It was another fresh January day, the sun was shining, the temperature close to freezing and students were passing the time during their lunch break.
As I approached a group of KS 3 students on my lunch time walkabout, they looked as though they could have done with some direction and purpose. As I engaged in conversation with the group, a student reminded me of a chat we had earlier in the year about Parkour. I hope to one day create a Parkour club, but need to ensure I have the capacity to consistently commit to the students each week.
I set down a couple of tokens (used to reward positive behaviours around the school) marking set distances from a low wall that we were standing next to. I demonstrated a simple precision jump for them from the first level, landing on top of the brick work with control and balance on the balls of my feet. A few students then had a go with varying degrees of success, but there were many that were reluctant to make any attempt.
Early on, a student stumbled on landing, which prompted a point and laugh by a peer. This was the ideal point to introduce the my first Parkour rule – support others at all times. If someone fails, they get some form of acknowledgement for pushing themselves into their stretch zone (in the form of a clap / pat on the back / fist bump etc) and not to be ridiculed or humiliated. We want to promote students pushing themselves, taking sensible / calculated risks in their stretch zone, so that they make progress, not to feel embarrassed and humiliated if they fail or perform less well than their peers. The atmosphere immediately changed.
As I started to notice those students being supportive of others, they received praise from me. I started to hear spontaneous comments such as “you nearly had that” and “have another go mate”.
Students started to get tokens for supporting and encouraging others; the result – more students having a go (including those that didn’t want to get involved at first). There were more failure (as students progressed to a harder level), progress started to accelerate, whic lead to more praise and support. Fist bumps, dabs and high fives among the group of students grew in frequency for both successes and failures.
One student nailed a level 4 jump, only minutes after an unsure attempt at level 1. He had a friend watching and supporting him. After they high fived, I came over and offered my own high five…to the friend. The jumper had already had his (peer) recognition; it was now his friends time to be recognised. “That’s an amazing achievement, making that much progress in just 5 minutes” as I then turned to the friend “You must be an awesome coach! If I ever run a school team, you need to be on the team sheet, because I will always need people in my teams that look out for their team mates and encourage them to achieve their best”. The boy looked a bit perplexed at first, and then he looked like he could take on whatever life threw at him.
As a byproduct of the focus on supporting others, the students forgot about what level they or others were on. It didn’t matter what level you ended up on or if others were on a higher level than you; students felt proud to be making progress because they were being recognised by their peers for this. Their was an instant respect of each other’s starting points and individual rates of progress. As soon as this was established, learning accelerated.
Eventually, I ran out of the tokens that had been set as markers, such was the positive attitude and progress made by the students. The buzz and excitement was suddenly interrupted by the bell that indicated the end of lunch time, which was quickly followed by big groans of disappointment from the boys.
As I headed off to tutor, I reflected on what had happened; how quickly the culture had changed from that of attainment to one of progress. Students that didn’t have a go at first as they knew they would be judged against their higher attaining peers (and so made to feel less superior) embraced the challenges that lay ahead, knowing it was safe to do so.
I then thought about the challenges of transferring this experience into shifting a whole school culture. The principles remain the same:
Ensure staff praise students for effort and progress and not falling into the trap of targeting praise on high attainment (of course one can be praised for high attainment, if high levels of effort were applied and progress has been made). This helps develop a growth mindset among students.
The language of staff is key to modelling a culture of progress. If the shift from attainment to progress can be made so quickly and easily in the playground, then surely teachers can have the same influence in their classrooms and leaders around the school.
Spend some time this week attending to what you value and how you give praise around school.
I know what Ofsted will look for if they paid you a visit!