Growing a Bottom Mindset

It’s 7am on Saturday morning (the first Saturday of the half-term break) and I’ve arisen, uncharacteristically early, to watch Joe Root pile on the runs. Day Three of the Second Test against Pakistan on what looks like a featherbed. 

What could possibly go wrong? 

I’ve barely made a cup of tea before England are bundled out – featuring that most familiar of phrases to the English cricket fan: ‘a batting collapse’.

Now, there’s reams and reams of studies on this phenomenon: Crust & Nesti in their ‘A Review of Psychological Momentum in Sports’ note that these inexplicably comic failures in technique and temperament happen when there is a change in an athlete’s “sense of control, confidence, optimism, motivation and energy”. Basically, something happens to cast doubt in a player’s mind, leading to frustration, leading to a negative spiral of more and more mistakes, leading to Jimmy Anderson coming out to bat needing a career high score for England to draw level …. 

Watching (and cringing) as a succession of batsman came and went led me – obviously – to reflect upon the demeanour of my Year 10s this half-term. Because cricket and English teaching are the same thing. Honestly.

There’s nothing we’ve attempted over the last seven weeks that has not been viewed as ‘too hard’. No matter how a task has been explained, the default position has been that they ‘don’t understand’. They ‘are in this set because we’re no good at this type of thing’ and there’s nothing to be done to convince them otherwise.

I don’t like setting. In fact, our school has tried hard to stop departments splitting students up in this way – with only Maths and English still setting, and only Maths doing so explicitly (they actually have half-termly promotions and demotions which feels a bit cutthroat!) In English, we at least try to pretend  that the sets are equal, but it doesn’t take much investigation for the class to look around and note who is where to identify where they sit in the hierarchy.

What this all means is that, by and large, the class I’ve now picked have been the ‘bottom set’ for three years (with one or two new girls with poor English language skills thrown in for good measure). When you see the catastrophic impact a loss of confidence and motivation has on an elite athlete such as an Ian Bell or a Joss Butler, it is small wonder that the class I have in front of me have given up. If a sportsman at the top of his game hasn’t got the wherewithal or emotional resources to blot out the doubt after a couple of well-aimed leg breaks, what chance a group of fifteen year olds that have spent the last three years ‘failing’ to progress in English?

Haldron-Brown in ‘Mistakes Worth Making: How to turn sports errors into athletic excellence’ argues that ‘athletes who accept the fact that they will make forced errors are often more likely to learn from them and continue to play their game as before.’ (I’d suggest that this offers an interesting insight into the mind of Kevin Pietersen, but this is neither the time or the place). However, all my class seem to have learned over the past few years is that making mistakes  does not lead to any promised land where things get better. Three years in and they are still bottom set (and, what is worse, if they did learn from their mistakes and move up, they would be replaced by someone who had ‘failed’ to learn by their mistakes and had been moved down). 

It’s hard to develop a growth mindset where they’ve seem to have internalised that there is no room to grow …


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