22 November 2021

The Monday Briefing: Human Nature

The Monday Briefing: Human Nature

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.”

Henri Bergson - French philosopher (1859-1941)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent a great deal of time looking to identify the characteristics which set our very best current students apart from the rest. Within this period of contemplation, which has stretched even to a reflective questioning of human nature, and whether such a concept even exists, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some of our past students in our Azoomni series and these discussions have done a great deal to firm up many of my initial ideas.

At Ealing we have an incredibly varied intake: homeschooled students who may want to return to a collegiate environment; those who struggled to perform to their full potential in larger settings; a cohort who have been internationally educated and have moved to the area with little knowledge of the UK system. Such a diverse series of backgrounds throws up a major challenge: How do we, as staff, assist the young people in our care to unite behind a common purpose?

With such complexity in the experience of students who join, it would be tempting to take an extremely regimented approach when they are inducted, treating each and every one of them the same way. Many schools embed such commonality through a uniform or through shared behaviours - such as silence in the corridors for lesson transitions. The College obviously has expectations around conduct and we encourage and model exceptionally high standards: in attendance and punctuality; in academic engagement and independent study; in ensuring that student conduct fosters a friendly and welcoming atmosphere in and out of the classroom. We do, however, promote such expectations alongside an encouragement of student individuality and comfort within the image they project.

With such a changing cohort of students at Ealing, and a large proportion of the College moving on to university or non-A Level destinations at the end of each year, new recruitment annually brings in around a new student body standing at around 50%. A key natural characteristic of the College, therefore, is change - and rapid change at that. With the institution undergoing, in effect, a yearly rebirth, embedding such an openness to the positives of change within students, becomes easier.

“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

George Bernard Shaw, Irish writer (1856-1950)

The first stage of embedding an openness to change comes in working closely with students to make them see the benefits of adaptation. Carol Dweck has committed a great deal of work to encouraging the importance of a growth mindset, and we work hard to instil this in students from day one. That does not, of course, mean that all of them are instantly receptive to it. Some have substantial issues to overcome: low confidence; gaps in their previous learning; the debilitating nature of the pandemic-affected last eighteen months. We are, however, persistent - and we seek tirelessly to engage all stakeholders in bringing students to this realisation. Teachers promote it daily to students and communicate it regularly to parents. The appetite for it which flows through the College verges on insatiable.

Once students see that teaching staff are not ‘the obstacle’ - that they are not ‘the enemy’ - that they are there merely to bring out the best in them - trust, and with it, the journey of changing as a means of improvement, can begin. The non-judgemental, flexible and accommodating style of teaching which we employ at the College goes a long way to enabling this. Feedback is regular, forthright and detailed. As staff, we have shown a similar mindset in the adoption of a Student-Staff survey. We are receptive to their suggestions for improvement - and we seek to keep the bigger picture in mind in this process: progress. Progress for students as learners and progress for teachers as those enabling students to learn. We understand that the relationship is based fundamentally on the strength of human interaction.

“To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Winston Churchill, British statesman (1874-1965)

Once one is receptive to change, and the empowerment of it, one can see incredible differences within those who first walked into the College. Having small class sizes opens huge possibilities: students take on leadership roles with greater zeal; teachers offer feedback on student performance with significantly higher levels of depth and regularity; trusting relationships blossom apace. Within such leaps, improvement, and the success that comes with it, can be somewhat intoxicating. The more a student feels it, in a supportive environment, the further their confidence grows and the more they change - into better versions of themselves. Evidence of such can be found in the Azoomni chats I spoke of earlier. All of the alumni whom I have conversed with have spoken of the constructive, productive change which the College instilled during their time at Ealing: it made them prioritise what was important; it helped them become adaptable; crucially, it meant that they were ready to ask more of themselves.

This, then, is the key characteristic of our very best students and is the ‘human nature’ we seek to impart at the College: that we strive to evolve positively into a more mature, more developed community. Change, when considered carefully, owned collectively and committed to wholeheartedly, can bring truly staggering results - and that is why we embrace it at Ealing Independent College.

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