Sowing Seeds in September

sowingLike most teachers, August is my favourite month.  No alarm clock, holiday adventures, lazy days, carefree, relaxation, friends, family etc.  September is inevitable though – and I quite like that too.  A new school year brings with it a fresh start.  An opportunity to try out new things and get new classes into good habits.  Which brings me on to the subject of growth mindset.  I’ve said before that I think this is a great idea – getting students to realise that success is the result of hard work, high expectations, effort and resilience is, in my mind, a winner.  However, it’s a big idea and if it’s going to have an impact in the classroom, it needs to be broken down into actions. This is the important point.  We often start September with the best intentions that often aren’t sustainable.  So they drift off.  With this in mind, whether you’re an NQT or an old hand, it’s worth considering these ten practical and sustainable ways in which we can foster a growth mindset with our students – starting in September.

back to school1. Challenge for all

Challenge all students to develop and extend their learning – not just the more able.  There are three aspects to this:

challenge vennFirstly, get to know your students.  Know their names, know what motivates them, know what they have achieved in the past and know what they get stuck on.  This will take time, but make it a priority, as only then can you use this to challenge them.  Secondly, have high expectations of all of them – don’t accept ‘I can’t do this’ (more later!) – push them all out of their comfort zone.

In order to ensure challenge, think carefully about the surface and deep learning.  Surface learning being the key facts/knowledge that students need to acquire, with deep learning being what they then do with this knowledge in terms of linking ideas, analysis and evaluation.  This has implications in terms of your planning/ teaching.  You need to be clear what the surface/ deep learning will look like in that lesson – what do you want them to ‘know’ and then what should they be able to do with it?  Furthermore, make sure you plan enough time to embed the surface knowledge before moving on to the deep learning.  Likewise, don’t rush onto the deep learning without embedding the surface knowledge.  Both are equally important.  For some subjects, SOLO taxonomy provides a useful framework for this:

awl solo thresholds

Don’t use ‘all, most, some’ learning objectives.  Have single, challenging objectives for all and support all students to get there.  And finally, know your subject.  Know it inside out.  If you’re teaching an unfamiliar topic, don’t try and blag it.  If you are going to stretch your students, you need to know what you are teaching in depth, so go through it.

2.  Make Struggle Good

Let students know that it’s OK to struggle and find things hard – then we’re learning!  When students are in their comfort zone and doing easy work, they are unlikely to be learning, so we want them in the ‘struggle zone’.  Take care here though – if we push them too much, we risk panic and cognitive overload – not conducive to learning.  So, we need to judge this just right.

So, when met with a response of ‘I can’t do this’, in the words of Carol Dweck, counter it with ‘Yet!’  Similarly, don’t ‘unstick’ them straight away.  Tell them to keep trying and you’ll come back in 5 minutes.  At the end of the lesson, instead of asking ‘what have we learnt today?‘ ask ‘what have we struggled with today and why?

3.  Set Themselves Long Term Goals

September is a time of hope and optimism – exploit this!  get them to write in the front of their books what they want to achieve and how they’re going to do it – then refer them back to this during the year.

In the first few lessons, get them to produce a brilliant piece of work – then use this as the benchmark for the rest of the year.  Andy Tharby calls this a ‘Benchmark of Brilliance’.   Barry Hymer sums this up nicely ‘An A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into‘.

4.  Make Redrafting Normal

Use the mantra ‘If it’s not excellent, it’s not finished’.  Get students into the habit of redrafting their work early on in the year, so this becomes a normal way of working.  If you start introducing it during the year – they will moan about it a great deal – and so making your life much harder!  Layered writing is a great strategy to use here.

5.  Share Excellence

If we want students to produce excellent work, they need to know what it looks like – they need to know the standard that is expected of them.  So immerse them in it, like textiles teacher Steve Bloomer does brilliantly:


Also, during the lesson, when you find a brilliant piece of work, stop the class and share it.  Discuss what makes it so brilliant?  How does it compare to their work?  What do they need to do to improve their work?

Go further though, and have a gallery of excellence for the whole school to see, like the one below.  Or dedicate a wall in your classroom to something similar.


6.  Praise Effort

Praise the process and effort, not the intelligence e.g.

  • Intelligence Praise – “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.”
  • Process Praise – “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have tried really hard.”

Why is this important?  Those students  that receive intelligence praise, tend to choose the easier task they know they will do well on – so learning will be limited.  Those students who receive process praise, will tend to choose the challenging task, as their intelligence will not be at risk.

7. Make Feedback Manageable & Meaningful

Feedback is really important to students and to us as teachers.  It tells students how to improve and it should inform our future planning as teachers.  But it needs to be manageable and meaningful.  So use a variety of strategies, including verbal and written feedback.  Make written feedback manageable e.g. each lesson, give written feedback to 7-8 students, so over a fortnight (or so) all students will receive it. Make it meaningful, by ensuring that students respond to the feedback – give them DIRT (Directed Improvement & Reflection Time).  So at the start of the lesson, they look at your feedback and respond to it.  Use a ‘marking schedule’ so that you can plan your marking time effectively.  More on feedback here.

8.  Model it – Practice it

Often we expect students to be able to write a brilliant piece of writing, produce a wonderful piece of art or carry out an excellent experiment, without showing them how to do it.  This is madness!  So plan time for modelling.  Deconstruct a finished product first of all i.e. how has it been created and what makes it so good?  Then co-construct it – build it up slowly.  Following that, give them the time to go it alone – deliberate practice. Despite popular educational mythology, this is the only way to develop independence – by showing/ supporting students how to do it first of all, letting them try it out themselves, whilst giving them feedback on their performance – not just ‘letting them get on with it’!

Cognitive science tells us that repetition and practice is so important for learning – so don’t assume that because they can do it once, they have learnt it.  That won’t be the case – they need to keep coming back to it, so plan for this.  Set homework regularly and make it count i.e. make it purposeful and give students feedback on it – it’s a great opportunity for deliberate practice.  More on modelling here.

9.  Ask Lots of Questions

Get students to think deeper than they thought was possible, by responding to their responses with more questions – Why do you think that?  What could be an alternative view to that?  How have you come to that conclusion?  Could you add anything else to that response?  Don’t let them get away with superficial responses!

Socratic questioning is a good way of thinking about how we structure our questioning. It teaches us to dig beneath the surface of our ideas, by considering 6 ‘types’ of questions:

  1. Getting students to clarify their thinking
    e.g., ‘Why do you say that?’, ‘Could you explain further?’
  2. Challenging students about assumptions
    e.g., ‘Is this always the case?’, ‘Why do you think that this assumption holds here?’
  3. Evidence as a basis for argument
    e.g., ‘Why do you say that?’, ‘Is there reason to doubt this evidence?’
  4. Alternative viewpoints and perspectives
    e.g., ‘What is the counter-argument?’, ‘Can/did anyone see this another way?’
  5. Implications and consequences
    e.g., ‘But if…happened, what else would result?’, ‘How does…affect…?’
  6. Question the question
    e.g., ‘Why do you think that I asked that question?’, ‘Why was that question important?’, ‘Which of your questions turned out to be the most useful?’

Visual prompts at the start of a lesson (or at any point) are a great way to stimulate thinking and questioning – and eliciting prior knowledge.

10.  Use Academic Language

Tell the students ‘In this room we talk like…scientists…mathematicians…historians etc’  Then, insist on using formal, academic language during discussions e.g. ‘It’s not a thick liquid, it’s viscous’.


And finally, NQTs and mentors take note of this graph:

NQT phases

This is how your year is likely to pan out!  So pace yourself, look after yourself, plan relaxation and recuperation time during the year and support each other.

Have a good year!


Ruth Corrie on Twitter has turned this blog post into an infographic:

growth matrix

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12 Responses to Sowing Seeds in September

  1. Thanks for this – a wonderful post full of useful tips. Appreciate you taking the time!

  2. Pingback: Sowing Seeds in September | Journey to headship

  3. jameswilding says:

    What a super article to read before the start of the new year. Here’s my simplistic take on #purposedu Its lovely to read about achievement beyond the possible from someone else with practical steps on how to achieve that. 😀

  4. Reblogged this on David J Terrell and commented:
    This is the last day in August! School for me has already started I’m excited and ready for a new academic year. This blog sums it all for me.

  5. Great insight as we start the academic year. Thanks so much!

  6. Thanks for the nice comments David – much appreciated. Have a great start to the new term.

  7. Pingback: If you only do one thing this month… | Making Our Best Better

  8. Pingback: 2014 – blogging best bits | Class Teaching

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