Lee Elliot Major on footballing lessons for the classroom

One of the joys of being a dad is taking your son or daughter to watch a football game. I’m particularly lucky as our local club happens to be Arsenal. The North London club currently tops the English Premiership table. And they play sumptuous football.

Yet even Arsenal’s fans adhere to the norms of terrace culture: their loudest cheers are reserved not for the audacious skills on show but for the times when players put in ‘110%’ for the team. Just listen to the applause when a player races back to make a last-ditch tackle, or makes a lung-busting run down the left wing to meet a cross-field pass.

In football hard graft earns respect, particularly so if it leads to improved talent. Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal’s most improved player, is lauded for running 13 kilometres during a game, a higher work-rate than any of his team-mates Those fortunate few like Ramsey who make it as professionals are not only supremely gifted but demonstrate an incredible work ethic.

Football terraces may seem an unlikely inspiration for educational policy, but it does cast into stark light one of the major challenges in our schools: how to ensure teachers and pupils adopt a similar ‘developmental’ attitude to academic talent.

 All too often the very opposite is true: we fall into the trap of distinguishing children by their perceived cognitive ability, and then assume that no amount of work or effort will ever change this. Being clever in the classroom is seen as a fixed characteristic, as if it is generated exclusively by our genes, and detached from the hard work that actually often lies behind it. We don’t encourage or reward academic effort enough.

This assumption is aided by headlines, such as those linked to today’s research by Robert Plomin, suggesting that academic grades are mostly down to our genetics. As Plomin himself said on Today this morning a more balanced reading of the research literature points strongly to the importance of both environmental and biological factors in shaping who we are. See my previous blog on this subject for more on this.

‘The idea that intelligence is learnable and can be developed through effort and skillful practice has not penetrated our society widely or deeply,’ argues Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck’s research does not suggest that anyone can become an Einstein (or the next Arsenal great), but it does make clear that even Einstein had to put in years of effort to become a great scientist.

The fixed, deterministic world-view of academic talent however tends to prevail. It was implied for example by Boris Johnson’s recent comments appearing to suggest that those with the lowest IQs are inevitably consigned to life’s rubbish heap. Yet today’s league tables – and yesterday’s Ofsted report – confirmed the extent to which the results of poorer pupils can vary enormously by school and local authority.

The need to reward and recognise effort in the classroom is a theme that runs through the findings of our popular toolkit on what works in schools. One of the central lessons for effective feedback given by teachers for example is to praise a pupil for their effort attempting a specific task, and guide them on how to try again.  What is largely ineffectual is telling a pupil they are a clever boy or girl. We all tend to slip into the latter language as parents when talking to our own offspring. The truth is that it does little to inspire future development.

Grouping by ability in schools meanwhile is often delivered poorly in schools as it is done in such a way that sends a strong signal that effort will not change how pupils perform. Too often there is little flexibility for moving between groups, and expectations are too low in the lowest ability groups.

Dweck’s research takes this further and argues that changing children’s views about how their intelligence can grow can change how they perform in the classroom. Her studies conclude that children who have a ‘fixed mindset’ (“I’m no good at this and never will be”) do less well than those who believe that improvement is possible through effort (“I can develop my ability in this subject and I can succeed”). This hypothesis is now being tested in England in a trial supported by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Teachers will be trained in the importance of teaching pupils about the malleability of their intelligence (e.g. praising effort rather than intelligence). Incidentally the project will involve Portsmouth Football Club’s study centre.

Moreover, effort appears to be particularly important for poorer pupils. Sociologist, John Goldthorpe, has published research suggesting a weaker link between IQ and later life outcomes for those from poorer backgrounds. The Sutton Trust is supporting further exploration by Goldthorpe on this fascinating topic.

In his latest book, Dylan Wiliam goes so far as to suggest that teachers should replicate the practice of the best sports coaches, who see their job not just identifying talent but also nurturing and even producing it. Often they get more out from the athletes than the athletes themselves believed they ever could achieve. Perhaps more pupils would then benefit from the educational inspiration that my children witness at the Arsenal’s Emirates stadium.

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