It will take understanding and patience to shape a situation where all schools focus as much on wellbeing as on attainment argues Colleen McLaughlin, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge

A recent study that looked at adolescence across 12 countries highlighted the growing gap between the majority – for whom things are getting better – and those for whom things are getting worse. It also looked at how bridging that gap was becoming more difficult.

Back in 1991, Michael Rutter reminded us of the power of education to foster young people’s ability to achieve three core tasks:

  • raising children
  • holding down a job
  • having successful intimate relationships.

Schools can only foster that ability if they focus on social development as well as the transmission of information.

Rutter thought there were two key pathways to achieving those tasks. One was the development of general skills. That does make some of the recent focus on numeracy and literacy very important: you cannot live in the 21st century without those basic skills. The other is self-efficacy, the ability to make an impact upon the world

There can be no doubt that education policy is crucial here. Between 1991 and 1996, there was a 400% increase in permanent exclusions from school. This was a direct consequence of the 1988 Education Reform Act. At their peak, in 1997-98, the numbers were 13,481. The figures for 2004 were 9,880. Exclusion is something we have come to accept as part of the educational landscape. We need to remind ourselves that this was the result of policy.

Readers of Raising Achievement Update will, of course, not argue with the view that the goal of education is young people’s social, emotional and cognitive development. It is worth reminding ourselves that we have had to argue for this over two decades. And even now, when the argument seems to have been won at the level of policy statement, there are many aspects of policy that make achieving such a vision hugely challenging.

Inside or outside
We will need to challenge those who see the promotion of children’s social and emotional development as primarily something that happens outside classrooms, through such worthy developments as extended schools. Where children learn most about who they are, and how they stand in relation to others, is through their daily experience of the classroom.

You cannot separate how students learn – the processes used in classrooms – from the two central outcomes of enjoying and achieving. In a recent US meta-analysis of research into what makes a difference to learning, the three things that emerged as important were:

  • students’ view of themselves
  • their view of others
  • their understanding of how they could succeed, contribute, belong, learn, as well as how they saw others perceiving them in the process of doing that.

If this is the case, we have to stop thinking of teachers as being there to instruct and ‘deliver’ the curriculum. Their role is to be pedagogues, who are responsible for the upbringing of students: their development as thinking and feeling individuals.

And we have to see students as partners in their learning. Senior managers always say they are very much in favour of consultation. In fact, they engage in it widely. However, consultation is still more likely to occur around the classroom, than inside it. There are very few schools which would consider it appropriate to regularly consult students on what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.

What Rutter called self-efficacy is not developed in specialist programmes. It develops, instead, through the central process of teaching and learning in school.

This is well documented in the studies that Carol Dweck has carried out over the past 25 years. Her interest is in the relationships between achievement and motivation. She argues that, from the age of three, we evolve a view of ourselves from the feedback adults give us. She talks about good and bad talk, the messages we get about what it means to be a good girl or boy. Through this process, she says, we either pick up a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

A fixed mindset is largely based on the notion that ability is carved in stone. You are a level 1, level 2, level 3, and you always will be. Your task is repeatedly to prove that you have the ability that has been assigned to you.

Holding such a mindset renders effort a bad thing. The more you have to try, the more you demonstrate that you haven’t got real ability. And if you have come to accept that you do not have significant ability, then your goal becomes protecting yourself from that lack becoming visible to others. What a lot of young people are actually doing in classrooms is trying to save face. They do that by:

  • avoiding risk and challenge
  • refusing to stick at difficult problems.

Unless you are certain you have the required level of ability, then you will not start on the learning journey.

If, by contrast, you have a growth mindset, you will encourage people to try, to persist and to solve problems. You will show people it is worth trying for the sake of it, not just to achieve a specific outcome. You will build students’ self-esteem by creating opportunities for them to use their resources well – to master challenges, to learn, to help others. It is in that process of solving problems that people experience what self-efficacy.

Test-based system
It is clearly the case that our current system tends to provoke a fixed mindset. Between the ages of four and 18, children take 75 tests, for which they are given an outcome measure. You will hear students talking about themselves as level 2 children. One of the most heartbreaking experiences for me recently was being in a bottom set secondary science class. They were trying to talk to their teacher about how high they could possibly get in their SATs. She knew the answer to that. She had the dilemma of being real with the students but not misleading them.

If our classrooms were built around growth mindsets, this not the sort of conversation that would be happening. Students would be concerned about how much they could learn, rather than what level they would achieve in a test. They would experience their classroom as a place that promoted their emotional wellbeing, rather than continuously sapping it by telling them they were no good.

Learning would be seen not as something that was transmitted by teacher to student, but as something that happened within classroom relationships, quality relationships that promoted learning by fostering wellbeing. Learning would be young people and adults working together to solve problems, in the process experiencing themselves as having an impact upon social situations; living themselves as agents of change in their classrooms, their schools and their relationships.

Not being impatient
We have a long way to go if we want to have an everyday curriculum that fits these wider purposes. We have to recover from having lived through 20 years in which there has been a polarisation between cognitive development on the one hand, and personal and social development on the other. We have to recover too the experience of trying to silence the dissonance that is experience when working in a situation where research and lived experience are being ignored.

The task is like turning a tanker. It is not because teachers don’t want to promote the wellbeing of children and young people. It is because everything in the last 20 years has told them this is not where their focus must be. The system in which so many were trained and developed focused relentlessly on narrow cognitive outcomes. Teachers were assessed against that; schools were judged against that, and sometimes indeed condemned because of it. To change that you need to understand the anxiety that is going to be generated when you ask teachers to do something that goes against the accepted doctrine of the past 20 years.

I can sometimes sense the impatience this generates in people. I hear conversations that shift into ‘If only the teachers would…’ We have to understand how much pressure there has been within education. We have to take teachers seriously when they say, ‘I know that, but I haven’t got the time.’ All of this is going to take a long time. It will be a huge job.

Sharing the benefits
We can start by ensuring we really do communicate the benefits for everybody. We need to marshal the evidence which shows that following this path will make things better for the whole school community: young people who are enjoying themselves will behave better – that will make life better for teachers and other staff.

Developing ways of working that meet these new goals will be a huge challenge for teachers and for others. They have become used to complying with the latest directive. It is going to be difficult to start discussing more complex ways of responding to what is really going on in the classroom.

One of the dangers is that all the people now working in schools who have expertise in more emotionally literate approaches will come to exclude teachers from the wider work. They might say ‘You get on with the job of teaching and we will do everything else.’ In some places, this is how the workforce agreement has been implemented. The message was that teachers should only teach. All the other areas of young people’s development were the responsibility of specialists. I think that is a dangerous road to go down. If the classroom is the most important place for young people’s development, then we mustn’t inadvertently leave teachers out. We have the vast task of marrying intention to practice.
There is a huge job of mutual education to go on. It will require:

  • understanding from all parties
  • respect for the different roles that people play
  • an appreciation of the past practices that have held sway in education.

Carol Dweck’s tips for teachers

  • Focus on students’ efforts, not their abilities
  • Teach students to relish a challenge
  • Help students value learning rather than grades
  • Make it clear to students that their performance reflects their current skills and efforts, nor their intelligence or worth.
    ‘If students are disappointed in their performance, there is a clear and constructive implication: Work harder, avail yourself of more learning opportunities, learn how to study better, ask the teacher for more help, and so on.’

Carol Dweck is the author of:

  • Self Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development (1999), Psychological Press.
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), Random House.