When I was sixteen I drifted into picking up physics as one of my subjects. I didn’t like physics I wasn’t quite sure what physics really was to be truthful, it was just the combination that was available for me to pick up at the time.
The first few lessons took me completely by surprise. I was lost at sea. The less I succeeded the less I tried.
Then came the first test. My mark was 5 out of 20 possible marks. A ‘U’ grade. I still remember it. I looked around to see how the other have done. My heart sunk. Out of a class of 30, I had the lowest grade. I was on my own. Not even a mate to make fun of the dreadful grade. That was it. I was the dunce. I didn’t know what to do.
I felt ashamed, helpless and alone. I wanted to keep it a secret but the result was there on my paper and everyone had seen it. Losing face at any age is daunting, but losing face when you are 16 is totally devastating. The teacher noticed that I had gone bright red. He was a kind caring man, passionate about his subject and his students. A man that you don’t want to let down, and I had done just that.
At the end of the lesson he asked me to stay behind. When everyone left I remained seated. He asked me to come to his desk. As I approached I felt like throwing up. He looked up at me and said: “We fail only when we give up. I promise you that if you don’t give up neither will I.”
It took me two years to get from bottom of the class to top.
I now have a Doctorate in Particle Physics. It turns out that anyone with determination can achieve the success they want in their field of interest. Intelligence and ability are not fixed traits that can’t be changed and neither is character – you can achieve whatever you want if you put in the hours of slog. In fact, believing you are talented may hold you back if it stops you from putting in lots of effort.
At West Suffolk College we are developing this ‘Growth Mindset’ in all of our teaching. So that when a student hits a difficulty with their work or finds a subject very challenging they don’t just throw in the towel. If students understand that they can change their fortunes and their ability at a subject through effort it is an incredibly empowering message.
One place in particular where this growth mindset has been shown to work is in our English GCSE teaching. We have helped students who have previously failed their English GCSE at school and proved to them that they are not failures and that they can achieve the result that they want. As a result these students who have taken their re-sits with us had a pass rate of 81 per cent at grades A*-C last year. How many people have gone about their daily lives thinking they were a failure because they didn’t pass this GCSE? Yet it turns out that if you have the right attitude you can achieve it.
If students, instead of being graded ‘fail’ on an exam received a mark of ‘Not Yet’, wouldn’t that be more encouraging? And more truthful? Because at that point you can make two choices. You can give up – and then you will have failed – or you can dust yourself down learn from your fall and try again. This second response is called ‘grit’ and it is what I hope to instil in all of the students here in West Suffolk College. I want them to understand that it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are now – you can be anything you like. But it won’t be easy – it will take lots of hard work.
I want our students to know we don’t care who you are now – I’m interested in who you can become and what you can achieve. If you haven’t succeeded at something then, think of it this way – you haven’t achieved it yet. You have only failed when you decide to stop trying to succeed.
-- Nikos Savvas is principal at West Suffolk College, Bury St Edmunds