Helping Children Succeed

Helping Children Succeed – a short review.

Reading Helping Children Succeed is a useful way of reflecting on the current enthusiasm for “No Excuses Discipline”. (see here, here, here and here. See some critical reactions here, here and here.)  Paul Tough examines a wide range of evidence that questions its effectiveness. I work in school that has its fair share of challenging students and as such needs to be clear about what works in education and why.

Does Michaela offer an alternative, maybe even more effective approach to teaching disadvantaged students? What might explain is success and its attractiveness? What can we learn from its advocates?

How might it’s “no excuses” approach help its cause? What might be the limitations of this approach – why does it provoke discomfort in many teachers? Under what circumstances does it work?\

What is it about growing in poverty that leads to so many troubling outcomes?

Paul Tough’s book is an easy read – a short overview of studies into working with disadvantaged children and some reflection on why they have worked.  He argues that schools need to build an effective environment of care, an atmosphere of relatedness and offer academic work that provides challenge and its own intrinsic rewards. The importance of building a sense of relatedness leads him away from a “No Excuses” approach its foundation in behaviourism.

He opens his book with two questions:

  • What is it about growing in poverty that leads to so many troubling outcomes?
  •  What is it about affluence that provides to children that growing up in poverty does not?

He starts out by looking into research that shows that growing up in harsh and unstable environments can create biological changes in the growing brains of young children:

“Those changes impair the development of an important set of mental capacities that help young people regulate their thoughts and feelings, and that impairment makes it difficult for them to process information and manage emotions in ways that allow them to succeed at school.”   page 4.


He discusses research that has started to put the importance of character on the map for schools – particularly as certain character traits go along with being a successful and healthy adult.

When discussing research, he is wary of taking small scale successful ventures as if they can be straightforwardly scaled up. Whilst small scale stories can work at a narrative level to inspire we also need to know why these things work – what are the principals behind the success.

He is clear that character is impossible to teach. He describes a few case studies of adults working with disadvantaged young people and successful engendering non-cognitive capabilities (grit, curiosity, self-control, optimism and conscientiousness.)

For example, he describes a chess instructor who conveyed a sense of belonging and purpose in her students. She displayed careful and close attention to improvement at chess – and did not discuss things such as resilience or grit. However, it was in developing their ability as chess players they became more resilient as young people.

This sort of insight leads Paul Tough to suggest:

“It was also clear that certain pedagogical techniques that work well in math or history are ineffective when it comes to character strengths.”  Page 12

Toxic stress – changing the environment not the child. 

He suggests that in order to develop non-cognitive skills in young people “that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first, it seems, is his environment.”  I think this seems persuasive – programs that try to teach explicitly skills like grit or resilience don’t always seem successful.

He recognises that stress is a central influence on the way environment is experienced and understood.

 “On an emotional level, chronic early stress – what many researchers now call toxic stress – can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. Small setbacks feel like crushing defeats; tiny slights turn onto serious confrontations. In school, a highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behaviour that are self-defeating: fighting, talking back, acting up in class, and also more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers and resistant to outreach from teachers and adults. “ Pge 15:

These words have a strong resonance with the school I work in. Again and again I meet students who react with such disproportionate anger and confrontation at sometimes the slightest of correction or challenge. It’s tempting to believe that appropriate and strong discipline would correct these responses and box students into a more compliant frame of mind but if there is anything in the theory of toxic stress then this would be highly unlikely outcome.

We learn from research that has tried to improve the outcomes for disadvantaged students that early intervention (before the age of three) is key and that the most effective interventions are the ones that encourage creating a nurturing environment for the child.

“The St. Petersburg experiment worked because it changed the environment of the babies in and children in the orphanage. The children didn’t get nicer beds or food or more stimulating toys. What changed was the way the adults around them behaved towards them. If we want to try to improve the early lives of disadvantaged today, there is considerable evidence that the best leveller we can use is that same powerful environmental element: the behaviours and attitudes of the adults those children encounter every day.”  


Paul Tough discusses one large project (based in the poorest neighbourhoods of Kingston Jamaica) that looked at home visits for disadvantaged children. He found that the most powerful interventions were the ones that encouraged parents to play – these had greater impact than for example  providing better nutrition. He shows that successful intervention gave parents psychological and emotional support – they weren’t design around just tips around parenting.

According to the Turnaround paper, written by consultant Brooke Stafford-Brizard, “high level non-cognitive skills like resilience, curiosity and academic tenacity are very difficult for a child to obtain without first developing a foundation of executive functions, a capacity for self-awareness, and relationship skills. And these skills, in turn, stand atop an infrastructure of qualities built in the first years of life, qualities like secure attachment, the ability to manage stress, and self-regulation.”   Page 51. (from Turnaround for Children 2016)

“When educators neither prioritize these skills and mindsets nor integrate them with academic development, students are left without tools for engagement or a language for learning.”

 “Without those skills they can’t process the vast amounts of instruction that comes their way each day, and it becomes daunting if not impossible to stay on track. This is the achievement gap.” Pge 52.


What might this suggest to school leaders creating climates and school cultures? This is something that Paul Tough looks at in the second half of his book.

Successful School Climates

His chapter on discipline notes that students who have been exposed to significant adversity most need are the opportunities to develop skills to self-regulate and modulate stress. However, schools often look at how best to discipline and correct students who struggle in these areas. He suggests that schools can see students who misbehave as simply having behavioural problems to solve – rather than as students struggling to develop a healthier set of self-regulation mechanisms.

Behaviour is not based on some sort of weighing up of benefits and costs but is often under the sway of psychological and hormonal factors that are extremely powerful. To improve behaviour we should create an environment in which students can develop the self regulatory capacities they lack. Paul Tough notes how talking back and acting up are shaped by an inability to control impulses and de-escalate confrontation.

He outlines research that shows that behaviourism as an approach has not been successful. The growing trend in no excuses discipline leads teachers to exert greater control and less connection.  He discusses the data from Chicago that shows an astonishing 27% of students who live in the poorest neighbourhoods received a suspension often for fairly minor infringes such as defiance of school staff or school rule behaviour. The students that are suspended are those more likely to achieve lower grades.


He also considers those who suggests that high suspensions benefit those that are left behind.


“But a 2014 study of nearly 17,000 students in a large urban district in Kentucky found the opposite. In those schools, a greater number of suspensions corresponded to lower end-of semester math and reading scores for the students who were never  suspended….Whatever the cause, being in a classroom where your peers were likely to be suspended, even if you never got in trouble yourself, created an atmosphere that was less conductive to your academic success.”   (page 56)


Deci and Ryan were two researchers looking at behaviourist approaches in schools. They argued that intrinsic motivation was much more important that extrinsic rewards. They identified three needs – relatedness, competence and autonomy – that need to be satisfied before we gain intrinsic motivation: 

“Students experience autonomy in the classroom, when their teachers ‘maximize a sense of choice and volitional engagement’ whilst minimizing students’ feeling of coercion and control. Students feel competent, they say, when their teachers give them tasks they can succeed at but that aren’t too easy – challenge just a bit beyond their current abilities. And feel a sense of relatedness when they perceive that their teachers like and value and respect them.” (page 63)

Relatedness autonomy and competence

This leads Tough to argue that schools need to consider how we can make relatedness, competence and autonomy stronger in schools. Of course here this leads us to wonder how “no excuses” school manage their students feeling of coercion and control.

Tough outlines the research of Kirabo Jackson who looked at what made teachers effective (using a database of 465,502 students). He used student attendance, suspensions, punctuality and overall GPA (an average test score) as a proxy for non-cognitive ability. These he found a much better predictor of adult wages and attendance at college than test scores.  What’s interesting is the conclusion that “classroom contexts where students experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness tend not only to foster more intrinsic motivation but also more wiling engagement in less interesting academic activities.”

All interesting and suggestive thoughts in the context of the what we mean by engagement debate. In stark contrast to no excuses ethos is that the further schools ignore the importance of relatedness the more likely students reach a point at which no punishments or incentives reach them.

Kirabo Jackson’s analysis of the data found two groups of teachers with abilities that often didn’t overlap. One group of teachers seemed effective at improving cognitive abilities of students and another seemed more effective at improving non-cognitive abilities. The second group he found had more impact on a student’s later success than the ones raising test scores. In other words, those teachers that appeared not to be successful in improving exam results but in improving non-cognitive skills did more for their pupils in terms of their future success.


Such claims put a question to those teachers who argue that schools should be to make students “cleverer” and also challenge any simplistic measure of accountability by test scores. There are probably many teachers contributing to the success of our students – some of whom may not be getting the best exam results.

What is at stake here is that a strong focus on cognitive skills and viewing a school’s success in terms of cognitive abilities only is paradoxically most likely contributing to our disadvantaged students finding fulfilment after school has finished more challenging.

This doesn’t mean we need to measure non-cognitive abilities but it requires an acknowledgement and consideration of the need to create the right kind of environment in the classroom so that students behave differently.

This belief in the important role of non-cognitive abilities was outlined by some research into education by Farrington called “Teaching Adolescents to become learners.” (2012)


She argued that “noncognitive factors (as the report called them – not skills) should be understood “not as a set discrete abilities that individual children might somehow master (or fail to master) but as a collection of mindsets and habits and attitudes that are highly dependent on the context in which the children are learning.

“There is little evidence that working directly on changing a students’ grit or perseverance would be an effective lever for improving their academic performance.”  (Page 76)

She suggested that these attitudes were context dependent and rather than try to make students be gritty they needed to act gritty.

 “the key factor behind academic perseverance was students’ academic mindset – the attitudes and self-perceptions that each child and adolescent possessed. “

 She found four key beliefs that contribute most significantly to any student’s tendency to persevere in the classroom.

  1. I belong in this academic community
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.
  3. I can succeed at this: and
  4. This work has value for me.

Students in adversity are primed not to believe any of the four statements. These beliefs   echo the 3 aspects of intrinsic motivation – competence, autonomy and relatedness which the author boils down to 2 statements:

One about people

First is belonging – she is welcomed and feels a part of the learning environment.

The second is about work

 Is it challenging and is it meaningful? Is it within their grasp if they push themselves a little?

The implications is that there are two toolboxes:

  1. relationships – how you treat and discipline students.
  2. pedagogy – what you teach and how you teach and assess.

He highlights research that shows even simple things like post-it notes with comments like “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” had an impact on those students that saw themselves as stereotyped.

What Yeager, the researcher, concluded from this was


“teachers have a critical and potentially transformative opportunity, when dealing with students who perceive school as a threatening place, to disarm those threats by changing the way they communicate. For some students, it may only take a relatively minor shift in tone to build that trust. That’s what the Post-it study seems to suggest, at least. But for other students, those whose backgrounds have led them to experience that fight or flight reaction not just in occasional high-stress moments but all the time, developing a sense of belonging and connection in school may require a more immersive intervention.” P86

This takes Paul Tough to consider schools that coached teachers in building a positive emotional climate and showing sensitivity to needs for student autonomy. He notes how schools need to set aside time to give extensive counselling to key vulnerable students as well as trying to equip all staff with suitable skills to deal with volatile students.

Paul Tough also discusses schools that are seeking to also makes forward strides in pedagogy. His investigations take him to schools that are moving away from worksheets and lectures to more time spent working in small groups and “collaborating on longer-term creative projects.” He showcases schools such as the Expeditionary Learning schools which have small pastoral groups (called crews of around 10-15) and show how students build character through experience of preserving through challenging academic work.

Whilst many are critical of project based learning Paul Tough quotes a 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research which showed:

“that students at five urban EL middle schools advanced ahead of matched peers at comparison schools by an average of ten months in math and seven month in reading over the course of three years. The research also shows that an EL education has a greater positive impact on low –income students than on other students.

He recognises that there is a need for student to belong and also work that is challenging, rigorous and deep.


No excuses in context

Paul Tough outlines research that no excuses has not worked. The simplistic behaviourist model unsurprisingly just does not help in understanding the complex needs and emotional lives of disadvantaged students. The no excuses model acts as a powerful inspiring narrative. However, whilst providing a sense of certainty and hope it reduces complexity and the emotional and psychological of lives of students seem almost one-dimensional.

Behaviourism does not seem a convincing theory for building school discipline systems. So why is Michaela so successful?  I feel a great deal of what I read suggests they are able to provide to students a feeling that:

  1. I belong in this academic community
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.
  3. I can succeed at this: and
  4. This work has value for me.

I think the success of Michaela holds a lot to how they foster the above. No excuses discipline is for me a distraction.




Planning for learning


I find the amount of official releases and advice on education overwhelming; I try and keep up with current advice but find myself feeling bewildered by the sheer volume of information. I’m returning to reading around education again – going back to some classic texts (music related and general education) and some new ones. However time is limited and reading a slightly abstruse book on aesthetics by Adorno – though fascinating – may not obviously improve my teaching.

Would it be better to look at secondary texts – and if so which ones? Maybe I should look to academics like Finney and Faulty or philosophers like Biesta? What about the great range of writing challenging racism and sexism – writers like Fanon, hooks, Spivak, Said and Achebe. If the neo- traditionalist bloggers are right maybe none of the progressive writers are any use and maybe I should focus my attention on how students learn and to cognitive psychologists like Willingham and Sweller et al. Or maybe the recent government pamphlets and advice do help? What about the more recent education bloggers like Bennett or Tom Sherrington or Miss Smith or Leedham? Sherrington has a book list he recommends maybe I should read those? Or how about those music education organisation – what about Musical Futures, ISM and TTM and other groups that produce blogs and advice? Maybe even the new culture white paper? Will the recent workload papers help?

And why? Why do I seek to find advice and improvement – do I really think I can change? Does this reading help and if so how?


The last few days have seen some recent releases to add to the sheer volume of advice and changes for teachers. The following is just a selection.

The white paper (Educational Excellence Everywhere) was released. My favourite response (which I imagine everyone has read by now) was from @disIdealist with his blog focusing on forced Academisation. I am very grateful to bloggers like this who take the time to spell out the dangers and ideological nonesense surrounding education.  There have been many other interesting responses – such as this one from @warwickmansell or this one from Professor Michael Bassey.

The white paper was followed by some developments in the Arts.

For example we have Nick Gibbs speech delivered at the Mayor of London ‘s Summit in School Music (Jackie Schneider’s blog is here – with very useful storify) and the government have produced a cultural white paper (no guesses for the instruments covering the front cover – the first cultural white paper in 50 years apparently) (ISM response is here) My response will follow soon….

(Though I don’t think music and the arts are short of advisory papers and calls to actionWhy is this?  Why so many people ready to comment on culture – why the constant advice? What is is about culture that needs so much regulation and direction? Not that these documents seem to be halting the slow demise of the Arts in schools as putting in place a “rigorous academic curriculum” slowly supplants all other curriculum considerations.)

Cultural Learning Alliance: Case For Cultural Learning

PHF – Inspiring Music For All (4th July 2014)

Warwick University : Enriching Britain   #enrichinggb 17th February 2015

Ofsted report on Hubs WhatHubsMustDo   15th November 2013

DFE   National Plan for Music   25th November 2011

DFE   The Henley Review for Music 7th Feb 2011

Henley Cultural Review      

DFE Cultural Review     5 July 2013

ABRSM Making Music Report   Sept 2014 )


Shortly afterwards the government released a whole host of papers refining advice at assessment at KS1 and KS2. Someone counted 13 different releases.

From a leadership perspective we had a very interesting report on leadership and school improvement from the Centre for High Performance.

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Then there came yet further releases from the DFE – this time some advice on workload.

Martin Fautley released a few highlights quoting




Of course schools may already believe they are asking for proportionate evidence – but at least the pressure of Ofsted was flagged as an issue. Ofsted’s simplistic approach to evaluation still remains an issue.  These reports will mean little in the current context – high stakes accountability and constant interference from central government continue to set the frames of the debate and everyday context for teaching in schools.


My own school received a letter asking the principal to produce a redraft of its improvement plan so that we could show even more “rapid improvement”. (It is currently defined as coasting due to not achieving the floor target) Such pressures and the threat of Ofsted (over due now) increase the SLTs need to provide “robust evidence” of rapid improvement. This can’t be seen in the results – they are under the floor target – so this can only be seen in the paper work produced to show the kind of evidence that might prove to an external visitor that students make rapid progress in individual lessons and over time. Schools, particularly those serving disadvantaged communities, have to produce paperwork to try and convince others they are moving at the appropriate speed in the right direction (the right direction being measured by outcomes in exam results.) I can’t see these documents doing much to change this.


Then there was a huge debate about posters responding to an article I didn’t get to read. This article about the debate I enjoyed – relating the issue beyond that of posters to a more fundamental search for meaning and purpose in education via a fascinating article from Biesta.

Meanwhile Jon Finney continues to post a series of excellent articles on the purpose of music education.

There is much to read and think about. However with the all-encompassing nature of work in schools much less time to engage. Thinking about purpose is slowly replaced with thinking about utility. How can I improve the learning?

Finding a place in education – a role that is meaningful to me is increasingly difficult. The current educational climate feels hostile to those who feel that the purpose of education is not synonymous with exam success, promoting Britishness or even maximising learning. I feel there is something hugely important about my own ethical and moral growth that is often put aside for more urgent considerations of things that immediately impact – such as the latest advice or research on how to make every second count in the classroom.

Maybe this is why reading those books that do have personal resonance and try to grapple with identity, consciousness and its relationship to society and inequality hold value to me even though they rarely tell me about planning for learning.



What makes a successful school?

Research 2015 Saturday 5th September 2015 South Hampstead High School – London

“Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. “ Dialectic of Enlightenment

This blog is focused on a couple of the lectures I attended.

In one talk Becky Francis and Merryn Hutchings outlined research from Chain Effects. This analysed the success of Academy Chains in relation to disadvantaged students by looking at their exam results. What they discovered (unsurprisingly) was that some chains did better than state schools and some chains did significantly worse – furthermore the difference between the two was widening. They argued the government needed to take action with academies just like schools and they needed the same level of scrutiny. They also suggested that failing academy chains needed to look at more successful chains such as Harris and Ark.

The creation of  successful schools was focused on exam results – the discussions that followed seem to be concerned with replicating those results. It seems a narrow focus. It concerns me that more questions are not asked about the means to achieve these ends; particularly in these times of increasing workload and teacher burnout. We seem to being using research, evidence and reason to further an end in education that is uneducational. Results at any costs are not results. However we don’t seem to really know or have looked at how these results are gained.

Yes, we can find ways to be ever more effective at wringing progress out of our students and driving teachers to enable ever more successful students. The system proves itself successful in its wilful betrayal of its own end. At the same time research loses its objectivity by focusing on objective data.

I want to know more about the student experience and staff experience of these places. I live close to a number of successful Harris Academies and a few friends have worked for them. The majority tell of bullying and 12 hours days – leaving exhausted as soon as it was possible for them. A friend of mine had a nervous breakdown soon after joining a Harris School. This is a worrying picture of a successful chain. But if these stories are true then what do we really have to learn from these schools?

The question of what ends education meet is sometimes dismissed as a distraction. For example bloggers like Old Andrew claim “It doesn’t take much consideration to see why making kids smarter is the true aim of education.”

It seems to me that the success of these schools in making kids brighter has led to a great deal of failure. Many schools seem attracted to the ideas of successful chains do indeed try and copy their methods – a corporate approach and micro-management of teaching seems now much more popular. These days Quality Assurance is a mechanism for gaining control of teachers and a removal of their professionalism; often in the name of seeking greater improvement in the impact of teachers on their students and their academic success. Unfortunately teachers no longer have a say in the means to the ends.

Of course – there are head-teachers that do offer an alternative voice however progress, Ofsted and data seem to be drowning out these voices. There are conversations around intelligent accountability.

In a later talk it was noted by Philippa Cordingley that extremely successful schools – as opposed to just good schools – relied, controversially she noted, on a narrow vision of pedagogy to ensure success.

It was a brief comment but again what is meant by success –was this measured only by exam results? I think there is more of a story and narrative that needs to be told about the development of education and the improvement of schools. This story needs to look wider than data, question purpose and take seriously the diverse stories and perceptions of staff and students. I didn’t find much that questioned reality but a lot of things that that tried to explain reality. There’s a growing emphasis on student as an individual psychological mind devoid of character, content or culture. Students – particualrly disadvantaged ones –  are problems needing to be solved by research.

Academics and teachers often acknowledge and draw attention to the limitations of research – this doesn’t seem to change the placing of faith in a particular narrowly defined kind of research.

Attending events like this is a reminder of the amazing dedication of teachers and their commitment to a moral purpose to do the best for their students. Research that holds to enlighten us but does this without questioning the ends ultimately provides its own myths. What do really know about the nature of the successful academy chains? Why is the search for educational progress and success producing quite so many unhappy teachers?