Firstly, may I say that this post is directly inspired by Ron Berger’s book, ‘An Ethic of Excellence: Building A Craftsmanship with Students’.

My starting point is my current work with my Year 11 GCSE English group. We are undertaking mock exam preparation, but not in the conventional way. We are not drilling away at endless past questions, tweaking tricks of timing and poring of examiner feedback. We are writing an extended letter for a real audience over a period of hours, with drafts and revisions aplenty. What I want students to develop is an ‘ethic of excellence’ in their writing. Early on in Berger’s book he states the power of ‘transformational work’ and how being motivated by the highest expectations is essential to success:

I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry. When the teachers at the Austine School for the Deaf pointed out to Sonia that many students wouldn’t obsess over their work as she does, her reply was quick: This school has ruined me for life, she said. I’m never satisfied with anything until it’s almost perfect. I have to be proud of it.” (Berger, ‘Ethic of Excellence’ – p8)

I’m not attempting to assert my students have undergone such a life-long transformation, but I am certainly going to groove their habits for writing to be marginally better than they have ever been before. I stated to the group that their writing will not be finished until it is at an A or an A* grade. Many of the students have a target grade significantly lower, so they are naturally daunted by the prospect. Now, I reassure them that it may take five drafts, with students carefully supporting and critiquing one another, with some precise support form me, to improve still further to that final point. They are still surprised by the expectation level being significantly higher for their work than what they are used to producing. Indeed, the gap between a C grade and an A grade can often appear insurmountable. That is where the ‘marginal gains’ approach proves so useful. We breakdown and define successful writing, and therefore A* writing unsurprisingly, using the wheels of marginal gains – where each spoke of the wheel becomes a small element of their writing that they can improve – to reach a successful whole piece of writing – the completed wheel (see my previous blogs on #marginalgains for examples of such wheels). The small steps make success more manageable for students and therefore they become more motivated and far less likely to give up.

So many students suffer from what Carole Dweck terms the ‘fixed mindset’ – a deep rooted sense that they will inevitably fail; therefore, to preserve their sense of self, they avoid trying their to do their best in their learning in case they confirm their deep rooted fears about their lack of ‘ability’ – which they view as fixed. By using the narrative of ‘marginal gains’, used so successfully by David Brailsford for the British Olympic cycling team and the Team Sky cycling juggernaut, students are assailed by a ‘growth mindset’ approach to their learning. The small improvements and targets are achievable for students and they can see the steps to success that preserves their often delicate sense of self-confidence. As Berger states:

“We can’t first build students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow.” (Berger, ‘Ethic of Excellence’, p65)

In the process of setting up the task I showed the students a piece of writing I had recently composed. I showed students the email I was sent asking for a “chatty style” with “student anecdotes” in the piece. This perfectly linked to their task, as they too were writing for a real audience with a real purpose (so important in enhancing student motivation). They were given the task of writing either one of the following letters:

‘‘Write a letter to the York Press ([email protected]) arguing for or against the view that the media promotes the wrong role models for teenagers’


‘Write a letter to the Guardian newspaper ([email protected].) arguing for or against ‘Reality’ television.’ (full school address / telephone number required for submissions)

My piece of writing was not too dissimilar, so students were able to critique my work and I discussed openly how I had drafted my writing multiple times. This was similar, but not nearly as impressive, to Berger’s example, where he worked on architectural prints for designing his house for over a year…ok, my example is nowhere near, but the principal is the same! I was open about my initial failures and struggles and I articulated that I expected them to suffer the same…and that that was a very fine thing – failure was the very path to success! What they need to be able to do on this path is to self-assess and judge their successes and failures as they draft. Berger, again, brilliantly articulates this as the “assessment inside students”, which in many ways is infinitely more important than the external assessments we are obsessed with. If they know what outstanding work looks and feels like they can replicate it. Doing one great piece of work goes a long way.

The students have only completed their first draft – we have a fair few lessons, and drafts, to go I estimate. They will hopefully make many marginal gains as they go through their drafting process – each the reflecting upon details like writing techniques, their paragraph structure, proof reading etc. We will not send those emails (and we will eventually send those emails – just like my Year 11s last year sent their letters of complaint to David Cameron about his erroneous claims about ‘broken Britain’!) until we have crafted our writing – until it can be the best they can possibly produce. I will also display the work on the school website and the English and Media Faculty blog – as any learning or project work on display for a real audience immediately heightens the quality of the learning, and the end product, for students. Exam preparation can wait – we have real writing to craft first!

In honour of Ron Berger, I used a craft analogy with my group as we discussed the task. I spoke to them about crafting a fine antique piece of furniture. That they would first need to source their wood (research & plan ideas); cut and plane down the wood and sand it into shape (write the sentences and adding the appropriate rhetorical devices); nail the pieces together with care (paragraph their writing); then varnish their piece (draft it to improve); let it dry and varnish it see more (more drafting!); before finally adding some finishing touches (those final key tweaks and rhetorical tricks). I know the analogy needs a little refining – doesn’t everything – but I think the message was received! Each stage of the process has multiple opportunities for marginal gains – so we will make timely peer and self-assessment stops on the way to make those gains.

I am looking forward to those finished crafted letters. I expect they will be excellent!