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Smart approach to teaching as school praises effort not talent

IT is the school where praising pupils' intelligence is frowned upon.

results: Vale of Leven Academy deputy head teacher Nick Quail with pupils Rachel Kelly, William Brown and Morgan Mackie. Pictures: Colin Templeton
results: Vale of Leven Academy deputy head teacher Nick Quail with pupils Rachel Kelly, William Brown and Morgan Mackie. Pictures: Colin Templeton

Under a pioneering initiative first developed in America, teachers from a West Dunbartonshire secondary have been asked not to accentuate the positives in pupils' talent.

Instead, staff at Vale of Leven Academy, in Alexandria, have been told to applaud the effort and determination that goes into their school work.

That means telling pupils they are "a natural" or "smart" has been banned - with teachers encouraged to focus on areas where they could do better.

Nick Quail, the school's deputy headteacher, said he believed a culture of praising pupils in order to build confidence did not necessarily lead to better results.

He said: "The most important part of the ethos we are trying to build is that everyone can learn and improve no matter what their starting point is.

"Empty praise works against that because either pupils see through it and it becomes meaningless or it encourages pupils to believe they have already achieved their maximum potential and therefore do not need to try harder.

"By offering constructive ­criticism, by establishing the principal that difficulties are a fundamental part of the learning process and by thinking carefully about the way praise is delivered we can foster an attitude in pupils that they can always do better."

The concept of the learning process the school is trying to embed in all its staff and pupils is often introduced through a simple task, such as juggling.

Many people instinctively think they cannot juggle, while others who have been taught before find it easier, but it is a skill that everyone can learn if they practise.

"The juggling works because it shows people that if they have the right mindset towards learning they can achieve something they thought was not possible - and those that were perceived as being 'gifted' at it had usually practised before or were good at other ball sports," added Mr Quail.

The indications are the strategy is having a positive impact on the school, which serves some of the most deprived communities in Scotland. Despite the fact Vale of Leven Academy has more than one-­quarter of its pupils on free school meals - a key indicator of poverty - this summer's exam results show eight per cent of its S4 roll went on to secure five or more Highers compared to five per cent the previous year.

Mr Quail said: "Exam results are down to a hugely motivated and hard-working staff, but we think the improvements are also down to the work we have been doing to change pupils' attitudes towards learning."

The Mindset strategy is based on the work of Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, in California, who became concerned that an unhelpful culture of praise was developing in American schools. At the root of her research is the idea that praising pupils' intelligence rather than their effort is counterproductive.

She said: "There was a widespread belief that praising students' intelligence would help them feel smart and fulfil their potential, but it struck me it could actually do harm.

"In our studies we found that, when students were praised for their intelligence, they became so invested in looking smart that they became afraid of challenge.

"Then, when they did not succeed at more difficult tasks, they felt dumb, so the self-­confidence they had developed was actually very fragile."

Her research identified a very different approach to learning in pupils who were praised for effort rather than intelligence.

"When students were praised for their effort, 90 per cent of them wanted more challenging learning opportunities because they realised a setback was not a condemnation of their intellect, but a signal for more effort. They realised that a harder task means harder work," she said.

The work of Professor Dweck will be promoted in Scotland next month by the Winning Scotland Foundation, an independent charity working to create a culture where young Scots have the ability to succeed. Morag Arnot, the body's executive director, said: "Professor Dweck is internationally renowned for her research, which can empower individuals and communities to achieve their full potential."

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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