Where's your head at?

Project based learning, thinking on learning and amazing Art projects

September 30, 2012
by Pete Jones

Seeing effort as the path to mastery


I recently had to give a seminar to a group of students about the growth mindset and why we are doing our project based learning course Pebble.  As always, I wanted a hook to allow their understanding to link to something more than just my words.

Being an Art teacher, I am often faced with students explaining that “I can’t draw” or “I can’t paint”,  which of course is rubbish. I can see teachers reading this thinking  I struggle to paint a wall with a can of dulux and a roller, let alone paint a landscape on canvas. But it really is just RUBBISH (sorry keyboard, didn’t mean to tap so hard).

It doesnt have to be like this!

One of the first, and most liberating acts we do as a young child is to learn to draw. In fact, for most of us, we start to draw about the same time as we begin to communicate verbally.

Move over Picasso… There’s a new kid in town.

At  first, we watch the magic of a piece of paper turn more readily to colour as the wax crayons are clumsily strewn across the page. But we soon move on to more defined scribbles, a couple of dots, which represents eyes (aha!) and before you know it, we start to make sense of what’s important to us: a face (mummy/daddy), before moving on to a few with little stick bodies (the family) and then a house with a sun usually in the top left corner (my home and if it’s sunny, I play in the garden). Fabulous stuff to fill the art gallery which is your fridge door for years to come.

And as parents, we love, cherish and adore every piece. “Oh Charlie, that is just WONDERFUL!” usually followed by “what is it?” Instant gratification is something our adoring little learners are brought up with every day. At this point I could bring up potty training and how we get so potty over every wee done in the right place, but I’ll save that as a ‘hook’ lesson for my classroom. It is true that as young learners, we are pampered, protected and perceived as perfect little geniuses every time we put pen to paper, but as we get older, we begin to realise that we might not be as good at some things and better at others. We build up a picture in our minds what our strengths and weaknesses are as learners and often this picture remains unchallenged by the grownups.

Worse still, learners see little point in putting in effort when they feel something is beyond them. For my children at the moment, this is the skill of tidying their bedroom.. Learners will see their peers around them producing work of a far higher standard and think how on earth have they done that? Some learners will also start to see others around them improving their skills whilst they seem to stand still, compounding the feelings of hopelessness.

There are some learners however, who recognise something they feel might be beyond them but will embrace the challenge anyway. They will see that if they care, think, analyse, reflect (let’s call it ‘putting the effort in’ shall we) that they will improve as a learner and understand how to do something a bit better than they did before.

One of the first questions I ask when students come to ‘big school’, is who likes Art, who’s good and who’s not? Children, when they come up to secondary school, at the age of 11 have decided that they are no good at something, that as a learner, they have gaps which they feel they cannot fill. (Hence my hard tapping of the word RUBBISH earlier).

So. Back to the growth mindset. I wanted a ‘way in’, a way for students to ‘hook’ their learning on the understanding ‘peg’.

The buzzer game, which back in the day was a staple of many a fairground, before the spew inducing, ear ripping madness of those crazy rides today (how OLD am I?) It tests nerve, judgement, a steady hand and above all belief.

I asked our rather wonderful DT technician if he could knock one up for me. Duly obliging with record speed, I was ready to promote the growth mindset to my little learning sponges.


I unveiled the mass of wire and battery under a sheet to a mass of hands shooting up. “Oh, me Sir! Let me have a go! I’m brilliant at this”. First victim. James came up, then saw how small the ring of metal was to hover round the house. So to a hushed, focused and discriminating audience, off James set on his journey into mindset exploration. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!! Went the ugly buzzer after about 1.5 seconds. “oh.” Went James. Now was the time to see how he accepted advice. I gave James some words of encouragement and words of wisdom, which I think he listened to. Again, he got a bit further before.. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!  The audience chortled at James’s misfortune of realising he wasn’t quite as good as he expected. I asked James if he wanted to try again. He declined and I asked him to sit on the left of the screen. Several more students came up to have a go. Most gave up pretty much straight away after they realised how difficult it was.  One student seemed far more determined, he continually asked for advice and kept going back for more. Dan got all the way round the tricky chimney and was the most successful. Funnily enough, he constantly responded to criticism, and kept going on something which was near impossible. I placed him on the right of my screen. Lastly, Sophie, who openly admitted she found things like this incredibly difficult, but said ‘I’d love to give it a go and see what happens. She must have had 8 or 9 attempts before I pulled the plug. Again, she went to the right of my screen.


At this point I explained to them the fixed and growth mindset. I made sure that the idea of ‘effort being the path to mastery’ was the key point that they must take home and plant on the understanding peg. It resonated with them. It really did. We all have the growth mindset- just look how students playing on FIFA or COD will spend hours and hours mastering their skills, constantly learning from their mistakes. But often, when it comes to mastering the effort which we need for becoming an excellent linguist in MFL, the effort needed to develop the skills of excellent essay writing, the effort needed to become a good runner, we often decide we either can or cannot. We build this picture of ourselves as being good at some things and poor at others, without recognising the effort needed to truly master something.

As teachers, we need to criticise and confront the apathy students have towards learning. If we question their effort, the construction of their own mindsets, their beliefs and values they hold for their learning capacity, we hold one key to challenge the door to learning mastery. This is a key which often isn’t used regularly in lessons or in the construction of schemes of learning. If as a school, our core aim was to nurture the growth mindset to all students, an aim which permeated every lesson, every challenge, the walls, corridors. If students were constantly challenged about their learning beliefs, what might they become?

There was a fascinating piece of research done in the 60’s, where classes were given a standard IQ test. Teachers was told that this test actually had an ability to predict which kids were about to be very special — that is, which kids were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ.  Actually they were all pretty much at the same level, but unknown to the teacher, the students they thought were about to burst with learning greatness were asked much more challenging questions about their learning and pushed much further than others in the class. Those who were challenged, ended the year demonstrating much more understanding than their peers and importantly, a more positive belief in their abilities as a learner, despite their similar test scores at the start of the year.

So as teachers, our key to unlock learning capacity is exceptionally powerful, if we are prepared to unpick the fixed mindset traits so commonly held by the learners in our class and allow students to invest in the belief that ‘Yes we can!’ they see that the effort to learn, to improve really can pay dividends. It might be very, very tough, but it is possible.

So the game is just a bit of fun, but it was a great way of demonstrating the traits of fixed and growth mindset.  Something they will refer to again and again as they feel their way through the challenges faced on our PBL course.

My year 9 students are starting portraiture at the moment. A classic case of ‘I can’t draw’ if ever I heard one. I used the preventative medicine of the buzzer game. Again it has really made the learners sit up and think about what they can do if they see effort as the most important rule of improvement. Long may this continue.

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