Engineering Success. A positive alternative to generic mindset messaging

In general I find that there is still far too much emphasis in schools on the generic language of growth mindset, the learning pit, resilience, ‘learning to learn’ and broad-brush life-goal motivation.  This has its place at the level of a broad ethos in a school. It’s all part of creating the positive ‘feels’ we like to surround ourselves with.  People promote these ideas in assemblies, ethos statements, noticeboards…  because it feels right, it feels good and, let’s be honest, because it’s easy.    Away from the classroom, generic messaging about getting out of the learning pit, being resilient and having some self-belief is easy.  It costs nothing.  We might as well do it.

But my contention is that, in terms of securing actual learning goals, generic messaging is largely a waste of time; at least it needs to be put way down the list of things to do.  I’m a firm UNbeliever in ‘the power of  YET’ – as in ‘you can’t solve quadratic equations.. yet’! Like tagging Yet onto the end of your sentence is going to help solve those equations..   These ideas get the CPD crowd whooping with doe-eyed feel-good-feels, but all too soon it can become a giant wall of meme-poster guff that goes nowhere.

Instead, let’s focus on how, exactly, we might get out of the learning pit…  How, exactly,  do we solve these quadratic equations, build this wall, create this sculpture, make this programme work, evaluate this poem, write with great sophistication and flair, explain this natural phenomenon?  How does it work?  What will success look like when I get there? What will excellence look like? And what are the small achievable steps I need to take right now, and then immediately after that.

Let’s talk about engineering success. 


Success is not generic. It’s very very specific to each learning context and needs to be framed in curriculum terms at  various levels:

  • What might big picture success look like in learning terms: – the features of excellence in a task or learning sequence. As Dylan Wiliam says, ‘if we don’t know where we’re going, we’ll never get there’.
  • What might the steps look like on the path to success?  We see the top of the mountain – over there.  That’s the goal. But where shall we aim for first? What’s the next achievable milestone or step that will tell us we’re on the road to success when we get there?
  • What might small-step success look like for an individual?  If you’re running a 5k race.. it’s all about personal bests, not beating the field.  In many scenarios, success has to be individualised based on where a student is right now.

All of this thinking is subject specific. It requires curriculum thinking; subject knowledge; breaking down learning into sequences, steps, stages – pieces of the puzzle that can be learned and practised:

  • If Jason is struggling with writing to persuade, what steps can he take to improve?
  • If Sabrina is still finding it hard to factorise algebraic expressions, what can she do to build confidence and make the conceptual leap needed?
  • If Mo is still not using the verb endings correctly, what practice can he do that will allow him to gain the fluency he needs?
  • If Emma still feels ‘she can’t draw for toffee’ – what can she do using the knowledge and skills she’s got to move forward, gain confidence and feel successful?
  • If Leon doesn’t seem to understand what happened in Vietnam, despite being in the lessons, what learning strategies can he work hard at in order to secure the knowledge he needs? (eg 10 Techniques for Retrieval Practice)

All of these things link to feedback that helps Jason, Sabrina, Mo, Emma and Leon to move forward.  Feedback that focuses on things they can actually do.  #FiveWays of Giving Effective Feedback as Actions. This has implications for our assessment regimes, keeping the information raw and close to the action, not morphed into pointless trackers and meaningless flightpaths.

In addition to the subject-specific knowledge and feedback, some general ideas that help to engineer success are around meta-cognition and self-regulation.  This is largely supported by explicit modelling of strategies, multiple worked examples, narrating thought processes.. making it all public, open, transparent. It’s about guiding practice very closely as students learn to succeed and then allowing them to practise independently.  The EEF paper on metacognition captures this so well:

Screen Shot 2018-12-21 at 10.26.22

Again, you don’t talk about this in assembly.  You DO it in class as part of teaching something.

And of course, students need teachers to give them time and opportunities to improve, to experience success… or as Ron Berger would say, to get ‘a taste of excellence’ – Austin’s Butterfly style. Lessons from Berger: Austin’s Butterfly and not accepting mediocrity

Screenshot 2019-06-01 at 09.10.15.png
From the Oldham College Teaching for Distinction programme

My most recent personal experience of this has been trying to become a confident, comfortable 5km park-runner.  It’s been a struggle. I’ve had some set-backs after some early wins.  I’ve got some broad life-goals around being fit and healthy into old age; I’ve got some short-term goals around race times and finishing feeling a little less like Death each time –   but I’ve given up a few times and have needed to examine my failures.  The answers to all my problems, to engineering success,  are entirely located in running-related strategies. I need to do more shorter runs; eat better; drink more before a run, use smaller steps up the hills; do better recovery breathing after the hills.  But mainly I just need a better regime for practice- I leave it too long between runs and don’t lock in the improvement.  I need to work harder at the things I already know I should be doing.  I need better habits. ( Studying successfully: motivation + strategy + habit).

So, that’s my advice – if your school is steeped in generic mindset talk, put it on the back-burner and replace it with subject-specific talk about engineering success.  A growth mindset emerges from the experience of succeeding after applying a strategy with some effort; from overcoming a barrier.  Engineering small successes is how you get the mindset for more success.  Make success the goal; make it seem possible; show that it’s possible and focus on the effort and habits around practising specific learning activities that you’ve worked out will form the path to excellence in your subject.

Want a checklist? Here’s a checklist:

  • Map curriculum in small steps, especially for all the common difficulties and major pieces of work.
  • Engage in lots of teacher-modelling: show students how to succeed by doing it.
  • Have lots of exemplars to hand including excellent and less-than-excellent examples so features of success can be brought to life in detail.
  • Narrate your thinking and ask lots of process questions: make the ‘how do we know’ part of any problem-solving a strong feature of all routine teaching.
  • Teach strategies for revision and study completely explicitly – practise them in class.
  • If students struggle, give them more practice with things they can already do but require them to improve fluency and accuracy.  Build confidence.
  • Reward effort and hard work in the context of practising specific tasks.. not generically.
  • Regularly link small gains to longer-term goals.. make progress seem real, achievable, tangible but also keep your eyes on the bigger prize beyond.  Aim high; take small steps.
  • Be responsive.  Increase the steps; be prepared to push hard when students are ready to move on; be prepared to consolidate when they’re not.
  • Don’t talk about mindsets unless you’re talking about it in the context of something specific that a student is trying to achieve.
  • Don’t talk about it; do it.



  1. Your opening para might be said to take aim at the Scottish CfE with its four capacities (resilience, citizens, contributors, er). You say that such is easy but it’s a tribute to how far we have come since such notions must have been an anathema (or something similar) in Scottish Education a decade or so back.

    Then you define the problem as subject specific and list teacher-pupil-in-the-class ideas. I worry reading your article, about general assemblies around the country where Heads emphasise subject X and those not doing it go to sleep/switch-off. I am trying to recollect in my own schooling what assemblies were about and can only recall being told , en masse at Secondary, to get a hair cut. (Not a problem with smart young lad these days). There might have been some religion too. It would appear in Birmingham, Manchester and other places that at Primary some Heads are getting into trouble with their parents on one particular subject … and maybe should have stuck to the generic mindset stuff.


    • Odd comment tbh. Nothing here is about assemblies being about specific subjects. That’s what teachers do in lessons. Plenty of material for assemblies – I just don’t think mindset and resilience should be high on the list. Not unless all the other stuff is going on in lessons very effectively.


  2. […] We have discussed growth mindset in our maths group, which consists of teachers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. A growth mindset emerges from the experience of succeeding after applying a strategy with some effort; from overcoming a barrier. How many of our students feel they have a barrier to understanding school based concepts? Engineering small successes is how you get the mindset for more success. Make success the goal; make it seem possible; show that it’s possible and focus on the effort and habits around practising specific learning activities that you’ve worked out will form the path to excellence in your subject. If you’d like to read more, find the link to the article here […]


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