Book title: The A Level Mindset
Author/Editor(s): Steve Oakes & Martin Griffin
Publication date: 2016
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
The A Level Mindset is an excellent practical toolkit of ideas to help teachers develop helpful mindsets in their sixth form students. The book applies the popular theories of growth mindset (Dweck 2007), grit (Duckworth 2007) and mental toughness (Clough et al 2002) to the sixth form context. The aim is to improve students’ learning habits and, in turn, their results.
The A Level Mindset is written by Steve Oakes, Assistant Director of Sixth Form, and Martin Griffin, Director of Sixth Form, both from The Blue Coat School in Oldham. It follows how they applied their knowledge of these theories to lead their sixth form to excellent results (top 10% nationally).
Oakes and Griffin summarise some of the research, techniques and ideas they used. They identify five qualities that successful students have, which need to be developed in all sixth form pupils. From this they build the VESPA model – vision, effort, systems, practice and attitude. This structure is really helpful if you want to reflect on each of these elements for your students and identify which of these may need developing.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
Sixth form teachers will get plenty of ideas about how to teach the essential skills needed for successful study at sixth form. You can embed these into your teaching and conversations with students.
Sixth form leaders could also use all or parts of VESPA as a whole school/college approach, depending on their needs. For example, sixth form leaders who want to raise performance for all students may apply the VESPA model as a whole, whereas a sixth form where progression is a weakness might want to begin by focusing on vision. Chapter 7 is aimed only at school leaders and looks at how to deliver the approach at a strategic level.
Heads of year for younger secondary pupils might also benefit from this book. It gives a really clear idea of the skills students need to develop in preparation for sixth form. This could help to introduce and develop the systems and attitudes needed for independent learning lower down the school.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
This is an easy to read book, designed to be read in full or dipped in and out of. The ideas are well explained, referenced and supported by student-friendly activities.
There are five sections – each begins with a teacher introduction before explaining each activity in a student friendly way. This is really helpful for a busy teacher looking for practical activities. For example, if you have a group of students panicking about revision for a mock exam you could head straight to the practice section for ideas on how to help them revise more effectively.
There is also a concise summary at the end of the book which is really handy for those who read the book a while ago and want a refresher, or are looking for a concise way of explaining the VESPA model to staff or students.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
The book focuses on the experience and practice of the authors who work with sixth form students in an 11-18 context. It has a ‘this has worked for us’ approach that is underpinned by academic research. The introduction outlines three bodies of research by Clough et al (2002) on mental toughness, Dweck’s (2007) research on mindset and Duckworth et al’s (2007) research on grit. Ideas and activities are referenced throughout and a detailed reference list is included.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
I had already carried out a small-scale research project, alongside Steve Ingle at the University of Cumbria, about developing independent learning with sixth form students as part of the Osiris Growth Mindset project. I was looking for further strategies to develop my students’ independent learning skills, and this book was recommended to me.
The book articulates many of my own thoughts and reflections in a really clear and useful way. This not only gave me suggestions of things to try with my students, but the VESPA model was also a useful way to communicate my existing ideas and research knowledge to colleagues.
The book articulates the concepts of resilience and effort really well, and gives practical strategies which support students. For example, last year I used activities from the revision questionnaire to move students away from content-only revision to developing strategies to increase skill development and feedback-focused learning. This stopped students creating any more mind maps and cue cards, and got them to link notes to exam questions or hand in practice questions.
I then kept a tally of the number of marks students were getting as a way to see how many exam questions they were completing. I credited all exam practice equally, for example if a student handed in 10 six-mark questions I gave them 60 marks, while two 30-mark questions would get the same. This did not record the quality of their work at this stage, but it enabled me to celebrate exam practice. Each week I shared the top marks to develop a culture where students were celebrated for being brave and trying exam work, irrespective of the grade. Clearly there was a danger here of encouraging quantity over quality, but as a first step I was aiming to change revision habits.
This year I am going to continue to develop this aspect of the book, but I also hope to use it more throughout the year by planning which bits of the book to use when, for example, discussing the working week as part of student induction (Activity 10: Effort).
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
"Students aren’t lazy, but they may have developed habits and patterns of behaviour which preclude them from putting in large amounts of effort. The job of the organisation is to encourage learners to form new and more positive habit loops."