Americans love a ‘Spelling Bee‘. They are unique competitions where precocious children battle it out in a linguistic street-fight, whilst anxious parents look on with a mix of pride and anguish. It is a big deal in the USA. Arvind, the latest winner, won $30.000 for his efforts! If you have seen the compelling documentary, Spellbound, then you will know the intensity and drama of the competition. Recently, I came across some research attempting to diagnose the practice methods that accounted for the victors of these ‘Spelling Bee’ competitions – ‘Deliberate Practice Spells Success : Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee‘, by Angela Duckworth et al. Clearly, Arvind Mahankali is a gritty individual! I am interested how we can create more Arvind’s in our classroom – students who are willing to apply the long-term effort and practice to succeed.
The research outlines two driving reasons for the success of the students, like Arvind, taking part in the ‘National Spelling Bee’: ‘grit‘ and ‘deliberate practice‘. Here is a helpful definition of ‘grit‘:
“We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”
From ‘Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals’ by Angela L. Duckworth and Christopher Peterson
I have written a whole post defining ‘deliberate practice’ and its transformative power – see here. It can simply be defined as a mode of practice that is repeated consistently, but crucially supported by timely, precise feedback. It narrows the complexity of a task into specific components that can be drilled, honed and ultimately made automatic.
It is hard to extrapolate ‘answers‘ from the unique circumstances of the National Spelling Bee, or individuals like Arvind, to classroom learning more generally, but it does spark interesting questions about how we approach teaching and learning to promote ‘grit‘. I began to think of students in my own school whom I teach who share the same ‘grittiness’ as students like Arvind – the spelling superstar.
I teach one young man in one of my A Level classes. It is rather surprising he is sitting A levels at all. Based on his prior attainment, level 3 in his KS2 SATs, he is an unlikely candidate for further academic study; yet, he makes a mockery of national comparable outcomes. His GCSE results smashed his targets relative to equivalent students nationally and his success will no doubt continue. In my current year 10 GCSE class I have two students, one boy and one girl, who share all the ‘gritty’ traits of successful students like Arvind. At the start of the year, when I discussed their English targets with them, they both agreed to raise their personal target grades. Indeed, they pushed for this to be the case. Ever since they have approached lesson and every homework with a concerted effort that has outdone all their peers. It has seen them rise above expectations and achieve as well as, if not better, than other supposedly ‘brighter’ students with higher target grades.
I am fascinated by what processes and circumstances that create and develop students like those aforementioned. I would observe, from good knowledge of their siblings, that there is certainly an aspect of familial traits which account for their gritty character. Having role model parents exhibiting character traits that embody a true ‘grit’ goes a hell of a long way. According to John Hattie: “The effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding an extra two to three years to that student’s education”. As teachers and school leaders we do need to so a better job of sharing a dialogue with all parents about how to develop ‘grittiness’. Carole Dweck, in her work on the ‘growth mindset’, has very useful advice for parents on ‘praising effort and not ability’, ’embracing failure on the path to success’ and so on.
Of course, we need to go beyond talking the talk. we must teach with an aim to foster confident, knowledgeable and ‘gritty’ students. The following is my advice to teachers on how you can encode ‘gritty practice‘ in your pedagogy on a daily basis:
No teacher would challenge the impact of good quality feedback on student outcomes. Undertaken well, and couched in the right language, feedback can set goals that inspires the effort required to undertake the long slog of ‘deliberate practice’. Researchers have proven that setting challenging goals makes a positive difference to students – see here and it surely chimes with our innate common sense too! There is widespread knowledge of research, initiated by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, that proves that removing levels can have a positive impact upon students. If they focus upon formative feedback then they get better. If they possess the ‘grit‘ to persevere with responding to such feedback then they will become better learners.
Arvind and his fellow spelling spelling stars all receive plenty of expert coaching, but such feedback can also be replicated in the classroom with consistency. The students I teach that I used as exemplars absolutely thrive on feedback. They ask for it despite often being quiet individuals in the classroom setting. They produce extra work to get even more feedback. They willingly raise their targets to receive more challenging feedback and more challenging goals. I have realised that if I focus on precise and regular formative feedback, students can become ‘grittier’ and be more inclined to undertake the typically difficult process of ‘deliberate practice’.
Public critique and student feedback
Teacher feedback is crucial, but as Graham Nutthall’s research indicated (read ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners‘), students receive most of their feedback from their peers, either formally or informally. We must therefore train students and scaffold their language to ensure the feedback they give is laced with ‘grittiness‘! Ron Berger’s strategy for ‘Public Critique’ is a very useful way of ensuring that student feedback hones in on the right kind of feedback – particularly with a ‘specific‘ focus upon making improvements. I have written about the gallery-style approach to ‘Public Critique’ here. If we ensure that students give one another better feedback we can engender more opportunities for ‘deliberate practice’, enhancing their ‘grittiness‘.
A Culture of ‘Practice Perfect’
Doug Lemov’s brilliant book, ‘Practice Perfect‘, is about how the effective practice can encode success. We can ensure students are better prepared to undertake genuine independent study by drilling them with strong patterns of practice. For example, by repeatedly getting students to tackle ‘worked examples‘ or working to group, classify or improve models of writing we can help them to automate the knowledge needed to become genuinely independent writers. Scaffolding students strongly in the first instance, then moving towards more independent work (with specific feedback again) is nothing new, but honing this process over and over can give students the habits for independent ‘deliberate practice’ which can see students make successful transformations in their learning.
A second key aspect of encoding success is by having a culture of crafting and drafting (read the gems of wisdom from Ron Berger on this aspect here). I was only yesterday speaking to a colleague who worked with a really weak SEN group. She worked on rewriting one piece of work at least four times. I had done exactly the same with my more able GCSE group this year. Students are often asked to complete one draft and then we praise them regardless of whether it is the very best they can do. We need to pursue the often ugly, difficult process of ‘deliberate practice’ in this instance and once more embed the highest standards of challenge into the work we expect from our students – encoding in their minds an innate sense of what excellence looks like and feels like so that they can replicate it.
Better Questioning Strategies
We often forget that our core pedagogy – simply the construction of our questioning – can have a significant impact upon the standards and expectations our students form. For example, if they are allowed the get-out clause of simply saying ‘I don’t know‘ to questions in class then they will avoid the challenge of answering questions in class. If we only proffer closed questions with an easy ‘guessing the answer the teacher wants‘ game for students we will sell students short. We need to ask students more challenging ‘why’ questions (see my post on ‘why’ questions here and my post on asking open and inclusive questions here). The simple truth is that by keeping the level of challenge high in all oral communication in our classroom we will foster a culture that engenders ‘grittier‘ students.
There is much debate about the value of homework, with evidence from John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ proving it is more effective for older students. Of course, the evidence is problematic – see this post from Tom Sherrington about the homework debate, complete with a reply from John Hattie: ‘Homework: What does the Hattie research tell us?. My experience of homework is that the students who apply themselves to homework most consistently are those students who make the most progress in my lessons. Unsurprising really! I’m sure Arvind differentiated himself from the thousands of competitors in the ‘National Spelling Bee’ by undertaking such ‘homework’.This also applies with unerring accuracy with the students I have exemplified.
Only this last week in my GCSE English class students were given a homework task to further research and make final notes in preparation for a Shakespeare controlled assessment. The aforementioned boy in the group, the epitome of a gritty and determined individual, went far beyond most of the other students. What he may lack in innate ability in comparison to some other students in the group, he makes up for and exceeds with effort. Given an open brief and some links and multiple resources, he went to town on the homework. Subsequently, he was far better prepared than most other students, making those marginal gains that will see him excel. My answer is simple. We must set purposeful and challenging homework regularly, with related feedback on that homework. We should embed into our lesson plans a celebration of students who go the extra mile with homework.
We must recognise that a singular inspirational assembly will not embed the attitude, knowledge and skills required to make any difference to the ‘grittiness‘ of our students in the long term. We do need to embed the attitudes and ideas associated with ‘grit‘ in the daily language of a school, with all teachers authentically sharing the belief that concerted effort and ‘grit‘ can make a definitive difference for our students. I do think that simply using the language is not enough and that we need to think about applying the concepts to our pedagogy with routine consistency. We must root ‘grittiness‘ into the culture, language, pedagogy and daily practice of our schools.
– An excellent US Dept of Education report on ‘Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance‘.
– An interesting article from the New York Times: ‘What if the Secret to Success is Failure?’
– An extensive report by the Young Foundation: ‘Grit – The Skills for Success and how they are Grown’. Via Zoe Elder (thank you Zoe).
(This post is a copy of my article for the Guardian Teacher network)
I’m a huge football fan and I always have been since my father took me to watch Everton with the promise of dour football and a lukewarm pie. Such inspiration led me to play football almost continuously throughout my childhood to the present day. If I was to total my hours of practice it would surely be in the thousands. In fact, it would near the 10,000 hours total which has been associated with becoming an expert by people in the know. Only I am not an expert. I am little better than I was when I was a spotty teenager. A long time ago I stopped improving at football. I had reached my ‘ok plateau’. I was no Wayne Rooney and I had accepted that I was going to be ok as a happy amateur. So how does my football practice explain the problem of teacher improvement?
The author, Joshua Foer, originated the term ‘ok plateau’ in his popular science book, Moonwalking with Einstein, on the subject of improving memory. He used it to describe that common autopilot state when you have habitually mastered the basics of a task, but despite being skilled you stop really improving to reach expert status; you simply plateau in performance.
Teachers are as prone as any other profession to this state. After our time as a trainee and NQT, when we are grasping new knowledge and making successful connections, our improvement slows, sometimes to a stop. This, unsurprisingly correlates with a decline in regular coaching.
The evidence, from Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), is that after the first couple of years teacher quality reaches a plateau and teacher experience beyond this point has a negligible impact upon student attainment. This clashes with our basic presumptions about experience in teaching and it should certainly give us thought.
I believe I experienced a similar ‘ok plateau’ for at least five or six years. After mastering the craft of behaviour management and getting to know the nuts of bolts of teaching English I was simply happy to be doing a good job. With the storm of demands created by workload, any improvement beyond this point seemed fanciful. I stopped reading about teaching and learning and I stopped being coached with genuine regularity.
Part of the problem is our system of continuous performance development (CPD). This system is tied to targets and professional standards that actually inhibit conscientious teachers taking risks and experimenting with new teaching strategies. We set targets, either consciously or subconsciously, so that we may meet them, regardless whether they genuinely improve our practice or not. Gone is the regular critical feedback of our first couple of years. We move into autopilot, often even entering a state of professional inertia.
There are no quick fixes to the issue of genuine continuous teacher improvement. One method is to undertake consistent coaching systems that better imitate our earlier state as training teachers. We need to separate the judgemental CPD targets from genuinely developmental strategies, like coaching in departments. In my school we are employing a team of expert coaches to drive research and personal coaching across the school. In departments, we are also moving to a more personalised coaching model where feedback is constructively critical and consistent, with time allocated to do this.
A key issue is that experienced teachers are not undertaking the most effective method to continuously improve; deliberate practice (see my blog post on the subject here. Deliberate practice involves chunking smaller aspects of pedagogy and repeating that practice with lots of immediate coaching feedback. When I play football I get no specific feedback, it is trial and error, with lots of uncorrected errors. Deliberate practice is about a self-critical process of reflection and gradually, but consistently, raising the level of challenge. It is the responsibility of the teacher to be committed to such time consuming and challenging practice, but it is also the responsibility of school leaders to support teachers and to create fertile conditions for such development.
There are many books that delineate effective deliberate practice and support successful teacher coaching, such as Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, or Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Golvin, so teachers can take some control of their own development if their school conditions prove barren.
Many teachers are now writing blogs to reflect on their practice; undertaking action research, attending TeachMeets, or connecting with other teachers in professional networks, such as Twitter, to develop their pedagogy. There is such a passion and commitment to our vocation that I see every day in our profession that is heartening.
I may be a bit past my dream of playing for Everton, but with the right type of practice and support I can improve to eventually become an expert teacher. When Dylan Wiliam popularises research that proves that students with the best teachers learn twice as fast as average then our pursuit of excellence, with effective coaching and deliberate practice, could just make a transformative difference for our students.
There appears to be a significant rise in coaching in schools at the moment that provides hope for a more coherent approach to teacher improvement. The whole topic of Performance Development is schools is a contentious topic. Clearly, performance related pay and other ideas are being mooted with justified scepticism from teachers. Of course, the lines between coaching and Performance Development can, and will, be blurred and obscured, but if we can develop a system of coaching free of the inhibiting spectres of annual targets, or even OFSTED, then there is hope for a developmental system of teacher improvement that might well make a difference to teachers and therefore to the ultimate success of students.
Over the last year I’ve sourced evidence through Dylan Wiliam and beyond about the plateau in development experienced by teachers (indeed most professionals) after a couple of years. In American research, by Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), it has stated that after three years there is little improvement in teacher quality. It would stand to reason that teachers reach a level of competency when they can then effectively switch on the autopilot and teach very well…or not of course. This plateau in performance also correlates with a lessening of direct coaching. On a PGCE course, in the NQT year, and sometimes in the third year, teachers are regularly engaging in coaching conversations – many intentionally, or some as a by-product of early performance development. After that the ‘continuous‘ aspect of ‘Continuing Professional/Performance Development’ too often gets lost. Coaching is the potential antidote. It can provide the vehicle for ‘deliberate practice’. ‘Deliberate practice’ isn’t a process of vague trial and error – it is a process of specific chunking of teaching skills, repeated practice, with regular and precise feedback. It is this crucial mode of feedback which requires continued coaching. There are many models and methods of coaching which I will likely explore in further posts, but I wanted to share what i thought was some useful reading on the topic. There are many books in the field, both specific and some not specific to the profession. I have selected what I have found most useful in my attempt to be a better Subject Leader and coach:
1. ‘Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better’, by Lemov, Woolway and Yezzi.
This is my favourite coaching book as it is packed with a host of practical approaches to coaching in the school context and methods to improve the all-important ‘deliberate practice’ so key to becoming a better teacher (see my post on ‘deliberate practice’ here). It gives lots of specific examples with everything from the right phrasing to encouraging a coaching mindset, to detailed accounts of where to practice and how.
2. ‘Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential‘ by Carole Dweck.
In many ways this book has become seminal in the field and education and beyond to articulate the psychology of success. The dichotomy of the positive ‘growth mindset’ and the more limiting ‘fixed mindset’ underpins the language and practical process of coaching. It isn’t the most practical of coaching books, as it focuses on illuminating the concept with examples, but it does provide some crucial advice about using language effectively in coaching. Also, it provides a clear narrative that any coach can communicate with ease to make the process more effective and, hopefully, more likely to succeed.
3. ‘Talent is Overrated: What Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else‘ by Geoff Golvin.
There are many excellent books now on the market that focus on the development of expertise and even genius. From Daniel Coyle to Matthew Syed, there are books well worth your time, but if I had to choose one book about performance and practice, which combines the theory of Dweck with the practical focus of Lemov, it would be Golvin’s book. He presents a compelling argument for ‘deliberate practice’ with lots of specific approaches, from becoming better at golf to being great in business, he priorities the importance of feedback, central to effective coaching, and outlines the grit and perseverance in evidence when analysing expert performers.
4. ‘Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard‘, by Dan and Chip Heath.
This book is not about coaching or teaching in any specific way. It is, however, essential reading for any professional looking to help make changes in an organisation and with individuals. It is so good I couldn’t help but write a blog post all about it here. The book brilliantly articulates how you can change habits, even the most hardened, which is essential knowledge for a coach. It also clarified the emotional factors underpinning performance and how you can positively help an individual makes changes to their practice. It presents an intriguing range of case studies that will get any would be teacher, coach or school leader reflecting deeply.
5. ‘Visible Learning for Teacher: Maximising Impact on Learning’ by John Hattie.
You would be forgiven for asking why I haven’t chosen more books specifically about coaching itself. I think there are some laudable subject specific books, but I would argue it is paramount that any teacher coach needs to be themselves great learners, readers and researchers on education in order to coach colleagues towards improving practice. What is key is that coaches in schools have a broad knowledge of pedagogy and that any coaching actually focuses in upon teaching and learning that has the greatest impact. School leaders and coaches are duty bound to synthesise the best research in the field, followed by research that approaches such research with practical applications. Books like Zoe Elder’s brilliant ‘Full On Learning‘ or Jim Smith’s ‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook’ are essential in developing an expert range of pedagogy. Hattie’s research is so fundamental in that it slays some sacred cows and actually guides teachers towards pedagogy that is proven to work, with the evidence that underpins the practice. Of course, context is crucial, so even huge meta-analyses of evidence needs to be equated with individual school contexts, but the book is a must read for a well informed coach.
I have had the difficult task of narrowing the number of books to only five, but I expect Jackie Breere’s prospective ‘The Perfect Coach‘ will be another gem that synthesises many practical approaches to coaching in schools if the rest of the ‘Perfect’ series in anything to go on. If you have any great suggestions for other books specifically on coaching in schools, or other books related to coaching then please do comment. If we are to be a good coach, we must pursue knowledge and good practice deliberately and reading and researching is a great start.