Fall down seven, rise eight. Can schools grow grit?

This may get messy as thoughts run through my head. This post is about plans and reflections on twelve years of teaching and three years of senior leadership. This post is about the importance of grit and how schools could go about creating a culture of growing grit. It’s not about teaching grit. That we can’t do.  I’m sure to revisit and revise this post over time.
I should start with a few pointers, heavily influenced by Angela Duckworth’s ‘Grit,’ other readings and my own experience. Much may seem familiar to you because I am writing this to clear my own thoughts rather than influence the reader.  You may not agree about this stuff, I don’t care, but would welcome feedback as without it, thoughts can’t be shaped.
(If you want to skip this stuff it’s summarised in the video below)
  • I’m a failure. I am happy about this. This year I’ve been going for deputy head jobs and failed to get one. I see this as a learning opportunity. It’s a chance to gather feedback, evaluate principles and readjust the course. It’s a time to reconcile and reflect upon feedback ranging from ‘you’re ready for headship’ to ‘you don’t have enough experience’ through ‘don’t be in such a rush.’
  • As the attainment gap fails to close, it is clear that schools doing the same thing over and over need to rethink. Although I agree that high quality teaching and learning driven by highly qualified teachers is the key to learning, it isn’t enough for disadvantaged students. Teaching and learning is easy to write about, to tweak and to improve.  Changing the culture and beliefs of people is much harder.
  • As schools focus upon research they are, in my view, in danger of not putting enough passion and commitment in to those things that work but have no research evidence at all behind them. This is bad.
  • At the moment, I don’t believe that you can teach character or grit. However, from experience, it is possible to create a culture that allows grit to be grown. It is possible to allow time to reflect upon character traits and to model these.
  • People who leave to teaching lack grit. Schools need leaders and teachers within them who are gritty. Who won’t give up on providing high quality education to young people. Who are ready to create a culture of learning and excellence and fight the Government.  We also need gritty individuals outside of schools fighting the Government.
  • Much of the research fashionable at the moment around the psychology of success is incomplete and overlaps. Grit needs deliberate practice and can lead to flow.  Interleaving and regular testing can create the conditions to develop grit. Grit is only one character trait, and it is better to be curious with a strong moral compass than resilient and full of self control. Morality does indeed trump grit. 
  • Although what happens in classrooms is the most important thing in a school, schools that focus purely on classroom practice are failing certain groups of young people.  I’m committed to the comprehensive ideal and to improving the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This requires more than better teaching and learning, it needs a change in culture to understand that schools need to parent certain groups of students and to provide out-of-classroom experiences that build cv’s and character not just the academic curriculum.
  • Improving schools is not rocket science. It’s about getting all of the little, easy tasks right. Doing that is hard. School culture should be focused upon the mundanity of excellence: the realisation that success should be difficult. Students need to know this.  So should teachers.
  • Over the past three years, I’ve felt like an imposter: although my fundamental beliefs and attitudes haven’t changed, I’ve allowed myself to be drained rather than multiplied. That stops now. The best advice given to me ever has been ‘be honest.’  Honesty means that I don’t really care what others think outside of the teams that I work within. Honesty means being on the side of justice and not wriggling off that path.
  • Schools don’t make great learning. People do. 
Deep. Here is the late great Dicky Fox to sum it all up:
Here are some lyrics to reflect upon:
Staring at the bottom of your glass
Hoping one day you’ll make a dream last
But dreams come slow and they go so fast
Passenger.

This says to me: We mustn’t give up on our dreams just because the government are total muppets. Education is too important to give up.
I’m just another soul for sale…… oh, well
The page is out of print
we are not permanent
We’re temporary, temporary
Same old story
Foo Fighters

This says to me: It is difficult to fight the status quo. Teachers come and teachers go, no one is irreplaceable, however the culture and beliefs of an institution is bigger than people. It’s difficult to change but can be. For some groups of students, character trumps teaching and learning. For some groups of students, schools need to slip into parenting.
As mentioned above, I don’t believe that schools can teach character traits. I do believe, however, that we can create a culture that allows grit to grow.  I’ve used Duckworth’s ideas below, reflected on what they mean for me and suggested possible ways forward.  
I’ll be in danger of linking to the teacher5aday thing here, but grit needs conditions to grow, all of which can be provided. Reading Grit my spine was tingling and the goosebumps where multiplying. If nothing else, it reminds me why I teach and why I won’t do anything else. My grit relates to staying in schools.
#interest
#practice
#purpose
#hope
#interest
I’m attracted to working in education because I know that I can never, ever fully solve the problem or even fully understand it.  This interests me.  Furthermore, when I reflect back on my interest in teaching it stems from playing teacher. It also stems from having strong role models as a youngster. It stems from having people who parented me.

The idea that schools should act as parents is controversial and I understand that. However, we can’t fail to take in to account that some young people may not have parents. We must also take this in to account, and this really hit me hard and had me almost leaping and shouting like an American:

The latin root of the word parenting means ‘bringing forth.’

If our role as teachers isn’t to bring forth the best in young people, I don’t know what it is we are setting out to achieve.  In loco parentis is our legal duty but it should also be our default state of mind and the philosophy to which we pin our banner to.

Schools can encourage interest by investing in effective professional learning and allowing a culture that trusts teachers to develop high quality teaching and learning. From experience, most young people have an interest in something that schools can provide. That could be outdoor activities, painting, sport.

From speaking to every pupil premium student it is clear that they generally miss on on two things. The first is parents that are actively interested (or engaged) with their education. The second is that they lack any extra-curricular interest. If these students leave school with only academic qualifications we have failed them.  Indeed, college drop out rates suggest that we already are.

There is no strong research justification for this but I believe that extra-curricular activities are the key. Therefore my mission from no on is to meet the following aspiration:

‘All pupil premium students will take part in an extra-curricular activity for at least a year.’

We will build cultural capital and get them interested in succeeding. In my own life, school failed me. The Air Training Corps saved me.

Finally, consider this:

We weaken our subjects and reduce life chances if we allow ourselves to be constrained by the curriculum or examination specifications.  We should be ambitious and cover concepts and knowledge that are just beyond the prescribed curriculum so that we respond to the needs of young people rather than to accountability measures.

Questions to consider:

  • What are you doing to ignite fire in bellies? 
  • What purpose are you giving to young people to learn? 
  • How are you helping to bring forth the next generation? 
  • Does you deliver the curriculum or does it challenge and interest young people by reaching beyond the prescribed text? 

#practice

Much has been written about practice and quality practice.  This is the difference that bad practice can make:

I wonder, does providing more lessons in maths and english lead to more deliberate practice? Does that approach lead to better outcomes? I don’t think so. In order to create the conditions for deliberate practice, high quality teachers with a superb subject knowledge foundation and with unrelenting positivity and high standards can.  In other words, having more average lessons is not the way forward. Indeed, fewer hours with better teachers may be the way to deal with the recruitment crisis, at least in the short term.

Providing deliberate practice means not having any ‘filler’ lessons. It means getting feedback and having a specific goal. For example, last week my Year 9 geographers tackled a decision making essay. In the examination they’d have around 30 minutes to do so, I gave them 5 minutes to plan and then 20 minutes to write. This increases the expectation and provides deliberate practice: there was a clear aim. It’s similar to my long distance training: training should always be harder than the actual race.

Another approach is to adopt exam style questions right from the first lesson.  This doesn’t mea creating an exam factory as skilful teachers with an interest in young people will craft lessons that develop these skills subtly. For example, using Banned Words or refusing to accept or mark any work that doesn’t meet the high basic standard.  Teachers must have an intolerance of basic mistakes if we are to create the conditions to practice the harder skills.

Deliberate practice is not simply doing more and more of the same. It’s about raising the bar each time.  The most important area that deliberate practice can impact in schools is around examination technique.  I favour lots of testing. Tests that explore everything taught so far. Over and over. testing is good. Yes, we are there to ignite curiosity and passion but, ultimately, we need to enable young people to pass examinations with flair and confidence.

Deliberate practice is doing the thing that students struggle with the most as improvement and innovation come from tacking problems, not going over what we are already good at.  This deliberate practice needs to be owned by departments who use their expert subject knowledge to develop marginal gains. Of course, one eye needs to be on the bigger picture: as the curriculum landscape moves, we need to ensure that our gains are directed to the right content.

Deliberate practice is about routines so a behaviour for learning policy that sets out clear routines is important. Similarly, having lessons that have strong routines is important. One such routine should be tackling really difficult questions and working in silence.

Finally, teachers have to model deliberate practice by making mistakes and turning the projector off. We need to construct essays, answers and diagrams in front of students. We need to get things wrong and make adjustments. We need to model how we react to questions that we don’t know the answer to, not just provide the model answer.

Questions to consider:

  • Does your curriculum tolerate filler lessons?
  • How does study leave foster a culture of deliberate practice?
  • Does every learning activity have a clear aim?
  • Does your feedback (not marking) provide enough information to improve?
  • Does your feedback improve the small, easy to fix aspects of work? How are you developing those marginal gains?
  • How often do students fail in lessons?
#purpose

This aspect of grit refers to teachers. What is the point of school? Are we merely institutions churning out young people with (or without) qualifications?  I know that as teachers leave the profession there is a multitude of reasons linked to workload and conditions, however I would also suggest that some of those leaving (especially those in the early part of their career) lack purpose. For me, I want to improve the life chances of young people which means giving them quality qualifications but also furnishing them with experiences that help them compete with whatever they want to go in to.  The beautiful struggle for knowledge is something that I believe in, however secondary school is a stepping stone on the road to somewhere else.  After all, most teachers have successfully navigated secondary school and used it to progress on to university.

I’m also weary of extrinsic motivators that encourage teachers into the profession, such as golden handshakes and bursaries. These don’t work in my opinion and it would be far better for the Government to improve the basic pay and conditions of all teachers. The main way to do this is to provide more money for schools so that we can over staff.  This wouldn’t be inefficient, but a way to improve the quality of what we do.

Questions to consider:

  • What is the point of your school beyond academic success?
#hope
Hope isn’t the blind sort of hope. It links to the title of this post. Duckworth says that if she had a tatoo it would say ”fall seven, rise eight.” It’s a Japanese saying . It means that we will make tomorrow better and that we will achieve this despite all obstacles. In reality this means modelling grit and being determined to succeed.

It means that we are going to face setbacks, indeed failure is a vital part of the creative process. Leaders need to be relentlessly optimistic. A tough call is the current climate, but an achievable goal.

Questions to consider:

  • How can structured conversations with young people identify barriers to learning and help them create plans and actions to overcome them?
  • How does a culture of excellence ensure that all students feel optimistic that their work will be included?

Of course, we could say that all of this is impossible, Some may dismiss this as the rantings of a progressive educational bloke (if so,  then you’re way off). Some may say that it’s all about classroom teaching. I’d reply that it isn’t. If the gap is not closing wide enough it’s because we need to do something different

This is the best job in the world. Over the coming months I’ll report here our findings about grit and how we plan to do something about it. It isn’t going to all success, but it will be lots of learning. I’ll end with this quote:

‘You don’t need to be a parent to make a difference in someone’s life. If you just care about them and get to know what’s going on, you can make an impact. Try to understand what’s going on in their life and help them through that. That’s something I experienced first hand. It made the difference.’

Schools may not be able to teach character, but we certainly can create cultures that grow grit.

Image from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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