We questioned which other factors could be involved in the other 80 per cent and to what extent they might influence progress. In seeking guidance, I found this comment from Guy Claxton, a psychologist and expert on creative thinking: "It is people's often unconscious beliefs about themselves, and even about the nature of learning itself, that limit their learning power; not any intrinsic difference in ability or intelligence."
These notions of people's beliefs about themselves and the nature of learning had a big impact on our way forward. We decided to find out what was happening in school. What we learned (apart from the fact that the two ideas are intertwined) was both illuminating and embarrassing.
As an example, an able Year 5 pupil reported: "You have to concentrate. You have to be happy with your learning. You have to understand everything. I think that if I can't do that question, I won't be able to do others. If I'm not quick enough, I feel I won't be able to achieve the things I want."
This kind of false belief hinders learning. The same pupil also said:
"Sometimes I think I'm stupid. If I feel I can't answer, I get embarrassed.
I get embarrassed when I put my hand up and I forget what I have to say."
I enrolled on a brilliant postgraduate course on emotional intelligence at Bristol University, tutored by Elizabeth Morris from the School of Emotional Literacy. We used her self-esteem guidance to provide a measure for each pupil in the school: high, good, vulnerable or very low. I noted the average reading age of the pupils in the four categories: they were 10.1, 9.17, 8.38 and 7.02 respectively. Once over the shock, we debated whether the low self-esteem was caused by reading difficulties or vice versa. Our research also suggested that the link between self-esteem and attainment was not a factor in all cultures. This prompted us to explore how we might be reinforcing this link in school and look at how to break it.
To add insult to injury, during a British Council-funded trip to Melbourne in 2003, where I investigated the link between pupils' beliefs about themselves and the nature of learning, I could not induce a single student to admit to sometimes feeling stupid when confronted with something difficult. They explained that if they were in difficulty it was not a reflection on their self worth but an indication that they needed to try a different strategy. They were much further down the line than our own pupils in that respect.
We came to some brave conclusions. We acknowledged that progress should and could have been better, that there were aspects of learning that needed to be addressed: emotional intelligence, pupil learning style, teaching style, accelerated learning, and so on. As there are so many aspects to learning, it would be sensible to assume that emotional intelligence is not a panacea for all ills.
We're at the early stages of integrating these aspects into the curriculum.
With regard to emotional intelligence, we started from the basics. Children need to understand their emotions before they can manage them, and they need to understand and manage their own emotions before they can build relationships with others. We started exploring vocabulary that allowed children to express how they were feeling. I spend a lot of time talking through behaviour incidents with children and I have become conscious of how easy it can be to make inappropriate judgments. As the children learn to express what they are feeling, I am continually surprised at how their actions are often a logical and rational result of what they are experiencing.
Behaviour has definitely improved at the school over the past four years, and while this can't be attributed to one single factor, I think we are beginning to find ways of reaching those children who were not making progress.
Clive Cooper is headteacher of Redfield Edge primary school, South Gloucestershire. He was talking to Steven Hastings