A ‘growth mindset’ and a ‘focus on learning’ is changing the relationship between learning in schools and performance in schools. 

Chris Watkins states that present views of learning are “teaching is telling, learning is listening, knowledge is subject matter taught by teachers and found in books.”

Is there too much focus on performance? Is the constant monitoring of results and of teachers causing some of our finest and brightest to leave the profession?

To answer these questions and more, I talked with Raymond Finch, a Head Teacher aspiring to translate learning centred ideas into reality. Ray is Headteacher at the International School of Moscow (Rosinka Campus), originally from London and currently studying for his MBA in Educational Leadership at The Institute of Education, University of London. He recently completed an assignment on ‘Leading the Learning: how can educational leaders ensure that their schools maintain an effective balance between a focus on learning and a focus on performance?’ After reading the assignment, I wanted to interview him for this blog, see the full transcription of interview below:

Me: You state your reason for writing the assignment on ‘Leading the Learning’ as a way for you to analyse the tension between learning and performance, can you explain why there is a tension in the first place?

Ray: The tension I think arises from the politically charged nature of education. These people have a certain mandate for four or five years or however long their coalition manages to glue itself together for. And they are required to show they have affected positive change during that period, I think there’d be a lot more consensus on this kind of an issue if governments were judged over a longer period, lets say. Also its not just to do with governments your coming against, its individuals! If you watched something like ‘The Thick of it’ you see how politics is so much driven by people covering their backs all the time rather than actually doing anything constructive.  So I think the tension partly comes from that, because if I come in as the new Education Secretary, I need to show a rise in English A-Level results within two years, otherwise someone’s going to say I’m not doing a good job. As Chris Watkins’ canon of work tells us, this pressure then disseminates down and through the education system and that produces distortions because people want to leverage up that ‘number’ without thinking about whether it’s really serving learning, serving society’s needs, serving the common good; in a longer term and global sense and education is all about those things and not about that A-Level which should be a by-product of education, not the end in itself.

Me: Okay, so there seems to be an excess focus on performance which, inturn appears to be producing students with ‘little desire to improve their understanding of a topic’ for them the priority is to ‘prove’ rather than to ‘improve’, is there a risk that students won’t want to engage and potentially leave formal education without qualifications?

Ray: Yes there is a risk of that, but even in the current climate it’s important to remember that a lot of good things still happen in schools. During my studies, I researched that twenty five percent of children leave schools with no qualifications, in the UK and in spite of all the improvements that have taken place over the last thirty years, the National Curriculum, the strategies, the improvements in SATs results and a creeping up of GCSE results, that, has remained impregnable.  I think this has proven an interesting statistic, because why do children still leave schools with no qualifications? And that’s part of the picture, they are obviously failing to engage with a certain… well a big chunk of society and those kids are going into circulation.  Its has a lot to do with consumption and capitalism and how, as I mention in the piece of writing; measurable factors and measurable indicators of output are venerated in our society and things which are more unquantifiable, more difficult to capture, are not afforded a similar status. But actually in the longer term, those things you measure in fifty years, will be infinitely higher and more productive and in a better place if these kind of softer, more unquantifiable elements are prioritised equally as outcomes alongside the hard examination data now.

Me: It seems the educational system is leaning towards an excess focus on performance, which inturn appears to be detrimental to the learning process; this is certainly the case for some students. But how is it detrimental to the behaviour of teachers and the resulting curriculum?  Can you provide an example?

Ray: Ok, yeah… for teachers, it makes them feel as if there performance is distilled down to a set of data, there’s nothing wrong with data but if you only measure a certain set of quantitative data, which are exam results. As a teacher you should be judged on the care you invest in planning and delivering lessons, your awareness of learning styles and an ability to adapt learning to individual needs in the context of a group situation, the engagement and enthusiasm of your students, the quality of your feedback to pupils and how this informs the next steps in their learning, your pastoral care of your students… I could continue – there are a broad range of indicators of the job you’re doing. All of those things should form a holistic picture of your performance, but teachers focus on that one output (exams) and the other things go to the wayside; if I was an early career teacher, entering the profession, it would distort my development as a professional because I would be really too focused on that one indicator at the expense of the others.  When really what I should be thinking is that if I do these set of very learning orientated things, those results will take care of themselves.  But actually I’m focusing on the result and then the other things I should be doing become residual, which is weird, it’s a distortion.

Me: How have you tried to take away the tension and make students’ progress and performance complementary?

Ray: I think the writing on the subject, it’s quite clear on, is that they (progress and performance) are not mutually exclusive. Performance orientation should be served by lear, should be part of the personality make up.  I think things like looking at a variety of data, qualitative and quantitative, pupil well-being, staff well-being, observing lessons, observing the educational process, discussing work samples and marking – not just that one output.  We have here, what you call a professional development timetable and the strands of that are that we set very personalised targets for our staff, so they feel they really are being focused on as an individual. We observe their lessons and we try and do that by using a quite insightful template written with ‘learning orientation’ in the forefront of our minds; the aim is to give them high quality, personalised feedback. We encourage peer observation, we encourage lots of team-teaching and though teachers must evidence the process, the paperwork’s not onerous –  a brief record of what they’ve done and what they’ve learnt from that process; managers also offer additional time to facilitate this peer learning.  We look at student work samples, we look at foundation stage profiles in the early years, we interview students, and we talk to the school parliaments.  There is a lot of different forms of data being gathered, now in an excessively performance orientated school they may complete a range of similar processes but, when all’s said and done, the SATs or exam data determine ‘that’s a good teacher, that’s not a good teacher’.  What we try to do is look at all those inputs and the quality of those inputs and then we assume the output over 3, 5, 7, 10,16 years if you go from Pre-Nursery, that those will take care of themselves if we make sure learning-centred inputs are of quality.

Me: So you have essentially integrated certain measures, like personalised feedback, peer observations, examples of students’ work, etc., so is that how you are measuring your success?

Ray: Yeah, the teacher performance is measured by those factors, rather than by their examination and National Curriculum level outputs. I mean the NC levels are going anyway and the GL Assessments are replacing them. So a lot of the talk about NC levels going is a bit of a red herring, in a way, because something will fill that void. So, yeah the idea is, if the inputs are right, then the outputs will take care of themselves, we will also look at the outputs and if the inputs look good and the outputs are terrible, obviously we’ll have cause to take stock, but I’m confident this won’t be the case. It’s an inverted model; the current system turns the process on its head, means they (teachers’) are looking at the output first, which produces all sorts of weird behaviour.

Me: How have those changes been received by parents?

Ray: To be honest, this is an ethos, which I have only been implementing in an assertive way in my own context for 8 months, though without an explicit awareness of Dweck, Watkins etc, I was successful in working in a broadly similar way throughout my first headship. The parents seem receptive; there was an understandable concern that the high academic standards of ISM Krylatskoe (our larger campus founded students founded in 2007) might be hard to replicate without pressuring the children.  It’s an early work in progress but I hope that all of our stake-holders are beginning to buy into the idea that a fun, creative and a happy school presided over by people who are passionate about what they are doing will naturally promote positive academic outputs – learning orientation and performance are complimentary, not mutually exclusive.

(Being tactful) I think there are a lot of very average school managers out there, frankly speaking.  The second and third generation children of New Labour and the ‘high challenge, high support policy framework’ who are running schools would greatly benefit from doing a masters or an MBA and really reflective on whether the input-output machines they reside over are serving the common good. A lot of those people are broken-hearted and have gotten onto this treadmill and its very hard to… you know ‘you can’t stop the world and get off’ when you’re in state education in the UK.  I think one of the benefits of international education is you do have the ability to step back from things which are not in your students’ interest. In a way that you can’t in a statutory environment and I think working internationally has enabled me to get back to what’s important to me as an educator rather than what is important to a particular political party seeking to leverage up certain set of quantitative data.

Me: Now that you are a headteacher yourself what changes and steps have you taken on the path to becoming a learning-centred leader?

Ray: The study was a significant and beneficial element of this process. The BSF group charter for education is very much in harmony with the ideas I have bought into; if certain ‘inputs’ are right then the output will take care of themselves – enjoy the journey.

I’ve also furthered my understanding of what it means to have a vision for the kind of education that you want to promote. When you are first exposed to this, the lexicon of schools management sounds like some kind pseudo-religious mumbo jumbo, with a range of terms like ‘vision’, ‘stake-holder’, ‘distributed leadership’ that are thrown around a great deal with extremely limited understanding.  Ask the average middle manager to articulate what Assessment for Learning is, for example – it’s slightly worrying how ‘sold’ people seem to be on ideas they themselves haven’t adequately grasped. No wonder, when they’re passed down the chain, these mutate into some quite counter-productive practices. Clear communication with staff is key…and the first step in this is to grasp these concepts fully yourself, not only in the abstract but in terms of how you might envisage achieving them in your own school.  Study’s given me access to a peer group who also care about these issues and are interested in thinking deeply about how we can create ‘learning-centred’ schools and outgrow the legacy of Kenneth Baker, David Blunkett and Michael Gove, in which we’re currently a bit mired.

Me: I really liked your use of the term ‘competitive individualistic professional’, sounds like a secret agent you can call in to save a failing school and adopt an aggressive performance focused approach! Is there any use for this tactic and a need to go all out looking for results?

Ray: It’s actually a quote by Mike Bottery, and yes I think there is! As I think my piece of writing perhaps conveyed; one of the source materials I used is called ‘The leadership of learning communities in a culture of unhappiness’, it’s a great title and I think it’s precisely what it’s become. I find schools are really quite unhappy places, yes the kids are great and you get a lot of their enthusiasm which rubs off on you and keeps you going, but the staff and heads and management are like adrenaline junkies, just running around doing ‘stuff’, because they have to do ‘stuff’. It’s not really very sensible. Actually if you look in my current context; if I sit down and look at the human resources I have, the financial resources I have, my opportunity within this context, I can actually come up with quite a cohesive, functional plan, which means staff are still busy but there are not just insanely, unthinkingly, miserably rushed off their feer.  It isn’t that hard, I just think, it just requires someone to say ‘hang on guys we’ve got these three members of staff that aren’t doing that much, let’s rebalance people’s workloads’, and you’ve got to get all you can out of human capital without abusing anyone, and you’ve got to understand that communication with your staff is important, without then taking advantage. You’ve got to have a degree of vulnerable trust within your management team where you trust each other, and you’ve got to not panic when you create a democratic atmosphere and then the staff seem to kick off about something, because sometimes they’re right. And the reflection part is very important and again the lexicon of being a reflective practitioner is everywhere but the percentage of people who are capable of influencing that, effectively and actually reflecting is miniscule and is a skill that I never really started to engage with properly until I became a head because there was no one else to blame when things went wrong. I am desperately working with my younger staff to try and make them understand that if they plan an event for example and it goes really well, that doesn’t mean we can’t look at it and make it a little better for the children next time with a focus on children first and foremost.  Then at the same time, there’s always room for improvement and make things better, but it isn’t a stick to beat you with, that’s just what makes it exciting… to do it even better next time.

Me: In your assignment you ask the question ‘what concrete actions can learning-centred leaders take to ensure that a focus on learning remains balanced with a focus on performance?’ and Robinson refers to goal setting as central to this in the first dimension of the book ‘The Five Dimensions of Student-Centred Leadership’ saying you need commitment from staff, linking goals to values. Can you expand on your own efforts in achieving this?

Ray: Yeah, what we try to do here is, when we had induction week and we talked about what it’s like to set up a new institution because our campus is almost like a new school within an existing school. So I laid down what we did and didn’t want to see, you know, a learning-centred school is like this and a non learning-centred school can sometimes veer into these things.  So I tried to lay out a vision in terms of what we wanted, things like people being given credit for their achievement, things like professional learning in many different guises and, crucially, no ‘reality-rhetoric gap’ – we discuss, we decide and then we implement. I created a presentation and I delivered that to staff on the very first day in school and sold them the vision of ‘growth mindset’. I showed them the Carol Dweck video talking about growth mindset and just started trying to get them thinking about why these things are important and why they would want to be passionate about it.  As a teacher you are often sold things like ‘Assessment For Learning’ but it’s often do this, do this, do this and I don’t feel sufficient effort is made to reach out to people to think about their priorities, their time, what’s important to them and how practical the advice they’re being given is… and to harmonise all that with great new ideas and working conditions. That’s what I try and do, I look at it from a class teachers point of view, it’s not really rocket science, I think about when I was in class and these were the things that frustrated me so I’ll try to make things a little bit easier and apply some common sense. For example, I wont ask for ‘this much’ if you’ve got ‘this much’ time, I mean that’s key!  If you read about the structural conditions required for collaborative professional learning, that to me is key and in a number of management meetings, I’ve dragged it back to that… Do the people have time to do ‘this’, do the people have time to do ‘this’?  And we are not going to drop our standards but we are going to be a bit smarter, so we can achieve and attain this level of report writing, or this level of teaching, or this level of staff training, but we are not going to allow ten subject leaders to push their personal initiatives in the same week, because that’s gonna kill people, there’s gonna be a diarrhoea of emails and what’s the point? Just actually think about it a little bit.

Me: The intervention mentioned in your writing describes a group of low achieving secondary maths students who receive 8 x 25 minute sessions, where it was explained how ‘learning changes the brain by forming new connections, and that students are in charge of this process’. This is a scientifically proven physical change where neural pathways grow more stable the more they are used so you can literally change your brain and retrieve knowledge more efficiently the more use it gets. By informing the students of this, essentially allowing them to conceptualise this knowledge, led them to a dramatic and positive change in their performance output.  Have you incorporated an intervention of any kind with your students? If so, what were your results and what process did you adopt?

Ray: In terms of measuring the outcome of it I would not be willing to do that at this stage but we have incorporated ‘Growth Mindset’ into our assemblies and PSHE. We have a poster which we’ve created with the staff where we have tried to encourage them to generate specific examples of praise for children, not ‘well-done’ but you know ‘you are really working hard to hold your pencil in a triangle grip’ you know specific praise because it’s been found to be effective and is shows kids what they need to do next time and in the future. So that’s on the classroom walls for the teachers’ reference, so when they’re praising kids they do it in as an efficient, effective and specific way. I was in assembly this week where I taught the kids a memory peg technique and I tried to get them to memorise less than 20 items and a lot of them couldn’t, but by the end of the assembly everyone in the room could recite a list of items forwards and backwards up to ten with some doing it up to twenty. I could ask what was number seventeen and for some their recall was really quite fast. So that was a good example of ‘I can build your capacity’, you know almost instantly by teaching you, it’s not that you can’t do this it’s that you can’t do it ‘yet’. Because you haven’t got the cognitive strategies yet to do it and I’m going to teach you those. We have moved on that, but in terms of measuring, I guess in terms of measuring how effective it’s going to be is a question of looking at our baseline data and our end of year data, so it may come down to those old indicators, but I’m not going to track it or overstress them during the year, but it will be interesting to see if the performance does take care of itself, as I am fairly sure it will if the inputs are learning and growth mindset orientated.

Me: Anyone wishing to implement a ‘learning-centred approach’ into his or her school, what would be your advice to them?

Ray: I would tell them to read some books, Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” and Chris Watkins’ article “Learning, Performance and Improvement” and tell them to not use the same educational algorithms the rest of your career, because if you buy into the mechanistic model of schools, your career becomes ‘Groundhog Day’, you basically adopt a very controlling approach to everything.  You monitor certain things and you do it again and again and again and presumably at some point you’ll want to get out of the profession because your professional life will become quite samey and will lack any kind of spirituality or reward for one will be stripped of the reasons for which you first entered the profession. If you want to do this job of school leadership or educational leadership for not only years but decades, you need to buy into this because… it really will re-enthuse you and make you remember why you entered the profession and why education’s important and it becomes exciting again. The New Labour model I think there was a place for it and I have a lot of sympathy for New Labour as I think there was some pretty poor practice happening in classrooms at that point, so I understand why they put a template together and said ‘go and do that for a bit’, it was needed. But in terms of inspiring people to want to do that job, not for 1, 2, 3 the Teach First model the Tories have got now. This is exactly what you don’t want, this is basically ‘come in teach for a couple of years and get out’, that’s teach before you have a career, a real job type attitude, get the brightest and the best from public schools in.  What I want is a stable, educated coterie of teaching professionals who are very learning orientated, they could be young teachers, they could be mid-career teachers, they can be experienced teachers, you need that blank as there are things you can do as an early career teachers which you can’t as an experienced teacher, but the reverse is also true. The New Labour model and the Tory model now is very much one of… you know, ‘chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out’ in terms of teachers and it’s a bit inhuman and a bit unbalanced, there are people who want to enter education when they are recent graduates and stay in that for the rest of their career and if we can’t build a profession that can accommodate that, then I think there’s some kind of contradiction built into the system because that kind of valuing of youthful enthusiasm and energy but also of respect and ability and life-long learning, those are all values we try to pass on to kids, so we have to practice what we preach.

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