mindset as applied to teachers and professionals, as opposed to thinking of it purely from the perspective of students:

Edutopia – Developing a Growth Mindset for Teachers and Staff

Finally, an article about strengthening and building executive functions – the skills related to controlling one’s own mind, points of focus and ‘mind management’

Edutopia – Strategies for Strengthening Executive Functions

For anyone who wants to know and understand more about these areas, this is a great set of resources with which to begin.