Carol S. Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, was awarded, in 2017 , the prestigious ,new ‘Yidan Prize’ dedicated to ‘creating a better world through education today.’Her ground-breaking research focuses on the pioneering concept of the “growth mindset” built on a fundamental belief in the malleability of intelligence. The theory is about how children in the classroom are encouraged to evaluate and realize their full potential. Mindsets (aka implicit theories) are beliefs about the nature of human attributes (e.g., intelligence). The theory holds that individuals with growth mindsets (beliefs that attributes are malleable through positive effort) enjoy many positive outcomes—including higher academic achievement—while their peers who have fixed mindsets experience negative outcomes. Dweck claims that talent isn’t passed down in the genes ;its passed down in the mindset. (some recent research contests this idea). People with a fixed mindset believe talent is everything. If they’re not gifted with the ability to do something, they think they’re doomed to be a failure. Their intelligence is fixed and there is not much they can do about it. Their skills seem to be written down in their genes, just like their looks, which is why they never try to improve in something they perceive themselves to be bad at.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that whatever they want to achieve is theirs for the taking, as long as they work hard for it, apply themselves, dedicate themselves to their goal and practice as much as they can and show a bit of  effort and resilience. The good news is that just about anyone can develop a growth mindset, if given the right support. Intelligence is not fixed, but malleable, fluid and changeable. The challenge for Dweck, though, has always been how educators interpret her research, in practice. Quite a lot seems to get lost in translation, something that she herself  has acknowledged. Dweck fears that teachers who have misunderstood her work are now nagging children, and nagging doesn’t work. From a teachers  perspective transforming ideas around mindset  into practice  appears  to be about  encouraging students to try new strategies, when they are struggling to learn a concept, and  helping students to see error, or outright  failure, as an opportunity to learn and improve and as a springboard for progress. . But  there is also a sense that  practical teacher  training and professional development in mindset support,   lags somewhat  behind the theoretical framework.  Like too much research, making sure that it is of real use to a teacher in the classroom and its full implications are understood, is a big challenge.

To be fair,  unlike rather too many researchers who  can become overly defensive when challenged ,  Dweck   is  prepared to look at the evidence as it develops and fine tune her theories and even to admit to errors. She has her critics, of course . Among them are those who claim that that there is slender evidence that students’ beliefs about their ability are in any way related to their attainment.

Given this claimed relationship between mindset and outcomes, interventions designed to increase students’ growth mindsets so increasing their academic achievement—have been implemented in schools around the world.

Now researchers have undertaken two meta -analyses  . First , on  the strength of the relationship between mindset and academic achievement and potential moderating factors.  And, secondly, the effectiveness of mindset interventions on academic achievement and potential moderating factors. The researchers found that overall effects were weak for both of  meta-analyses. But before mindset supporters become  too disillusioned, the researchers found that some results supported specific tenets of the theory, namely, that students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk might benefit from mind-set interventions.

Professor Dylan Wiliam commenting on the research said ” For me, the highlight is that six out of every seven growth mindset interventions had no significant impact on student achievement. So the question is, do you feel lucky today?”

To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? Two Meta-Analyses

Victoria F. Sisk, Alexander P. Burgoyne, Jingze Sun,

March 5, 2018






Ability Grouping

No panacea?

Its important to understand the terminology  used when talking about grouping children. “Streaming” is where children are put into groups based on their general ability levels, which they stay in for all subjects. This is also known as “banding”.

Setting” means grouping children by individual subject. For instance, a child may be in the middle set for maths, but a lower set for English.

The third option is mixed ability grouping, where children of all abilities are taught together.

The assumption is that it will be possible to teach more effectively or more efficiently with a narrower range of attainment in a class.

Research from the EEF shows that although some higher-achieving learners do flourish in ability groups, the additional progress they may make is overshadowed by the negative impact it has on lower-ability learners. It appears likely, according to EEF, that routine setting or streaming arrangements undermine low attainers’ confidence and discourage the belief that attainment can be improved through effort. Ability grouping suggests a fixed mindset, in the sense it looks at the current ability level of a learner, rather than their potential. Ofsted doesn’t have much to say on the issue.

Professor Daniel Mujis this week, on Twitter, said that as there is a lot of heat in the discussion of ability grouping, his understanding of the evidence is as follows:

  1. Overall small positive effect.
  2. Modest positive effect for those in high groups, small negative effect for those in low.
  3. Low SES more likely to be in low ability groups

And, effects differ by subject and phase, e.g. small to modest positive effects in mathematics, not much effect at all in English. And (as usual) we don’t know enough about other subjects…

So, he says, in general, the amount of fuss about this is really not justified. Conclusion: This is not the big equity issue in education.

Most recent research, according to Karen Wespieser ,of NFER, focuses on secondary schools, so there is very little research about primary schools, which Muji accepts is another weakness in the overall evidence base on ability grouping.


Genes, Intelligence and Education

Maybe our genes help shape the environments we make for ourselves and our children

During the past century, genetic research on intelligence was in the eye of the storm of the nature–nurture debate in the social sciences. Much of this  debate has been ill tempered  and polarized.

Back in October 2017, Toby Young, who  recently resigned from the New Schools Network, pointed out that the strongest single predictor of how well children do in their GCSEs is IQ, with differences in children’s general cognitive ability accounting for more than half of the variance in exam results. His observations were controversial. So much so that  Teach First decided to remove his blog, articulating these claims,  from its web site. Controversial, not so much in the sense that there is no science to back these claims,  because there is  (though contested) , but because  of the politics. The Left and Right  have very different views on the influence of genes and heritability and of the respective impact of nurture and nature on  social and educational outcomes. The Right says that genes are much more important than is currently acknowledged in pre-determining outcomes, the Left says that too much weight is given to nature, rather than nurture, which downplays the importance of  interventions to secure better  outcomes and  equity.

Young went on to say that children’s genes account for between 60 and 70 per cent of the variance in GCSE results, with IQ responsible for about half that genetic influence. But that still leaves the environment (including the school environment)  accounting for between  30 to   40 per cent.  Young argued that he was attempting to show how teachers could  remain’ evangelical about raising standards’ without denying the mainstream scientific understanding about the heritability of IQ and the impact of IQ on educational outcomes.

Young’s views are  similar to those of Professor Robert Plomin (he has worked with Plomins team) , an American psychologist  at  Kings College, London, also   a controversial figure, who  has long championed the idea that intelligence is highly heritable.  Plomin set out his own philosophy in a recent review paper published in January (see the  link below). In short, he claims that   life is an intelligence test, and this trait predicts better than any other how your life will turn out. During the school years, differences in intelligence are largely the reason why some children master the curriculum more readily than other children. Children have an endowment of genes and it’s the purpose of education to maximise the potential of that endowment.  The reality is that a large proportion of the differences in outcomes at school are caused by genes. So, Intelligence is highly heritable, and, moreover,  predicts important educational, occupational and health outcomes. Better than any other trait. As far as evidence is concerned bigger and better family studies, twin studies and adoption studies have amassed a mountain of evidence, he says, , that ‘consistently showed substantial genetic influence on individual differences in intelligence Meta-analyses of this evidence indicate that inherited differences in DNA sequence account for about half of the variance in measures of intelligence’. Intelligence is not the same as your level of education, but it influences it.

This argument ,though, goes down like a lead balloon with those who start from the premise that most children  are blank slates that have equal potential when they enter school.

The technology involved in reading the human genome is  much more advanced now than  it was, even five years ago.  We are now entering a new era of biological revelation thanks to “genome-wide association studies” These involve sequencing the genomes of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, and then scanning for particular genetic variants that are common to people who share a specific characteristic. This is allowing Prof Plomin, and others, to gradually plot the genomic co-ordinates of their chosen characteristic:  in this case intelligence. Although its worth pointing out that  there is no such thing as a “gene for intelligence”; rather,  it is a composite of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of genetic variants.

Now, Genome-wide polygenic scores (GPSs) for intelligence can aggregate the effects of  these thousands of DNA variants associated with intelligence across the genome.

Intriguingly, just published research from Kings College finds that there are, on average, measurable genetic differences between students attending different types of schools. Pupils from selective schools were compared to pupils from non-selective state schools. By linking genetic data from nearly 5,000 pupils to exam results, researchers London found “an association between genotype and school type” that could account for why children at selective schools notch up higher scores. (so, its not really about selective schools adding value)

Writing in the FT this month, science journalist Anjana Ahuja suggested that educators should take heed  of these revelations.

She wrote ‘ Academic achievement is generally seen as a product of environment: having affluent, educated parents; living in a book-filled home; being fed a nutritious diet; attending top schools. But these environmental factors are tied up in genetics too, in a circular phenomenon that goes by the name of gene-environment correlation. We traditionally think of genes and environment as largely separate entities that combine to create our wins and losses, but there is growing evidence that our genes shape the environments we make for ourselves and our children.’

The trouble is that this issue, along with the science and the politics that go with it, means that discussions become ,in short order,  not entirely rational. Cognitive biases intrude and the quest for truth  becomes something of  a side issue.  But its right to take a closer look at the science and seek empirical evidence. It could help us better understand how to achieve the best outcomes for our children. It is important to face whatever science will reveal without prejudging the outcome and with the confidence that we can be mature enough to handle any findings.  And hopefully use them to good effect.


Education is about developing an  Investigative mind -Professor Scraton


 Lessons from the Hillsborough Tragedy

Professor Phil Scraton’s most important message at the recent SSAT National Conference was “ we have to see education as investigative. It is not just a curriculum that we receive and impart.  Its more about how we engage with issues of our time. “

The very act of education is questioning, he said.  Education  is not just  the top down  imparting   of knowledge. The tightening of  the curriculum means you have, in effect,  to de-school students at university. And  there is a deinstitutionalising knowledge process.  Knowledge is currently passed down ,not upwards but we need to create an alternative  view from below . Students need  to  be taught to think for themselves and create their own version of events , thinking  outside the box.  Too frequently they come to him and ask him what they  need to know  and to  ask what  they need to write.  So, we all have a part to play in developing an inquiring mind.

His experience of uncovering the false narrative ,surrounding the Hillsbrough Stadium  tragedy,   systematically spun by the police, lawyers  and authorities and  supported by the media, shows how important an investigative mind is and how important it is that students are taught what good research looks like and how to navigate through evidence.  Its in not just the authorities who should write history. Pay attention to dissenting accounts and alternative views about events   .The Police dishonestly sought to blame allegedly drunk Liverpool fans for the stadium crush, when it was, in fact, their  operational mistakes , aswell as of   those running the stadium, along with the poor reaction by emergency services ,that contributed to the disaster .  In 2016, new inquests into the disaster found the fans were unlawfully rather than accidentally  killed , which had been the initial verdict . The FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest, held at Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium, was stopped after six minutes following a crush on the terraces. At the original inquests in 1991, the deaths were ruled accidental but those verdicts were quashed following the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report, and new hearings were then  ordered.

In  Scratons  book ‘ Hillsborough: The Truth’ he  revealed that  that the South Yorkshire Police, together with their solicitors, had  systematically reviewed and doctored  individual  police  officers statements in order to give a false account of the disaster to exonerate the police and cover up their failures.  Statements were identical even including the same spelling mistakes. There was almost   total corruption of the evidence,  This was  on a biblical scale over many years.

A jury ultimately  found that all 96 had been unlawfully killed, through the 25 findings delivered against the authorities – particularly the police leading to the exoneration of the fans. Alcohol ,it transpired, played   no part in the tragedy.  Scraton reflected on what C Wright Mills said that  neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both .Our  personal situation is linked to the forces of history and the society we  live in. There are alternative accounts and not just the authorities accounts, to big events and we should pay more attention to researching these in order to get closer to  the truth. Knowledge and truth is not simply dispensed top down.

Scratons triumph is that through single minded resilience and despite numerous setbacks, over many years,   he not only helped  uncover  the truth and righted a wrong and fundamental injustice but he gave a voice to the victims and their relatives, empowering them,   rewriting the truth from the bottom up. A great sadness is that some relatives  of the victims  did not live long enough to  see the results of his efforts.

He also made a compelling argument that a vital outcome for education is to develop an inquiring mind   in pursuit of the truth. His presentation at the SSAT Annual conference received a richly deserved standing ovation.

Critical Thinking-Can it be taught?

Not without subject knowledge 

An OECD report (see link below) says that one good example of a compound skill that relies heavily on both cognitive and personality components is critical thinking. It represents an ability to reflect on information interpret it in a new context and find solutions to novel problems based on existing knowledge. It encompasses cognitive capacities to use the rules of logic and cost benefit analysis, think strategically, and apply rules to new situations to solve problems. However, critical thinking also incorporates aspects of what it labels the Big Five dimension of openness to experience, such as independence  (autonomy) and unconventionality, which represent the driving factors behind the use of cognitive skills for purposes of critical inquiry.’

It continues ‘There is a consensus that critical thinking is an increasingly important skill that should be cultivated in formal education. The ability to act independently and reflect critically upon a given reality is especially important in the fast-changing environment we live in. The role of educational systems is thus increasingly seen as one helping children become lifelong learners, individuals who are autonomous and adaptable, able to critically reflect and understand the evolving reality. A critical stance is also seen as an increasingly relevant skill in a world with more and more misinformation, the unexamined acceptance of which can lead to dangerous consequences for both society and individuals.’

Critical thinking is reckoned by some to include the component skills of analysing arguments, making inferences using inductive or deductive reasoning, judging or evaluating, and making decisions or solving problems.

So critical thinking is good. But,  to think critically you need a sound knowledge base. The more we know,  the more we can think, and think critically. And the more we know, the more we can reflect on what we know and therefore make the connections and linkages that are a prerequisite for critical thinking.

Uncritical thinking, on the other hand , looks a bit  like rote learning , and  simple regurgitation of facts. This is the start of an on -going debate about whether critical thinking can be taught as a standalone subject or not. Is critical thinking a generic skill to be taught? The short answer is that you need sufficient knowledge of a particular domain before you can think critically about it, so it is important that you build your knowledge across the curriculum and in specific domains before you can think critically. You should be encouraged to think critically in every subject you are studying. Your critical thinking is only as good as the mastery of your subject.

The  American education historian Diane Ravitch argued that “we have ignored what matters most. We have neglected to teach them (ie students)  that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.”

According to Daniel Willingham, decades of cognitive research suggest that  critical thinking  can’t really be taught. The problem is that people who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that is a skill, like riding a bike. Similar to other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it to any situation. Unfortunately, thinking is not that sort of skill he says . The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought ( in other words,  domain knowledge). This helps to explain why students are able to think critically in one subject area, but not in another. The more domain knowledge they have, the more critically they will be able to think about that particular topic or idea. Critical thinking is dependent and contextual. It is not as transferable as we have been led to believe, he claims.

As Willingham says, ‘Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in – and even trained scientists can fail in.’

But research from Pearson, says that while background knowledge is absolutely necessary  it is not a sufficient condition for enabling critical thought within a given subject.  It found in its literature review that  ‘Critical thinking involves both cognitive skills and dispositions. These dispositions, which can be seen as attitudes or habits of mind, include open and fair-mindedness, inquisitiveness, flexibility, a propensity to seek reason, a desire to be well informed, and a respect for and willingness to entertain diverse viewpoints.’ So, there are both general- and domain-specific aspects of critical thinking. Critical thinking is more than recalling learned information.  Based on this, Pearson says that  critical thinking assessments should ‘use ill-structured problems that require students to go beyond recalling or restating learned information and also require students to manipulate the information in new or novel contexts.’  It concludes that in theory all people can be taught to think critically. Instructors are urged to provide explicit instruction in critical thinking, to teach how to transfer to new contexts.’ So this seems to reinforce the OECD view that critical thinking requires ‘both cognitive and personality components’  and yes teachers can help (see above)

Critical Thinking: A Literature Review- Research Report, Pearson 2011

Link to Report

OECD Report


The Government is heading rapidly down a cul de sac in its policy to increase selection in the maintained sector. Either it will have to execute a U turn (not unheard of-think, Nicky Morgan) or it will come to a grinding halt , using its scarce resources and haemorrhaging political capital, to prop up a policy that cannot possibly deliver the outcomes it wants-a significant number of new, good school places for ‘ordinary working  families’ and increased social mobility.

The Grammar school model is currently demonstrably failing to help the most disadvantaged pupils and is no engine of social mobility. Justine Greening has accepted as much, and now talks about  the need for a  ‘new model ‘for Grammar schools ,  conceding past failures of Grammars to cater for the less affluent.

Selective schools continue to be dominated by the most affluent. Over half of pupils in selective schools are in families with income above the national median and fewer than one in ten are eligible for the Pupil Premium. Ironically  one  enduring  education success of this and the previous government, has been the Pupil Premium ,which specifically targets the most disadvantaged cohort with extra per capita funding  . Grammars really haven’t played any significant  part  in this success story.

The government has shifted its attention now  to what it calls ordinary working families. Although there is no official definition of an ordinary working family, the government   describes students fitting into the category as those who are not entitled to pupil premium, but who come from families earning “modest” or below median incomes.The Education Policy Institute tells us that Department for Education’s definition of  the OWF group occupies the centre of the income distribution of children in maintained schools.’ Crucially, though , the child of the OWF  currently ‘experiences attainment and progress outcomes that are above average’.

Seeking to change that model by incentivising, or  compelling,  Grammars to take more   pupils from these  ordinary working families  presents a huge new  practical  challenge. . How do you hold schools  to account ? Do you introduce a quota system? Do you dump the eleven plus in favour of another test?  Indeed, can you design a new  tutor -proof test (unlikely)?  Or ,do you lower the pass mark for young people whose families fall below the median income threshold?  The Government risks falling between a rock and a hard place here, alienating both the education establishment and grammar schools.

The three bodies that know most about social mobility and its drivers, are the Social Mobility Commission, the Sutton Trust and Teach First . None of these organisations  though believe that social mobility, remember the top  priority of Justine Greening as Education Secretary, will increase one iota on the back of increased selection. The Sutton Trust believes that Grammars should demonstrate how well they can support  the bottom third of pupils, before they  roll out  increased selection across the system.  Greening struggled on the BBC R4  Today Programme, on 13 April ,to name a single expert or institution that supports her policy (to be fair its not her Policy ,its Nick Timothys of N0 10). She couldn’t,  because there aren’t any. When NO 10 phoned around those whom it could normally rely on to support its education announcements, on the release of its Green Paper on selection, all ducked their heads below the parapet. They had a quick squint at the evidence, saw the prospect of a car crash, and made their excuses .All these organisations are alarmed too at the shift away from targeting the most disadvantaged cohort, and narrowing  the achievement gap,  to the group that  was called those who are just about managing (JAMs) ,( now called  ordinary working families’ (OWFs).

There are  many,  including  key figures who have been  broadly supportive  of the governments education reforms,   who cannot fathom  why the government is pursuing such a high risk policy,   that is not evidence -based, and  has  such little prospect  of  meaningful  educational ,or political, returns. .


Daniel Kahneman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University and Emeritus Professor of Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He was awarded the Nobel prize in Economics in 2002 for his pioneering work with fellow Israeli born Amos Tversky on decision-making and uncertainty. Kahneman is also  the author,  ,of the   best selling “Thinking Fast and Slow” (2011). Both Kahneman and Tversky  advanced the discipline of Behavioural Psychology immeasurably, but  the world has been slow to    work out how their insights   might  be used  to improve  decision making  , particularly in public policy.
Their joint research looked at how we humans make decisions, how we make choices (we are supposed to be rational) and how we rate probabilities, along with our ability to predict outcomes . Using research and extensive sampling from behavioural psychologists and economists they found that although quite often we make the right decisions , in other words they are demonstrably in our interests, it can be for the wrong reasons, and indeed we are all susceptible, in a systematic way, to making mistakes because of the way our brains, or minds, work. Our decision-making is subject to a number of biases ‘cues’ and preconceptions, of which we are mostly unaware. These biases often occur as a result of holding onto one’s preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information. Social pressures, individual motivations, emotions, the way we tap our short term memories and limits on the mind’s ability to process information can all contribute to these biases.
The motivation of these psychologists was that if we know why we make errors of judgment, then we can try and do something about it. Which could have a profound effect on the way we manage our daily lives and in a broader way how our public services are delivered. In short we could improve decision-making,and might be able to spot where human judgment goes wrong. And maybe if we could figure this out, we might be able to close the gap between the expert and algorithms
Kahneman and Tversky demonstrate the ways in which human minds err systematically when forced to make judgments about uncertain situations, and we are all, of course ,daily presented with uncertain situations.
In such an uncertain world we understandably turn to ‘experts’. But, it transpires,  they are also subject to big errors of judgment.

Looking to the medical profession, Professor Paul J Hoffman, in his research as  far back as 1960 (The Paramorphic Representation of Clinical Judgment), looked at the way medical experts, in this case radiologists, diagnosed whether patients had stomach cancer from X- rays. In some  walks of human life there is a lack of sufficient data to build algorithms that might replace the human judge, but medicine is not necessarily one of them . Hoffman wanted to find out how radiologists reached their judgments. He set out to create a model of what these experts were doing when they formed their judgments. So, Hoffman identified the various inputs that experts used to make their decisions. The radiologists said there were seven major signs that they looked for to identify whether a stomach ulcer was cancerous. For example, its size, the shape of its borders, the depth of the crater etc. A simple algorithm was created looking at the seven factors equally weighted.. The researchers then asked the doctors to judge the probability of cancer on a seven point scale from ‘definitely malignant’ to ‘definitely benign’. Unbeknownst to the doctors, they presented  the 92 x rays of different ulcers  ,in random order, with  each x ray presented  twice.

The results were, in a certain sense, terrifying.

Although doctors thought the processes they followed to make their judgments were complex and, of course ,informed by experience this simple model captured them well. Their diagnoses were in fact all over the shop. When presented with duplicates of the same ulcer every doctor contradicted himself and rendered more than one diagnosis. The doctors apparently could not even agree with themselves. A similar experiment with clinical psychologists and psychiatrists asking them to predict whether it was safe to release a patient from a psychiatric hospital found that those with the least training who had just graduated were just as accurate as the fully trained experienced practitioners.
The lesson drawn from the x- ray test was that a simple algorithm had outperformed not merely the group of doctors but it had outperformed even the best individual doctor. So you could beat the doctor by replacing him with an equation created by people who knew nothing about medicine and had simply asked a few questions of doctors.(remember this was 1960!)

There is now quite a lot of research out there that tells us about how often we make misjudgments, although given good information, on the effectiveness of algorithms (man, versus man made model) and the growing impact, and potential impact of Artificial Intelligence (which is rapidly rising up the political agenda) but we seem to have been remarkably slow at putting this knowledge to good use , particularly in the field of Education and Learning. Hopefully, this will change soon.

It is pretty clear that psychological issues are relevant to policy formulation and implementation  and in the design of  ‘choice ‘architecture . You cannot assume that all individuals, acting for themselves or as economic agents, are completely rational. Most of the time, as Kahneman points out, we can trust intuition, and indeed we do. He draws the distinction between fast thinking and slow thinking, and our lives are mostly run on fast thinking, which normally does us very well. But , there are situations where people would do better by slowing down and where they need more than a little help. And experts judgment can be fatally wrong. Don’t just think of medicine here , think of the financial crash of 2007/8 and other sectors .-one might also look at a few flawed experiments in education policy as education ministers  are as subject to biases (and cherry picking evidence) as the next  person.

. Kahneman says “ We haven’t yet found the right model to look at decision-making under fear, how people react when the world feels dangerous and uncertain.” So the work is on-going but there is infinite scope for making better use of man-made models and exploiting Artificial Intelligence within a secure regulatory framework.

See also, The Undoing Project –A Friendship that Changed the World, Allen- Lane 2017 ;by Michael Lewis (which describes the context of behavioural psychology research, and the relationship between Kahneman and Tversky)