If you look up to those lofty peaks with raging jealousy, you will end your days in sadness and regret. If you look down at the path you came up, you can become proud or even arrogant if you like of every step you took. But if you skim the horizon with your eyes and take in the gorgeous sweep of panorama before you, you will know peace and rare humility.
We do not have to be number one in this world. We only have to be number one to ourselves.
This quote was taken from a 2004 graduation speech by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen in which he refers to the Helsinki Bus Station theory, an interesting read if you haven’t come across it already. Its main point refers to staying on the bus, resilience, not getting lost in the sparkly attractions that may lead you to deviate from your intended course.
Its poignancy at present refers to the mindset which some pupils inhabit and the need to change this. We have all encountered those who observe others attaining more than them and either use it to their advantage to up their game and aim higher or simply shut down, fixated on the fact that there is a ceiling in their ability. I’m aiming to skim the horizon…
This blog is the culmination of recent reading and conversation that have left their mark of late. In addition to the Helsinki Bus Station theory, a David Price blog on PBL expressing concern at the lack of feedback and redrafting time available, a question considered during a workshop at TLAB13 on grammar: is it that they can’t or is it that they aren’t?’ and finally reflections on Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets. All of which became routed within a need to raise the quality and depth of written language response in the run up to the final exam with key stage 4 pupils. Food for thought indeed.
At that hinge point of receiving the results from the language exam, it quickly revealed that weaknesses arose in the writing element. In reality, knowing the group, and having taught, practiced and embedded the skills required; it remains the lack of confidence in constructing a sustained response and the overwhelming mindset of ‘can’t do this so won’t do this’ which is still a huge factor. It is what Dweck refers to as ‘low-effort syndrome’, asserting that “It’s no wonder that many adolescents mobilize their resources, not for learning, but to protect their egos” subsequently identifying that “the main way(s) they do this…is by not trying.” She also comments on a pupil ‘light bulb moment’ in which he finally realised that “working hard was not something that made you vulnerable, but something that made you smarter”. And so to the drawing board.
Being a huge advocate of using music in my teaching and also a huge fan of The Smiths, I was pondering a writing task which would engage the group to use their own knowledge to improve their confidence in the structuring of exam responses while also reinforcing the importance of planning and proof reading work in an exam situation. Enter, ‘Meat is Murder’ by Morrissey: persuasive writing on vegetarianism, linking in nicely with the current ‘hot potato’ of the horse meat scandal. Come on, who hasn’t got an opinion on this, however mild?
Using the song as the hook, (playing when the pupils entered the classroom), the group were provided with a printout of the lyrics and asked Why might a person become vegetarian? Aside from comments on the music (more work to be done here I feel!), this prompted a lively discussion with responses ranging from ‘They shouldn’t! Why would they?’ to ‘Animals have feelings too!’ and ‘It’s unnecessary when we have such good vegetarian options’. Knowing that when faced with a 20 mark question, there is often a struggle to plan and structure a response; the lyrics were there to provide several reasons (paragraph points) which could be used, if required; providing an ‘invisible’ safety net if needed.
Having used the discussion to present the bigger picture and gather key points; we moved on to analysing existing examples and creating a check list of success criteria from a both a structural and content point of view, based on the banding requirements. This is where my question from TLAB13 presented itself with regards to grammar, sentence structure and punctuation issues, ‘Is it that they can’t? Or is it that they aren’t?’
The next stage involved analysing samples, levelling them, identifying band markers and how they might be improved; we then moved on to modelling (group activity) the planning stage and looking at how to structure the extended response to include draft paragraphs. It became apparent during the drafting process, that while the awareness of grammar was there, it was not being implemented, suggesting that they did indeed know how to vary sentence structure and use punctuation for effect but were so focused on writing an extended response that the important details were being left out or in some cases missed. More focused on content than structure. I understand that the weighting here is largely focused towards content but this shouldn’t be at the expense of structure; cue self assessment and redrafting at which point the spelling, punctuation and sentence structure became greatly improved.
What struck me here with the full force of realisation was the idea of resilience. When faced with a draft, specifically in the context of exam preparation, the mindset was largely to write everything that they know about the topic before deciding, ‘It’s done. I’ve finished’ rather than my intended approach of ‘What can we do to improve on this? What does the band 3 criteria require?’ The notion of redrafting to improve, master the skills if you like, was not (in an exam context) welcomed; hence the link back to David Price and the idea of PBL: ‘We are so used to seeing students first, and only, draft, before moving on to something else, that the opportunities to build learner resilience, higher-order thinking, and constructive critique pass us by in the pursuit of ‘covering’ the curriculum.’
This is something that may be in danger of being lost with the structure of controlled assessment. We of course do this: when planning a response, drafting sample essays and such, and at key stage 3 is ‘done’ as we practice the skills, but is perhaps lost in a variety of pieces rather than redrafting a final piece which can, i think on some levels, be powerful for pupils who are then able to identify specific improvements and build this in to their ‘mental tool box’ before moving on to demonstrate in future writing.
With encouragement, reminder of the bigger picture and the additional ‘carrot’ of a final wall display firmly implanted (the display is presented in the form of headed stages, documenting examples from each part of the process to highlight its significance rather than simply showing finished work); we moved on to peer assessing, including receiving feedback from myself and attempted a second draft. Drafting is an important process. I was once told that ‘If it isn’t proof-read, it isn’t finished’ and this has always struck a chord beyond merely checking your work but trying to instil a search for perfection. Regardless of your ‘level’, a finished piece should always be the very best that it can be.
The drafting process did cause contention, largely due to the mindset, but taking the time (making the time!) to discuss the merits and obvious benefits within the context of exam writing is a worthwhile pursuit and slowly and surely, I noted the change in mindset. Where initially pupils were ‘stuck’ and unwilling to make improvements after the first draft, they were now enthused by making changes. A key factor here is that pupils were always presented with the previous draft and actively required to share and discuss their errors and search for improvements. ‘Failing’ (to meet the criteria) wasn’t bad, but presented positive opportunities for improvement. They were beginning to develop the desire to improve and make their work the best that it could be; essentially not prepared to put their names to something that wasn’t their best.
Three drafts and some considerable discussions about the exam criteria later, we arrived at the final drafts. Something that the group could be proud of, not simply because it was their best work, but more importantly, because of the effort that was expended in order to achieve it. They had ‘met the criteria’ but more importantly had started on their own personal road to changing their mindset. They had seen the positives in ‘failing’ during the drafting process and used their resilience to move beyond this; a mindset which has presented positively in subsequent lessons.
So, how does this link back to ‘staying on the bus?’ Well, rather than leaping off at the first stop, the finish point of the first draft if you like; the desire to complete the journey and reach an ultimately better quality destination was achieved through resilience and hard work. The group demonstrated and discussed the point that when it came to the basics of grammar; it wasn’t that they couldn’t (didn’t have the knowledge) but that they weren’t (using the knowledge) and this has become increasingly apparent in subsequent exam preparation work, the desire to produce their best work, drawing from their knowledge to do so.
Drafting as we know, is such a valuable process particularly in English and should be afforded the time that it deserves in order for each pupil to take on board useful and specific feedback, fostering an in-depth knowledge of how to improve. Most importantly, the time taken to develop a growth mindset is time well spent and reaches far beyond our classrooms, producing an attitude within pupils which will take them, suitably equipped, in to the wider world beyond.