Monthly Archives: March 2012



Practise makes Perfect


David Shenk in his book “The Genius in All of Us,” referenced in Michael Goves most recent speech, argues that we have before us not a “talent scarcity” but a “latent talent abundance.” Our problem “isn’t our inadequate genetic assets,” but “our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have.” Talent is not a thing,” says David Shenk, “it’s a PROCESS.” This is actually quite an arresting thought. Talent doesn’t just come from genes, says Shenk. It comes from the way your genes interact with the environment. This means that, with enough effort, some people can learn how to be excellent at things. The truth is he says “that few of us know our true limits, that the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our ‘un­actualized potential’.” Shenk writes. “Genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses and other genes.” That means there can be no guaranteed genetic windfalls, or fixed genetic limits, bestowed at the moment of conception. Instead there is a continually unfolding interaction between our heredity and our world, a process that may be in some measure under our control. . Forget about genes as unchanging “blueprints” and talent as a “gift,” all tied up in a bow. “We cannot allow ourselves to think that way anymore,” Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, even if it results frequent failures. This is known as “deliberate practice,” and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible But he is careful to say that we are not born without limits — it’s just that none of us can know what those limits are “before we’ve applied enormous re­sources and invested vast amounts of time.”  He relates his own struggle to achieve. “My attitude toward my own writing is simple: I assume that everything I write is rubbish until I have demonstrated otherwise. I will routinely write and rewrite a sentence, paragraph and/or chapter 20, 30, 40 times — as many times as it takes to feel satisfied.”

Gove used Shenks book to argue that there is plenty of evidence that our children are not,  due to their genes or due to their environment (poor background broken home etc), pre-destined to fail at school .   Our children can succeed if  given the right support and encouraged to stretch themselves. Outstanding state schools can and do demonstrate this, by showing no significant achievement gaps based on their pupils background.  Maybe  we make too many assumptions about a childs potential or ‘intelligence’  based on too little information.



High Expectations for student behaviour and Intensive teacher coaching and monitoring


The National Study of CMO Effectiveness is a four-year study designed to assess the impact of CMOs on student achievement and to identify CMO structures and practices that are most effective in raising achievement. Earlier reports from the study documented substantial variation in CMOs’ student achievement impacts and in CMOs’ use of particular educational strategies and practices.  The last report from the study found that the most effective CMOs tend to emphasize two practices in particular: high expectations for student behaviour and intensive teacher coaching and monitoring. This report provides a more in-depth description of these two promising CMO practices, drawing on surveys and interviews with staff in high-performing CMOs that emphasize one or both practices.  However, CMO leaders say that high expectations for student behaviour and intensive teacher coaching should not be considered “silver bullets.” These leaders suggest that these practices are more effective when coordinated or implemented in conjunction with other strategies, such as:

 Recruitment and training of strong school leaders who can monitor and improve instruction, hold teachers accountable, and set the tone for student behaviour and school culture

Commitment to college-going expectations and academic supports for all students, regardless of background

Development of strong data systems, time set aside for teachers to analyse and discuss data, and an expectation that teachers will regularly adjust instruction based on evidence

Formulation of school- or system-wide instructional goals and frameworks to guide teacher, coach, and principal action

Development of strong, trusting relationships between school staff and students

Provision of resources (such as handbooks and online lesson plans) from the central office to inform teacher practice

Cultivation of commitments from parents to reinforce school actions

Learning from Charter School Management Organizations:   Strategies for Student Behaviour and Teacher Coaching Robin Lake, Melissa Bowen, Allison Demeritt  Center on Reinventing Public Education  Moira McCullough, Joshua Haimson,  Brian Gill  Mathematica Policy Research  March 2012


Sham Consultation- followed by weak Guidance?

What do you think?


Long delayed Statutory Guidance on Careers Guidance in schools has just been published (26 March). The delay suggests differences of opinion between Ministers about how robust and how detailed the Statutory Guidance should be. As Professor Tony Watts points out (see commentary) this delay means that schools have been setting their budgets for the financial year  beginning April 2012, without guidance of any kind about the  new  duty they have to  discharge from September 2012, and the financial provision required for this. The final published version of the Guidance does not according to Professor Watts,  incorporate any of the substantive  amendments  proposed by members of the Advisory Group.

Section 29 of the Education Act 2011 places schools under a duty to secure access to independent careers guidance for their pupils in school years 9-11. Careers guidance secured under the new duty must:

be presented in an impartial manner

include information on the full range of post-16 education or training options, including Apprenticeships

promote the best interests of the pupils to whom it is given.

Schools ‘must have regard to it when carrying out duties relating to the provision of careers guidance for young people’ The purpose of this guidance is to identify the key responsibilities of schools in relation to careers guidance for young people. Academies and Free Schools will be subject to this  guidance through their Funding Agreements

The Education Act 2011 inserts a new duty, section 42A, into Part VII of the Education Act 1997, requiring schools to secure access to independent careers guidance (Independent is defined as external to the school) for pupils in years 9-11. Careers guidance must be presented in an impartial manner (Impartial is defined as showing no bias or favouritism towards a particular education or work option )and promote the best interests of the pupils to whom it is given. Careers guidance must also include information on all options available in respect of 16-18 education or training, including apprenticeships and other work-based education and training options.

Crucially the Guidance states ‘ In fulfilling their new duty, schools should secure access to independent face-to-face careers guidance where it is the most suitable support for young people to make successful transitions, particularly children from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who have special educational needs, learning difficulties or disabilities.

 ‘Schools may work individually or in consortia/partnerships to secure careers guidance services. Schools can commission independent careers guidance from providers engaged in delivering the National Careers Service or from other providers or individual careers guidance practitioners, as they see fit. Where schools deem face-to-face careers guidance to be appropriate for their pupils, it can be provided by qualified careers professionals.’

 Note it says it ‘can’ be provided by a qualified  professional rather than ‘must’ be provided.

Professor Tony Watts is absolutely scathing (see commentary) about the Statutory Guidance and the consultation, with the Advisory Group, that preceded the release of the Guidance. He described the consultation exercise as  a  sham   and the document  as ‘dismal’ saying -‘It effectively leaves it open for schools to  decide not only what they want to do for their pupils in this area, but also whether they  wish to do anything of substance at all. Most schools will do whatever they can, because  they care for the futures of their pupils; but some will make minimal provision, because  they consider that the Government does not require them to do more.’

The Guidance, he claims, largely ignores recent Ministerial assurances over the importance of face to face advice particularly for the most disadvantaged pupils. Watts  writes:

‘The Statutory Guidance as published ignores these recent assurances. It offers no  means for preventing a school from stating that it has discharged its responsibility bysignposting to a website or helpline. All the school has to do, in the terms of section 13 of the Guidance, is to state that it views such signposting, rather than providing independent face-to-face guidance, as ‘the most suitable support for young people to make successful transitions’. Despite the assurances sought and presumed to be given in the House of Lords, and the statements by Ministers …..the Guidance appears to  provide no basis on which a sustainable challenge to such a position could be mounted.’

Watts continues ‘ There is no indication of who is to determine ‘where it is the most suitable  support’, or on what criteria. Implicitly, it is left for schools to determine this, on whatever criteria they choose. If they decide that access to independent face-to face guidance is not ‘the most suitable form of support’ for most or indeed for any  of their pupils, they are free to do so. No provision is made for young people or their parents to have any say in the matter, in the form of a right or entitlement.’

Watts adds ‘ The statement that such guidance is ‘particularly’ relevant to children from  ,disadvantaged backgrounds or with special educational needs can easily be read  as implying that it is only relevant to such pupils. The point was strongly made by  the Advisory Group in the consultation that this should be balanced with a strong  statement about the value of independent careers guidance for most, if not all,  young people. No such statement has been included.’

There is genuine anger among many professionals who feel that expert opinion has been largely ignored in the consultation process and that the document doesn’t honour ministers very public commitments.  The guidance is seen as too weak and will mean that many schools fail to offer access to face to face advice to those who need it most and that if and when it is provided, it doesnt have to come from a  qualified professional.

Statutory Guidance on Careers Guidance in Schools-March 2012

Careers England Release on Guidance


Commentary on Statutory Guidance-Professor Tony Watts



Some positive indicators in the wake of recent  Ebacc reform

Relatively high take up in lower performing schools

But just under half of schools have made no changes, since Ebacc


A report out this month from CFBT Education Trust finds that 40% of maintained schools reported changes to their language provision since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

The report highlights that while the downward trend seen over the past decade continues with GCSE language take-up, the introduction of the EBacc appears to have had a positive effect on language provision in the last academic year.  While the EBacc’s success in improving language up-take is being realised across the country, the report also reveals that maintained schools are dropping alternative language accreditations such as Asset Languages and NVQ Language units after a steady period of growth, from 45% to 33% in 2011 in spite of dissatisfaction with the GCSE.

Examination data shows that the number and proportion of entries for languages at both GCSE and A Level have been in decline over the last decade or so.  The results of the Language Trends survey 2011 demonstrate the power of performance tables to create an immediate impact on school-level policy making. The most striking finding of the survey is the turnaround in take-up for languages in Year 10, which is likely to be linked to the introduction of the EBacc as an accountability measure for schools in January 2011. Compared to just over a third  (36%) of maintained schools reporting 50% or more pupils studying a language in Year 10 in 2010/11,  in the current school year the proportion has increased to just over half (51%). This is similar to levels in 2005/06. The decline in the offer of alternative qualifications, as shown by the survey results, was currently in Year 10 would have selected their GCSE options in spring 2011, the report  concludes that we are likely to see  an increase in GCSE entries for languages in summer 2013 after a decade’s decline in the number of  KS4 pupils taking a GCSE in languages.

Although the gulf between schools with high and low levels of take-up for languages is still wide and associated with levels of social deprivation, with the level of achievement across all subjects, and with the admissions policy, the biggest increases in take-up have been seen in lower performing schools, comprehensive schools and those with higher levels of social deprivation, for example:

•  49% of comprehensive schools now have 50% or more pupils studying a language in Year 10  compared with 31% in the 2010/11 school year.

• In 2010/11, only 23% of maintained schools in the middle quintile for attainment and 19% in the second-lowest quintile had 50% or more pupils studying a language in Year 10. This year these proportions have increased to 60% and 45% respectively

This data demonstrates that the gap in uptake of languages between different school types as well as between schools with different pupil characteristics may be starting to close. A further positive indicator is that schools that have experienced increases in uptake see this as a definite change rather than a simple fluctuation.  The survey has found that 40% of maintained schools have made changes to languages provision at KS4 following the announcement of the EBacc and another 14% are planning to make changes in the next year or so. Of particular interest is that schools with greater levels of social deprivation  are more likely to make changes to languages provision in response to the EBacc than schools with  lower than average proportions of children eligible for free school meals. The most common change in response to the EBacc that schools have implemented or are intending to implement is to modify option blocks and to improve advice to pupils when they are choosing optional subjects.

However, the report says that it is notable that just under half of maintained schools (46%) indicate that they have not made any changes in response to the EBacc and have no plans to do so.  In terms of the languages curriculum and language teaching, the time available for languages within the curriculum is a fundamental concern which tops the list of changes teachers wish to see in order  to improve language teaching and learning. They believe that more contact time, arranged in shorter, more frequent lessons, would allow them to promote real learning rather than simply prime pupils to pass examinations. In common with Ofsted, they see speaking as the skill which is most in need of improvement and want more time for children to practise speaking and develop a real appreciation of the languages they are studying.

The authors ‘remain convinced that reform of GCSE and A Level examinations in languages should be high on  both the Government’s and exam boards’ agendas in order to improve the standard and quality of  language teaching and learning.

Language learning in secondary schools in England Findings from the 2011 Language Trends survey ;Teresa Tinsley, Youping Han-CFBT Education Trust-March 2012 (Supported by All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages; Association for Language Learning and  the Independent Schools’ Modern Languages  Association (ISMLA)



Schools are now ranked by how many children take the “English Baccalaureate” Ebacc, which comprises a number of core academic subjects, including a modern foreign language.The Ebacc is not a qualification.


Languages are not compulsory in English and Welsh secondary schools beyond the age of 14, although a review of the curriculum is under way in England. (so this could change)


Separate research released by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) shows a surge in interest from people wanting to become language teachers.

The House of Lords EU Committee in a recent report says that all children should learn a foreign language at primary and secondary school



Professor Nutbrowns Interim report flags up unnecessary complexity of qualifications and concerns over quality


The Government launched an independent review, led by Professor Cathy Nutbrown, to consider how best to strengthen qualifications and career pathways in the foundation years. Nutbrown has just published her  ‘interim’ report.

Good early years education and care, it is widely acknowledged, and backed by international evidence, can have a profoundly positive impact on babies and young children, reaching into their later childhood and adulthood.

The review looks at qualifications both for young people who are new to the early education and childcare sector, and for those already employed – and also how to promote progression into the labour market, higher level education and other training routes. Professor Nutbrown conducted a large-scale public consultation to gather evidence towards her review. The report of this call for evidence was released alongside her interim report, and can be found via the link below.

The Interim report sets out the shared concerns among the workforce about their qualifications system.

The Review says that ‘Despite the strong evidence on the importance of early education in children’s development, work in early education and childcare is widely seen as low status, low paid, and low skilled. The early years qualifications picture is over-complicated, with significant doubts over whether the content of courses covers the  skills and knowledge that people need to work in the sector.’ The variation in the content of qualifications is significant, and presents real problems to students trying to understand what to study, and employers considering potential applicants for jobs.  And despite the best efforts of the CWDC, it is still not possible to get consistent figures  on the total number of early years qualifications available.

The report concludes that the qualifications currently available do not always equip students to be effective practitioners in the early year’s sector. Nursery staff and childminders are allowed to work at pre-school groups without displaying basic literacy or numeracy skills. Indeed, colleges demand more qualifications for students training to look after animals than for those who will care for babies, the report said.Nurseries are employing staff with no qualifications.

Nutbrown  found that “competence in English and maths” was often not required to complete qualifications. Pupils with the “poorest academic records” were being steered on to childcare courses as an alternative to hairdressing.

Professor Nutbrown is considering the following issues as she develops her recommendations for government:

An effective qualifications structure that motivates people working in the early years and tells employers what skills and knowledge they have.


Courses that prepare people for working in the early years, raise the standards of those choosing to enter the profession, give them the right skills in literacy and numeracy and include the latest cutting edge detail about child development.


The case for expanding the role of teachers in the early years, creating new teaching pathways with an early years specialism, linking more closely the education worlds of the school and the early years.

For further consideration:

How do we ensure that the complex historical, current, and future qualifications picture does not act as a barrier to those  who want to train and learn?

What should be the expectations for the content and agerange for early years qualifications, and the preparation  demanded to achieve them?

Should we seek to raise the minimum level of qualification  required of the workforce, and if so, to what and by when?

What is the best way to ensure that tutors have up-to-date  knowledge and skills and are qualified to the right level?

How can we ensure that settings are supported to play an  effective role in the training of their staff and students on  placement?

What levels of literacy and numeracy should we expect of the early years workforce, and how can we secure these?

How can we best establish clear progression routes for all members of the sector (including black and minority ethnic  groups), and support less well qualified members of the  workforce to progress?

Is there a strong case for introducing an early years initial  teacher education route, and how might the practical  obstacles be addressed?

Is there a case for a licensing system and, if so, what model  might be best?




Do they   work?  Or is empirical evidence in short supply?


It is often assumed that new technologies will massively improve what happens in the classroom, and  the learning environment and experience of pupils . Give pupils a lap top or ipad and their learning experience will be much better for it. But what exactly ,asks Larry Cuban of Stanford University,  is the pressing or important problem to which an iPad is the solution? Asking that  pretty basic question first uncovers, he says, the confused set of purposes that surround buying and using high-tech devices in classrooms. Here are some reasons given by educators  to Cuban about how technology improves learning   :

*These devices will motivate students to work harder, gain more knowledge and skills, and be engaged in schooling. Engaged students will achieve higher grades. When the  Auburn (ME)  school board authorized the purchase of  iPads for kindergartners, their leaders assured them that reading scores would rise.

*Students will be prepared for an information-driven labour market. Or as one superintendent put it: “Students have to have digital competence, and to be competent, you have to have access. Using current-day technology should be a normal part of what we do. We need to close the gap between schools, education and the real world.”

*High-tech devices will erase the gap in access to knowledge that exists between poor and wealthy. The superintendent who bought 6,000 iPads said:  “It’s an equalizer. There’s no difference in learning advantage from the poorest to the most affluent.”

*Using laptops and tablets will transform traditional teaching. Etc..

The use of technology, apparently, is the answer then to all sorts of education challenges. Or is it? Where exactly is the evidence in support of this proposition and the various associated claims? Cuban reminds us, for example, that research clearly shows that certain practices do, indeed, “work.” Take pre-school education. Study after study done on three and four year-olds who were in preschool programmes and their progress through schools and into adulthood show short- and long-term gains in academic achievement, earnings, and other behaviours . But ,when  it comes to research supporting major purchases of laptops, tablets, and similar devices, such a cumulative body of evidence is ‘missing-in-action’, claims  Cuban.

Occasional studies that do show promising results for new technologies are, according to Cuban, dragged in to cover the near nakedness of research, much like a fig leaf, to justify the high costs of these new devices in the face of little evidence. The fact remains that no one knows for sure whether the new hardware and software appearing in schools works.

So, if this is the case-why such an investment in new technology? Cubans explanation is   to do  pretty much with politics.  He says ‘school boards and superintendents also buy high-tech devices because they want to be seen as technologically innovative and ahead of other districts. In this culture, the value of technology is equal to social and economic progress. Because school boards are completely dependent upon the political support of their parents, taxpayers, and voters to fund annual budgets, being seen as ahead of the game in technology garners public support. Not to adopt new technologies, even when funds are short, means that district leaders are failing their students and against progress.’

I must admit to being baffled about the ipad fad-given that it is difficult to work on and far inferior in performance to mini-laptops if you want internet access and speed. A triumph of design and marketing  over substance.

It does seem that Cuban makes a compelling case-policy and practice should be informed by robust up to date evidence.  But it is also true that our youth are highly proficient in the use of new technologies, and, crucially, enjoy working with them and they allow  for , self-evidently, greater  personalisation of learning and for learners to take more ownership of their learning and to work with greater independence but also to work within networked teams with a global outlook,  all of which must be positive. So why is evidence in support of such  new technologies in the classroom  so  very hard to come by?



Drive to encourage creativity and innovation

But what about is political culture?


Singapore’s education system is geared to providing the skilled manpower for business and industry to sustain its economic success. It has a “strong focus on mathematics, science and technical skills”, according to the OECD .  Its system is particularly good, in recruiting, training and nurturing good teachers.  In a report this month the OECD said ‘Singapore is notable for its comprehensive approach to identifying and nurturing teaching talent. It has  developed a comprehensive system for selecting, training, compensating and developing teachers and  principals, thereby creating tremendous capacity at the point of education delivery.’ Who can knock that?

Although widely regarded as a highly successful education system Singapore has attracted two main criticisms. First, that it hot houses its children (like many other Asian countries, including South Korea)) putting too much pressure on them to perform and conform ,with  a particular emphasis  on after school tuition  . Secondly, the system hasn’t encouraged creativity and innovation in its students who may succeed academically but seem to lack flair, creativity and individuality.

It is noteworthy that Singapore, in terms of its population, is roughly the size of Norway yet one is hard-pressed to name a Singaporean who has world class stature in any profession now, or indeed in the past (excepting Lee Kwan Yew). The same cannot be said of Norway.  Of course it is difficult to link this causally to the education system but it does raise a big question mark.

In addition, Singapore’s political culture may also act as a drag  on creativity, individuality and innovation. Its political culture is authoritarian-a plural democracy it is not- and it has an underdeveloped democratic civic culture-which hardly encourages freedom of thought, speech and expression. Stability, respect for authority and continuity are paramount.

And,  while the education gap between the Chinese, Indians and Malays has narrowed since independence in 1965, there is still a “long tail” of stragglers behind the top achievers.

To be fair, the school system has been changing since reforms began in 1997 to promote creative thinking and lifelong learning to keep up with the knowledge economy.

Its small size makes it easier to manage and change with the times and Singapore couldn’t be accused of standing still . The government has also created bright career prospects to attract good educators.

An OECD report says that while Singapore has significantly closed its achievement gaps and focused on bringing up the lowest achievers, there is still a stronger correlation between socio-economic status and achievement than Singapore education leaders would like.

Singapore, of course, is very much aware of these criticisms, and its educators are open to new thinking .Indeed, it is seeking to drive home the importance of character-building and resilience among pupils.

Speaking in Singapore’s Parliament, recently, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat noted that the future is “less about content knowledge, as content will have to be re-learnt and even un-learnt during one’s lifetime”.  Mr Heng added: “It is more about how to process information, discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots and create knowledge even as the context changes. It is about developing an enduring core of competencies, values and character to anchor our young and ensure they have the resilience to succeed.”  This will sound familiar to reformers across the world.

Among the changes now being brought in- The Community Involvement Programme (CIP) will be renamed “Values in Action”. More than just a name change apparently , the programme will move away from the quantitative aspect of clocking mandatory hours. Instead, students will be asked to reflect on their experience, individually and in groups, during curriculum time. Schools will also be encouraged to develop four- to six-year development plans for sustainable community involvement.

Mr Heng said  “I hope that the introduction of ‘Values in Action’ will, over time, allow students to see themselves as part of the larger community, and for the community to adopt the school as one of their own.”

In 1993, the Government started the Edusave Scheme aimed at maximising  opportunities for all Singaporean children. The Scheme rewards students who perform well or who make good progress in their academic and non-academic work as well , and provides students and schools with funds to pay for enrichment programmes or to purchase additional resources. The Edusave scheme was last reviewed in 2009. Mr Heng noted the existing scheme is “tilted towards academic achievements”. But he added: “As we place more emphasis on holistic education and character development, it is timely to align our recognition framework.”

Three major initiatives have been launched since 1997 in a bid to foster greater creativity and innovation in students. The first of these, Thinking Schools, Learning Nation, was launched by the prime minister in June 1997. It focuses on developing all students into active learners with critical thinking skills and on developing a creative and critical thinking culture within schools. It includes the explicit teaching of critical and creative thinking skills in the classroom , the reduction of subject content, the revision of assessment modes,  and a greater focus on process rather than outcomes when assessing schools (in theory at least).  The Master Plan for Information Technology in Education, was also launched in 1997. It is an ambitious attempt to incorporate information technology in teaching and learning in all schools.  The third and most recent major initiative focuses on university admission criteria. The Committee on University Admission System in 1999 recommended that admission criteria move beyond considering just the academic attainment of students for admissions and take into account extra-curricular performance.   But the Government still maintains its strong  say over curriculum issues.  And performance in competitive, academic exams remains the major determinant of educational and social mobility.

The new Edusave Character award will recognise up to 10,000 students each year who display traits such as resilience and civic responsibility.

The number of Edusave Awards for Achievement, Good Leadership and Service will also be doubled from 17,000 to 34,000 and its monetary quantum will be raised. The new awards will be given out from early next year.

The main changes are:

- New Edusave Character Award to recognise students who exhibit values such as respect and resilience. Up to 10,000 awards – of between S$200 and S$500 – will be given out each year.

- Doubling the number of Edusave Awards for Achievement, Good Leadership and Service (EAGLES) to benefit 34,000 students yearly. Monetary quantum of award will be raised by between S$100 and S$300.

- Community Involvement Programme (CIP) to be renamed “Values in Action”, with greater emphasis on reflections by students.

However, this extract below, from a  2000 report ‘ Education Reform in Singapore’ , is as relevant now,  as it was  then,    and  probably best sums up the real challenge facing Singapore-the elephant in the room. The report concludes ‘The larger problem for Singapore’s educational reform initiative is that Singapore’s nation building history resulted in an omni-present state that cherishes stability and order. A desire for true innovation experimentation and multiple opportunities in education cannot be realized until the state allows civil society to flourish and avoids politicizing dissent.’

Education Reform in Singapore: Towards Greater Creativity and Innovation? by Jason Tan and  S. Gopinathan (2000)



Another dimension of positive psychology and its relevance to education


Positive psychology is making inroads into current educational thinking. Here is one aspect- Reaching a state of Flow-bear with me!

Flow in psychology’ is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

Part psychological study, part self-help book, Finding Flow is a prescriptive guide that helps us reclaim ownership of our lives.  The author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has devoted his professional life to the study of happiness and how we can attain it.

Based on a far-reaching study of thousands of individuals, Finding Flow contends that we often walk through our days unaware and out of touch with our emotional lives. He describes the mental state of flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost. Our inattention makes us constantly bounce between two extremes: during much of the day we live filled with the anxiety and pressures of our work and obligations, while during our leisure moments, we tend to live in passive boredom. So, the  key, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is to challenge ourselves with tasks requiring a high degree of skill and commitment. So at its most simple level-instead of watching television, for example  play the piano. Transform a routine task by taking a different approach. In short, learn the joy of complete engagement. Though they appear simple, the lessons in Finding Flow are life-altering.

Flow first came to Csikszentmihalyi’s attention while he was studying artists for his postgraduate thesis. As they worked the artists seemed to go into a trance-like state. To his surprise he found that the finished product was less important to them than the process of doing the work itself. External rewards were less important than intrinsic pleasure, an observation that went against the grain of psychological thinking at the time.


According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are ten factors that accompany the experience of flow. While many of these components may be present, it is not necessary to experience all of them for flow to occur:


Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.


Strong concentration and focused attention.


The activity is intrinsically rewarding.


Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness.


Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.


Immediate feedback.


Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.


Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.


Lack of awareness of physical needs.


Complete focus on the activity itself.


So what relevance does this have for education? Csíkszentmihályi has suggested that overlearning a skill or concept can help people experience flow. Another critical concept in his theory is the idea of slightly extending oneself beyond one’s current ability level. This slight stretching of one’s current skills can help the individual experience flow. Flow can lead to improved performance too. Researchers have found that flow can enhance performance in a wide variety of areas including teaching, learning, athletics and artistic creativity. Flow can also lead to further learning and skill development. Because the act of achieving flow indicates a strong mastery of a certain skill, the individual must continually seek new challenges and information in order to maintain this state.


In the late 1980s Csikszentmihalyi and several colleagues undertook a longitudinal survey of over 200 talented teenagers to discover why some are able to develop their talents while others give up. One of their principal findings, published in Talented Teens – The Roots of Success and Failure was that ‘flow was the strongest predictor of subjective engagement and how far the student progressed in the school’s curriculum in his or her talent’.


The authors suggest three ‘promising steps for promoting optimal experience in the classroom’:


1. The most influential teachers were found to be those who always continue to nurture their interest in their subjects and do not take their ability to convey that enthusiasm for granted. Learning was found to flourish where the cultivation of passionate interest was a primary educational goal.


2. Attention should be paid to ‘conditions that enhance the experience of maximum rewards’. Everything should be done to minimise the impact of rules, exams and procedures and to focus on the inherent satisfaction of learning. (In a more recent interview, Csikszentmihalyi has stated that although it makes some sense to work on students’ weaknesses, it makes even more sense to work on their strengths, ‘Because once someone has developed strengths, then everything else becomes easier.’)


3. Teachers must read the shifting needs of learners. The flow state is not a static one: once a skill has been mastered it is necessary to add more complexity if the student is not to become bored – there must always be a close fit between challenges and skills. The teacher’s sense of timing and pace, of when to intervene and when to hold back, is therefore crucial. There must be freedom wherever possible for the student to control the process, but teachers must also draw on their experience to channel students’ attention.




Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rathunde, K. (1993). The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation. In Jacobs, J.E.. Developmental perspectives on motivation. Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1975), Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York.


Csikszentmihalyi, M (2002), Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, Rider, London

Thoughts about Education on


Csikszentmihalyi, M, Rathunde, K, and Whalen, S (1997), Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Scherer, M (2002), ‘Do students care about learning? A conversation with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’Educational Leadership 60 (1)


Careers advice in schools

Signs of a shift in Government policy


Minister John Hayes has provided assurances to Careers Advice and Guidance professionals that statutory guidance on careers advice in schools will make it clear that schools have a duty to provide access to independent professional guidance outside the school. So schools wont be able simply to rely on an in-house teacher to give careers guidance to pupils. In a statement, released by Careers England, this month the Minister said:

“”The new statutory guidance to schools on Section 29 of the Education Act 2011 will  underline the new legal duty on schools to secure independent and impartial careers advice  and guidance. It will not be sufficient for schools to employ their own careers professional, good though they may be, and then rely on signposting to a website, excellent as that may be.  Young people benefit from face-to-face careers guidance. As Lord Hill said in the House of Lords during the passage of the Education Bill, ‘Pupils can benefit enormously from support offered in person that raises their aspirations and leads them onto a successful path.’”

So ,Statutory Guidance ,providing chapter and verse on this thorny issue,  will be published soon .It marks  a  shift in policy . The original Government position was  that this was  a matter best left to schools who should be given autonomy to decide how best to deliver advice and guidance to their pupils ie via a web portal, by phone or face to face.  Simon Hughes MP and others argued that high quality independent, face to face, professional advice is hugely important  and  particularly so  for the most disadvantaged pupils, many of whom have either not been getting good , timely advice in schools  or  have been getting no advice at all, which damages their life opportunities, and undermines, overall , the   governments social  mobility agenda. So, although it will, in theory, be left up to schools, where appropriate, they will be ‘encouraged’ to provide access to independent face to face advice. This corresponds with efforts to raise the quality of professional advice on offer in the guidance sector.

Minister David Willetts said, in reply to an oral PQ on careers guidance 15 March, “The Department for Education will publish statutory guidance for schools very soon, and it will make it clear that schools cannot discharge their duty (in respect of careers guidance) simply by relying on in-house support or by signposting to a website.”

But there is a problem. The  prevarication  and delays, including the failure to issue guidance as expected  in January  means that  schools have been setting budgets without any guidance costs being  taken into account.



Pilot programme  trains professionals to target potential gang members


The Young Foundation was commissioned by Harrow Metropolitan Police to develop and pilot an emotional resilience programme, targeting 14 -19 year olds who are offending or at risk of offending.

New thinking, backed by research, particularly in America , points to the importance that ‘resilience’ plays in equipping disadvantaged young people to cope with and succeed at school and in later life.  While schools prioritise the acquisition and development of core academic skills this has, too often, squeezed out another set of important skills – how to think creatively, how to collaborate, how to empathise. The value of social and emotional learning and motivation, including its constituent parts, resilience and persistence or grit is beginning to be recognised. The OECD has found, for example, that disadvantaged children can  succeed at school and later on if they have developed resilience, overcoming the odds.  Positive psychology and a focus on supporting  the development  of character in schools are informing much  education thinking on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Young  Foundation has been involved in a UK Resiliency Project in 24 secondary schools across three local authorities – Manchester, Hertfordshire, South Tyneside – developing a programme specifically for working with ‘gangs’. This was delivered by a range of professionals working with young people and the Foundation has developed new materials with Dr Ilona Boniwell, one of Europe’s leading positive psychologists.

The Young Foundation team carried out a scoping exercise with a range of key agencies including local voluntary organisations, majority group and opposition councillors in Harrow, Harrow’s Young People’s services, the Anti-social Behaviour Unit, Safer Neighbourhoods Team and the Wealdstone Anti-social Behaviour Partnership.

Stakeholders were interviewed to understand the local context, past experiences of similar initiatives, perceptions of what success would look like, and risk factors associated with the project. The Foundation also explored perceptions of ‘gang culture’ in the target area, and built an understanding of the range of provision and facilities for young people in the area.

Multi-disciplinary teams of frontline professionals who are based in Harrow and who regularly come into contact with these young people have been trained to deliver the course materials.

The Foundation will be publishing an evaluation of the Harrow work soon and will seek to test this approach in other areas.

Watch the accompanying video outlining the activities the young people participated in.