Are we failing to fully understand failure?

March 18, 2014 by
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

Wow.  What fortnight it has been!

The press coverage from our most recent publication about using behavioural insight in the classroom, Everyone Starts with an A, has been exciting, interesting, and somewhat exhausting.

We have been featured in the Telegraph, the Times, the TES, the Daily Mail, GovToday, and others.  Jonathan appeared on BBC Breakfast on Sunday morning, and Louise and Nathalie did various radio interviews over the past few days, including Drive Time, Radio 5 Live, and Voice of Russia.  And Jonathan has been engaging in lively twitter conversations on the topic.  This is all in addition to the very welcome reception we got in Germany early last week, with articles in Die Welt, Die Sueddeutscher Allgemeine, and on the front page of Der Spiegel (with over 3,600 Facebook likes).

We have received many supportive comments from people who see the merit in trying out the approaches suggested in the report.  It’s also fair to say, though, that not all of the comments have been positive and in fact many of them are from critics who seem to think that use of these approaches only serve to molly-coddle our pupils and fail to set them up for the harsh realities of the adult world.

But to think that these recommendations molly-coddle our youth is to misunderstand them or the science behind them. It seems that the people commenting like this are commenting on what they know from the newspaper articles, not from our report itself.  So, in an attempt to clear up the confusion, let’s review the two most contentious recommendations from the report: everyone starts with an A, and give a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’. 

 

Everyone starts with an A.

Yes, yes, I know, we chose this as our title, so of course people will ask about it! But “Everyone starts with an A” is a lot catchier than the full explanation of “try giving your students an A at the beginning of the year, so that instead of working up to it they have to work hard to avoid losing it, because a well-known insight from behavioural science is that we tend to be ‘loss averse’ and thus are more motivated to avoid giving something up than we are to try to gain it”. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it. When months have been invested into a project such as this, it is not surprising that we want our ideas to broadcast and shared widely.  So we did pick one of the most provocative recommendations from the paper in our title, in the hopes of generating interest in the report.  And generate interest it did. But the flip side of picking a provocative title is that understandably all of the nuances and background behind it get lost throughout the chain. With each additional press release or article, the message gets somewhat warped, and “everyone starts with an A” can turn into “give students something they don’t have to work for” (for the record, that is NOT what we are suggesting!).

One misconception from critics is that this makes the A meaningless.  Perhaps the first thing to say here is that, in our approach, just because you start out with an A doesn’t mean that you keep it. So at the end of the term (project, year, etc) it will not be the case that the entire class has achieved an A (but wouldn’t that be great?); some students will get an A and others won’t.  The criteria for maintaining the A and how readily it is lost will be up to the teacher.  So the A is no less meaningless or meaningful than it is in a traditional method of assessment. The key here is simply reframing the starting point so that instead of starting from the bottom, the pupils are starting from the top.

This reframing serves two purposes.

First, it is likely to improve effort levels.  We know from behavioural science that people feel the pain of a loss more so than the pleasure of a similar gain. Decades of research by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who is speaking in London tonight) and many others in the field support this. And this concept has been tested in the classroom by Levitt et al, who offered students a reward if they improved on a test. For some students, they were told: take the test, we’ll grade it, if you’ve improved then you’ll get the reward.  For others, they were told: here’s the reward (given upfront), take the test, we’ll grade it, if you’ve improved then you’ll keep the reward but if you haven’t improved then we’ll take it back. It’s worth repeating that both groups had the same  basic set-up of “be rewarded for showing improvement” and the only difference was whether the reward was given after the fact or before (with the threat of losing it). The researchers found that the second group performed better on the test, illustrating that this type of reframing may influence pupils effort levels.

Second, when a pupil starts out with an A, this plants a seed in their mind that they too are capable of achieving this grade.  It is not reserved for the “brainy” or other select few; with the right effort, persistence, and support they too have the potential to keep this grade.  Shifting pupils’ expectations can influence their own performance in meaningful ways.

Critics have also claimed that if you start with an A, the only way is down.  This is responded to in more detail in this previous blog post, but the quick reply to this is that throughout the year a pupil’s grade might rise and fall in either approach – whether you start from the bottom or the top – and the point of our method is to change the starting point.  (An even quicker reply is in this blog post, possibly the shortest ever on the RSA website).

 

Give a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’.

This is NOT, as some people have interpreted it, about “banning negative words”.  This approach is about communicating the setback in such a way as to focus on the process of learning rather than on personal traits. As explained by Jonathan in this previous post,  “Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.”

Educational psychologist Carol Dweck explains that the way we think about intelligence, ability, and performance sits along a spectrum between two very different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.  A fixed mindset is the belief that ability is a relatively unchangeable trait; in contrast, a growth mindset is the belief that ability can be improved with practice and persistence, just like a muscle can be strengthened through lifting weights.  Dweck’s research shows that a fixed mindset student will be proud when they get an answer correct, but when they come up against a set-back, they lose motivation because to them it signifies that they have reached the capacity of their (fixed) ability. Growth mindset students also feel proud when they do well, but they attribute it not to a personal trait but instead to the steps that they took to get there.  When growth mindset students encounter a setback, they are more likely to stay resilient and motivated, because they understand that with more practice and support they can improve next time. Our suggestion to give a “not yet” grade instead of a “fail” is one way in which a growth mindset can be encouraged in the classroom.

There are other ways of fostering in pupils a growth mindset, too, beyond this ‘not yet’ approach.  For example the way that teachers and parents give feedback can have affect mindsets.  Praising for ability or intelligence (“Great! You’re so clever!”) fosters a fixed mindset, whereas praising for the process (“Great! You really focussed while working on that problem set!”) helps to build a growth mindset.  Additionally, teaching students about the brain and how connections are made while we are learning serves to both explain that indeed we can continue to learn and improve throughout our lives, and also highlights the universality of learning and thus might especially help those pupils who self-identify as being part of a group around which there are certain stigmas or pre-conceptions (based e.g. on gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status).

In a recent email to us in response to the report, one reader, the head of psychology in a large college, wrote in with a wonderful quote which I think sums up the spirit of this chapter:  “My experience over many years has lead me to a mantra which I bore my students with, ‘there is no such thing as brainy, there is just hard worky’.”

 

Free download available

Hopefully these two explanations will go some way towards clarifying these two particularly attention-grabbing recommendations.  We encourage people to read the report here and to download the accompanying poster.

I don’t want to leave the impression that all the responses to the report or the recommendations therein have been critical. We have received many, many kind comments and supportive emails; thank you to those who have written in. The report has been described as “brave”, “hopeful”, and “insightful” and many recognise that the behavioural science underpinning these recommendations has a lot to offer to educational policy and practice.

Comments

  • Bob

    Over ten years ago mainstream teacher training in UK was influenced by the work of Paul Black (‘Inside the Black Box’ and ‘Assessment For Learning’). He reported research which appeared to show that summative assessment had negative impact on student progress. Summarising massively part of this could be summarised as ‘low grades demoralise, high grades lead to coasting’ – the recommendation at the time was to focus on formative assessment, each time encouraging a student with what they, individually could do to improve their performance. Has this apparently evidence-based research ever been shown to be in error?
    The premise that somehow teachers start all of their students off ‘at the bottom’ and progress them to ‘A grade’ does not fit with the first phase of the year (or course unit) which is really about finding out where the students are in their learning so that individualised interventions can be structured.
    ‘Giving everyone an A’ at the start of term is interesting for novelty value and for challenging the status quo but surely either leads to ethical issues (where students are given a motivational grade but the teacher retains a shadow, progress grade unseen by the student) or the complexity of explaining that the rubric for establishing grades will shift during the year. The latter (complexity argument) leads towards a more nuanced set of feedback where the grade is used to communicate something more complex and nuanced than a single measure. 10 correct answers out of 20 might warrant a ‘C’ grade for attaining a 50% score in some systems or an ‘A’ for attempting all of the questions. Regardless of (A-E style)grades, students will also look at ‘how much they got right’ which is surely foundational to becoming reflective and independent. A massive input from the teacher can be to highlight repeated errors, misconceptions, strengths and weaknesses with suggestions on how to strengthen the weaknesses challenge the misconceptions and avoid those errors in future.

    • Nathalie

      Hi Bob,
      thanks for such a thoughtful response. There is a lot in there so I hope to respond to as much of it as I can. Like you, I am not aware of any evidence that formative assessment doesn’t work. The way that we envisaged the Everyone starts with an A approach does not go against the idea of regular feedback and formative assessments. Feedback throughout the project, term, year, etc is important, and how the teacher provides this feedback will be up to them. The teacher can still use initial time to gauge a pupil’s learning style, it’s just that the frame of reference is shifted so that a high grade is the starting point. As you say, the initial effect (and potentially the biggest effect) of changing the approach might indeed come down to novelty value. We see the report as deliberately exploratory and try to be careful about not overclaiming the effect of any one of our recommendations. It will be interesting to hear back from teachers who are trialling these techniques to see how they best work for their specific circumstances, and it may be that there are diminishing effects over time.
      The suggested techniques in the report should be viewed as additional tools in the teachers’ toolkits to try out, rather than replacing existing techniques or completely remodelling existing processes. Thanks again for your comments.

      • Bob

        Hi Natalie,
        Thanks for the reply – if I could just focus in on one aspect … The value of formative assessment does seem to have been embraced at schools I have worked with. The negative (according to Black) impact of summative assessment, less so. I wondered whether, suggesting ‘starting with an A’ (summative grade) implied that the Black work had been discredited. I think it would be fair to say that Black suggests that, regardless of what grade is given, the impact is worse than no feedback.

        • Nathalie

          Bob, Thanks for your email and i look forward to speaking in person. Nathalie

  • Wes G

    i think its dangerous, and only helps the tory government and the vested interests who support them to put more responsibility onto the individual, removing the duties of the state to take some of those responsibilities.

    the education system is still the place where we produce tomorrows workers, we really need to move away from such a strange state of affairs, we need to produce whole people, who can work/manage their lives in multiple environments.

    • Nathalie

      Hi Wes, thanks for commenting. I agree that we should be careful about not shifting the onus solely onto the individual. Learners still need appropriate and targeted support, and educators need to be supported in their
      own professional development. The first, second, and last chapters of the report address some of these themes including the complexity and interdependence of factors contributing to the SES-gap and the need for structured programme of professional development for teachers. We certainly don’t suggest that traditional measures be replaced by these approaches, and many of the structural changes that have happened in English and German schools systems have been instrumental in getting them to ‘good’. Our challenge now is to move into ‘great’ or ‘excellent’ and to do this it may be helpful to look at the teacher/learner interactions.

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  • MatthewMezey

    Hi Natalie,

    ‘There is no such thing as brainy, there is just hard worky’ might well be a powerful and effective thing to say to students.

    But whether it is also true scientifically is another matter – I don’t believe it is true and I don’t believe it really reflects what Dweck thinks, if you look closely. (You have to look very closely, as she perhaps downplays this aspect of her work significantly).

    I’ve already highlighted a number of times (eg on Matthew Taylor’s blog) that it’s a Gladwellian myth that 10,000 hours of ‘hard worky’ makes you an expert. Recent research has shown that this isn’t the case. A more balanced – nature and nurture – explanation is needed which, of course, is not liked by advocates of a totally malleable ‘blank slate’.

    Dweck herself says “Certainly, people may have different genetic endowments and aptitudes to begin with” though “intelligence is greatly effected by nongenetic factors and is not static”.

    I personally much prefer this kind of both/and – integrative – approach: it’s a mix of brainy and hard worky.

    This is what the research that undermined Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule found. It’s what Dweck says, as I’ve quoted here.

    Despite being viewed as another advocate of unlimited malleability and a ‘blank slate’ Guy Claxton says that there “do seem to be… genetic differences in people’s intelligence” but there is “a wide envelope of variation around that ‘base point’ that depends on experience, encouragement and self-belief”.

    My feeling is that we can either keep playing into dichotomies and end up caught up in the to and fro of ideological games, or else we can deliberately go for a more both/and, deliberately integrative approach. Maybe you’ve done that, I don’t know. (NB Guilty admission: I’ve not had time to read your report yet, too much pressing stuff on my plate right now. I’m looking forward to reading it though).

  • MatthewMezey

    Hi Nathalie,

    ‘There is no such thing as brainy, there is just hard worky’ might well be a powerful and effective thing to say to students.

    But whether it is also true scientifically is another matter – I don’t believe it is true and I don’t believe it really reflects what Dweck thinks, if you look closely. (You have to look very closely, as she perhaps downplays this aspect of her work significantly).

    I’ve already highlighted a number of times (eg on Matthew Taylor’s blog) that it’s a Gladwellian myth that 10,000 hours of ‘hard worky’ makes you an expert. Recent research has shown that this isn’t the case. A more balanced – nature and nurture – explanation is needed which, of course, is not liked by advocates of a totally malleable ‘blank slate’.

    Dweck herself says “Certainly, people may have different genetic endowments and aptitudes to begin with” though “intelligence is greatly effected by nongenetic factors and is not static”.

    I personally much prefer this kind of both/and – integrative – approach: it’s a mix of brainy and hard worky.

    This is what the research that undermined Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule found. It’s what Dweck says, as I’ve quoted here.

    Despite being viewed as another advocate of unlimited malleability and a ‘blank slate’ Guy Claxton says that there “do seem to be… genetic differences in people’s intelligence” but there is “a wide envelope of variation around that ‘base point’ that depends on experience, encouragement and self-belief”.

    My feeling is that we can either keep playing into dichotomies and end up caught up in the to and fro of ideological games, or else we can deliberately go for a more both/and, deliberately integrative approach. Maybe you’ve done that, I don’t know. (NB Guilty admission: I’ve not had time to read your report yet, too much pressing stuff on my plate right now. I’m looking forward to reading it though).

    • Nathalie

      Hi Matthew. You and I have had this discussion (several
      times!) before. So I know that you already know my answer, but for the benefit of anyone else reading the comments I’ll add it here. “Talent” or genetics play a role, but what we’re learning is that these are less fixed and deterministic than previously thought. Fields such as Neuroscience and epigenetics show that ‘we’ (including our brains and gene expression) are malleable. Understanding the constraints and enablers of this malleability may help us to change in constructive ways. And, yes, please read the paper, I think you’ll enjoy it! :o)

      • MatthewMezey

        If talent/genetics does seem to play some role – as research
        seems to suggest, and we both seem to agree – then neat, but entirely
        one-sided, quotes like ‘there is no such thing as brainy, there is just hard
        worky’ don’t really have any useful place, do they?