“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence- is the key to unlocking our potential” Liane Cordes, 1981.
In what I would imagine will be one of many tennis-related posts this evening, watching Andy Murray beat Djokovic inspired me to write something about effort. It seems to me that in his case perhaps more than many others, Murray’s success is not a product of some innate ability to play world-class tennis. It has come from years of training, commitment and effort. When admiring his victory, we are all too ready to forget this. I’m struck by how students also seem to forget what it takes to be successful.
Sir, I’m rubbish at languages.
My bottom set year 9 class are quick to tell me they have no talent for Languages. It’s all a bit too foreign for them (no pun intended!) and they just cannot get their head around them. To me, this is much too easy for both them and me to accept. Their success in my subject and the reason why they are in the bottom set is simply the result of their levels of effort in previous years. More than any other subject, perhaps, success in languages is directly proportional to the amount of effort and time spent practising them. Our job as languages’ teachers therefore is changing the mindset of our students so they see effort as the key to success and not intelligence.
With that in mind, I’m reviewing the way I incentivise all my students next year, not just those in the bottom set. The strategies below are a mix of what I do now and what I plan to do in September. To me, to win the battle of hearts and minds we need to offer a series of carrots and sticks.
1. Marking – My school runs a fairly standard marking policy of letter grades for achievement and letter grades for effort. When I mark homework, regardless of the achievement grade, a ‘1/2’ effort grade gets a merit mark and a ‘1’ gets a house credit. That means it is perfectly possible to end up with a ‘B1’, and receive a house credit, trumping an ‘A2’, which would receive nothing. This is really important: just because someone started at a higher point, doesn’t mean a high level of effort has gone into a piece of work. We should be rewarding those people who are putting in the effort to improve, rather than those putting in less effort but working at a higher level.
2. Assessment + preparation – There are four assessment points in my school’s academic year. At each one, in my preparation lesson, I write out a series of model answers for my students to learn and then offer my time outside of lessons to give extra help. Each person attending a support session is credited with a merit mark. There are no limits on the number of merit marks given. If the whole class attends one session, they all get a merit mark. If one person attends five sessions, they get five merit marks. It’s important that students know praise isn’t limited. If they all do the right thing, they should all be rewarded. This does not devalue the recognition (I’m yet to issue a whole class’ worth of merits for them all attending a revision workshop!), but it does show that if each individual makes the right choice, they will be rewarded.
3. Presentation – this one is slightly more controversial. I insist on high standards of written presentation in exercise books. Dates and titles must be underlined with a ruler. Work should be written on alternate lines. Handwriting should be as neat as possible. I have plenty of colleagues who think I’m wasting my time, but I can’t agree. If my students hand in a well-presented set of notes, they are rewarded with a merit mark. It’s easy: get the basics right and be rewarded. I set a lot of store by this as I think the way students present their work says a lot about their mindset. Well-presented work suggests a sense of commitment and pride. This isn’t about having neat-handwriting; beautifully handwritten work can still be poorly presented. The results of this have been clear: my exercise books are some of the best-presented in the department.
1. Marking – The other side of my marking policy is that any grade with a ‘3’ or below in it (2/3, 3, 3/4, 4), regardless of the attainment grade, has to be redone. An A grade student producing ‘A/B’ standard work is clearly not committing themselves to the correct degree. Equally, if these effort grades persist, I use the school’s homework policy to encourage them to change their ways. The first piece of work with insufficient effort is a warning. The second piece incurs a first homework sanction and the third incurs a homework detention. Homework detention is organised by SLT and lasts an hour after school. This means that a high achieving student who is persistently lazy can and will end up with a serious school sanction. Crucially, the clock is never reset until the end of the year. Students cannot get into the mindset that they can afford a ‘dud’ homework once a half term.
2. Assessment – If we recognise that effort is more important than achievement, then when we come to reward or sanction in assessment we need to be careful. In my classes, each student (in collaboration with me) sets themselves a realistic target. If they achieve it, they get a merit mark. If they surpass it, they get a house credit. If they fall short of it, they must redo it. Particularly for bottom sets, getting a poor result in a test is actually a success for them as it means they do not have to put in the effort in the first place. Equally, failing a test has proven to be more time effective for them as they haven’t had to commit themselves to effective revision or accepting they need help. This cycle must be broken.
So as I lay down the foundations of a classroom based on effort, I hope to gradually change the mindset of my students. Much like Murray and other successful sportsmen, international level talent is not born in people, it must be cultivated. The same is true for any student of languages. The challenge is convincing those who have become disenfranchised with the subject to re-engage with it and reap the rewards.