How can we support pupils who feel they always fail?

Picture quiz

Here’s a picture quiz for you. I used it with my year 11s the other week. What’s the connection?


The connection is a man called Jack Maitland. He has coached the Brownlee brothers since they were teenagers, and helped them to win their 4 Olympic medals. He also coached Leeds Triathlon Club (now Leeds Triathlon Centre) when I was a member. The first picture shows me “helping” Jack one week at our track session. I was never a great triathlete. I was the club curry secretary, which might give you an idea of my “talent”. But I did always try hard, and Jack always put as much effort into helping me as he did the other (faster, fitter) triathletes.

I’ll always be grateful to Jack. And I’ll always be proud that I tried my best, even if I never won any Olympic medals.

What about when effort doesn’t reap rewards?

Our third Journal Club meeting this year was about Growth Mindset and, as with previous ones, the discussions started well before we’d all actually got together.

“What’s this about Growth Mindset?”


I discussed the topic and articles with Michael (who runs our Mindfulness courses) as we waited in the snack bar queue.  I’m beginning to see that this is an important aspect of Reading Group: the conversations that go on before and after the meetings, as well as the discussions we have together at the lunchtime meeting itself.

I said that, for me, I was trying to get my head around a “chicken an egg” type question after reading The characteristics of great learners. Is it that people with a growth mindset do better because they have that approach? Or do they develop that mindset because they do well? And… is it something that can be taught? Or is it something that successful people naturally have? Michael said that, for him, it was all about people feeling like they had a purpose. Knowing what they were aiming for, and keeping focussed on that. Sometimes, students find it difficult to find out what that is while they’re still at school, and that’s when their mindset might appear to be “fixed”.

But I also wondered about those people that are used to feeling like they have failed. Can we instil this mindset in them? Can they develop a growth mindset? Would it help them? I’d read Effort does not always equal reward, even with a growth mindset, and it had really got me thinking.

“Trying your hardest and still finding yourself in a sea of misunderstanding is incredibly disheartening. You give it your all, and you still fail. Your work never goes up on the wall as an example of “What A Good One Looks Like”, your painting looks like blobs instead of the still life your neighbour has managed to produce and, despite following every single one of the instructions, you didn’t manage to win the running race; you still came last. Self-esteem takes a battering.”

I’ll never win any races. I’m used to finishing somewhere near the back. Yet, I still train, and I still enter races. What is it that keeps you going, even when you know you won’t “win”?

Focussing on the long game

When the group met, we discussed how short-term and long-term goals have different effects on motivation. Students are assessed and graded regularly at school, and it would be easy to become demotivated by disappointing results in the short-term, if your eye were not fixed on a long-term aim.


This morning, I ran a 10K race. I knew I wouldn’t win it. And about 3K before the end, I passed the finishing line, before heading up a killer hill (for the second time). Everything in me was screaming to give up, and just go and eat some cake! So I had to think about the end: how proud I would feel when I finished. How I’d like to cross the line in under an hour, if possible. How much better the cake would taste if I’d completed the whole race before eating it. I thought about my arms (instead of my sore legs) and dug in as I went up the hill.

In our meeting, we talked about how important it is, as teachers, to say “You will find things tough at times, but it’ll be worth it”. Or to use that important word: …yet. You haven’t got there yet (but you will). You haven’t achieved your aim yet (but you will). You haven’t passed this level yet (but you will). We need to help pupils focus on the long game when things feel difficult.


A safe place to fail

So what about those pupils that feel like they always fail? What about those pupils we teach with that have target grades of Ds and Es, but who would dearly love an A, and who have learned (through past experience) to give up hoping for one. This post from John Tomsett argues that we shouldn’t share these targets in the first place, but that’s for a future discussion.

So I asked: What do I say to them? They want to know their grades and, if they work hard, they might get a D or a C. But deep down, they want an A! How do I keep them focussed? How do I encourage them not to just give up?

We talked about the importance of the pupil-teacher relationship. We need to be honest with them, and sometimes it’s about reversing damage that’s already been done. Their response to their grades is ingrained, but our aim should be to make them lifelong learners, and to helping them to find ways to take their next steps and improve.

“Children… need to know that your classroom is a safe place to fail…. some of us will fail more than others, some of us will need to try harder than others, and still fail – and that that is OK.

Children who know that you appreciate their struggles will try hard for you. Children who trust that you won’t make them feel silly, or get cross when they fail, when they put their hand up to answer a question and something random pops out, will be prepared to keep on having a go if you make sure they know that you still value their contribution.” TES


It’s not just the low-achievers

But Dweck suggests that fixed mindset can be a feature of high prior attainers, too, and from reading her work it appears that they can be influenced on an almost “momentary” basis, which can affect their decisions and approach to their work.

We see our students day after day, so we need to to continually reinforce helpful approaches, and to use positive language in all our lessons. This is something we’re going to be focussing on next term as a school: thinking about the language and approach we use in lessons. This article gives an interesting perspective on how NOT to talk to your kids.

Supporting grit (or perserverance)

We also looked at a couple of articles about “grit” (Kirschner: To grit or not to grit and The talent trap: why try, try and trying again isn’t the key to success). One teacher admitted that using the word “grit” in an education context had “annoyed” him. Grit, to him, means having a 150kg on your back and nevertheless carrying on up a mountain. Digging in, even when you’re at the absolute end of your tether. He argued that students shouldn’t need “grit”. They should be working together with you, and they should feel supported.

But, on the other hand, we do want independent, resilient learners that continue to perservere, even when things get difficult. As Dweck says, Even geniuses work hard. And we need to instil in them a recognition that effort is needed as well as “intelligence” (whatever we mean by that).  This post on deliberate practice rang many bells for me.

“…cognitive science has long suggested that expert performance tends to be the product of an extraordinary amount of deliberate practice. …looking closely at your own performance, comparing it to an ideal performance, looking for the missteps, then training to address them”

Accepting ourselves

One teacher said that, if nothing else, his reading about growth mindset had really helped him, personally. It had helped him to accept that some people are “better” at some things than him, but that didn’t matter. He could accept this much more easily now, and just look at how he himself could improve at whatever he was doing. This is important. And this is what we have to help our students to accept.

I’ll never win an Olympic medal, but I’m proud of the work I have put in to running and swimming over the years. And sometimes, I do have small “wins”. This year, as part of a team colleagues, I won a trophy in a local triathlon. This was mainly down to the super-fast running of Frances, and strong cycling by Roger, but they still needed a swimmer in the team to enter. Sometimes, even plodders like me can play a part.



We read many articles, from a range of viewpoints, for this meeting. They can be found here.

This post was written by NKA

Many thanks to Jack Maitland for allowing me to use his picture of him and “Al”.



One thought on “How can we support pupils who feel they always fail?

  1. Pingback: Catch-up… (Hurdles and Bottlenecks) | 11months26miles

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