Nightmare lessons revisited -challenging fixed mindsets

Think of your least favourite lesson at school. Our teachers were asked to relive it and the findings were fascinating!

I cooked over June half term. I rarely cook.

Some fascinating learner elements revealed themselves to me as I struggled, rejected help, stuck rigidly to scaffolds that didn’t work, got annoyed and had a beer –considering throwing it all in the bin, panicked, got more annoyed- reflecting on past failures, finally grudgingly requested expert advice from my wife but insisted I still did it all – no patronising differentiation for me please –high challenge only or what’s the point?–things improved, and finally I came up with something I was quite proud of!


I thought this response to something I don’t hugely enjoy/find difficult was fascinating and I wanted to research further, hence my T&L idea below that I marketed to staff at the start of Term 6 last year:

An opportunity to be a learner in an unfamiliar classroom

Ideally, I’d like to encourage you to think of one of the subjects you found challenging at school, and volunteer to sit in the back of that lesson. We all think we empathise with those students who seem to be ‘switched off’, but is there more we can do to get to the heart of why they may have developed a fixed mindset with regards to our subject? Maybe, by going through the experience ourselves, we will recognise some of our own responses to struggles and strategies we now use as adults to overcome them.

Overall Aims/Impact: For students to see that we are learners too, and prepared to try with subjects we have found challenging in the past. The overall aim for staff is to reflect on a learning experience outside our comfort zone, how we cope with one, and to subsequently be better equipped to understand and respond to negative reactions we sometimes face from certain students ‘switched off’ at times in our lessons.

Lots of teachers volunteered to be part of the programme -both as teachers, and as ‘students’, but due to the complexities of the timetable in the final term despite gained time, not as many ‘learner experiences’ happened as I’d have liked. Nonetheless, four teachers did take the plunge!

They were asked the following questions after the experience, and  excerpts from their feedback to the teacher who was kind enough to allow them in for an hour, is also below:

  • How you felt
  • How you were challenged
  • How you coped with that challenge – I’m particularly intrigued by your recognition of any methods that you employ now to deal with difficulties that might have been less developed when you were young, or indeed still emerge in adulthood!
  • Whether you understood what was going on
  • Whether you felt a sense of achievement by the end and if not, why not?
  • Any more intriguing observations that you might make of your own responses in the lesson.
  • This isn’t an observation of the teacher delivering the lesson, remember. We are trying to put ourselves in the mindset of a student who constantly finds a subject difficult/potentially stressful.
  • Learner Experience 1

There was a moment when you were explaining the task but you had asked us to write down the title and date, I was busy doing that and I missed the rest of the task. I’m sure I do this too but highlighted to me the need to give time to complete something, even simple tasks so that I know the class is keeping up. I also recognised the need to put the task into a wider context – for what reason were we measuring current etc? I also couldn’t see the relevance in the wider world- why do I need to know this?! It highlighted to me the importance of putting things into context as we get asked that all the time. I struggled to find my own metaphor because I didn’t really understand what a circuit was!! I asked my classmates who were really helpful and explained it- I think they liked having a teacher as a student!


  • Learner Experience 2

Went with trepidation – not looking forward to it as I’ve always ‘hated’ Chemistry – didn’t really understand the subject, didn’t enjoy doing experiments – seemed pointless.The task was based around something with a very practical application (taking stomach tablets) so was interested in what the outcome would be.So my anticipated challenge didn’t really arise as those things that were previously barriers (not clear on what I was doing or why) were solved!! I certainly concentrated carefully to the explanation – which I think I probably didn’t when young – but this was helped by the use of multimedia and a clear, quick and humorous exposition by the teacher. I also asked more questions (of the teacher and the students around me) again something I probably wouldn’t have done when young and this clarified my understanding.

  • Learner Experience 3

I was nervous that she might ask me. So I wrote down all the answers given, this gave me confidence that I could give an original answer, I would never have done this when I was a student. Looking at other students I noticed that they weren’t writing or taking notes.

I wanted more information – so asked if there were any handouts to support the speech writing – Miss – provided these but then I kept reading them when I should have been listening, there was a lot of detail but I wanted to understand the task, so started highlighting key words and making notes about questions I wanted to ask (again something I would have never done as a student).

Miss  asked each student to read an extract, I became particularly nervous. She started with my group, so as least it was a bit I had read and practiced, but when it became my turn all those old habits came out. I kept my head down, I tried to read clearly but worried about the accuracy of my reading……so yes I stumbled and hesitated, luckily this was part of the task so it was ok. But I found it very interesting how all my old fears kicked in, even though I’ve been doing communal reading with my tutor group.

As I wasn’t required to write a speech I didn’t really feel that I had achieved anything but I did find out some interesting things about myself: And finally I was much more aware of how I could support students myself, being quieter or encouraging at the right points.

  • Learner Experience 4

Student volunteers read aloud from the script (I felt quite aggrieved not to be chosen to read). I very much enjoyed searching for relevant quotes within the text, as though solving a puzzle. My discussions with other students were initially quite one-sided, but as they warmed to me they soon offered their own delightfully insightful comments. Two girls on the opposite end of the table were reluctant to engage, seemingly a little too cool. I was conscious not to be an authoritarian in the context: I did not “tell them off” for being so aloof, but continued to enjoy my own conversation with the engaged end of the table. Towards the end of the lesson I was asked to share with the class some outcomes of our conversation. I was somewhat proud of the conclusions we had written down and valued being able to share them.

I left the classroom with more knowledge than when I entered it (I guess I “made progress”). I was impressed by the skill of many of the students. I also felt curious about the difference between my eagerness to learn something new and the two girls’ apparent lack of zeal. Was it social pressure that persuaded them that learning wasn’t cool, or was it lack of confidence that held them back? Did my eager influence help to engage them to a small extent, did it embarrass them, or did it further depress their confidence? How could I help in future to switch similar students on to learning?


So, overall findings?

  • Time must be given for all students to feel they have completed/achieved something. Continual ‘failure’ to finish will lead to negativity, and a reluctance to try.
  • What is the purpose of the tasks/lessons in the wider world context? Many ‘switched off’ students will fail to engage with a subject over time if this is not made explicit.
  • Social pressure needs to be carefully considered. Are certain seating plans/classes and the adverse pressure of certain friends’ reactions actually preventing access to learning. Do we underestimate this?
  • Pride is a driving force in overcoming negative attitudes towards a lesson
  • The paradox that being overlooked for activities like reading can lead to a negative perception, but with some students, being chosen for certain activities like reading can cause high anxiety needs to be carefully monitored.
  • Offering a problem to solve is something that engages powerfully
  • If understanding of the task does not materialise, then the response to the lesson is doomed! Offering the chance for these students to fire several questions privately at you to elicit full understanding is vital.


What could be done next to build this into a wider school developmental aim?

  1. I think it can help us begin to reflect on and explore negative learning reactions and their root causes. This may lead to Faculties discussing the findings above, surveying more students, and considering approaches to motivate those ‘switched off’ students in their subjects.
  2. It could form part of a strategy to change attitudes to learning / form part of our growth mindset promotion and identify things we need to do to alter a firmly fixed mindset regarding a subject.


Thanks for reading. It was an interesting experiment to carry out and thanks to all the teachers involved and their bravery in facing up to their nightmare lesson when at school!



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