09 January 2023

The Monday Briefing: Another One Bites the Dust

The Monday Briefing: Another One Bites the Dust

‘Learn from yesterday.

Live for today.

Hope for tomorrow.

The important thing is not to stop questioning.’

Albert Einstein



I took a great deal of pleasure in welcoming students back to the College this week, and what better way to do so than a first day assembly?

I always find it important to set the tone for what lies ahead by making priorities clear at the start of the term as well as the calendar year.

Students often seek immediate and easy answers when asking the question: what will guarantee success. There is, of course, no easy answer to this line of enquiry. It did, however, give me the chance to introduce the concept of the three pillars of achievement.

Up until fairly recently researchers felt that one only required two key characteristics in order to be successful: displaying sufficient effort being one aspect; with continued use of intelligence being the other. Students at the College are very familiar with the relationship between these qualities. The Monthly feedback we provide them with, which identifies their effort grades against clear criteria, is part of this, and is complemented by attainment grades against each subject specification grade boundary.

Students know that effort is the first building block towards success, that this comes initially from motivation to do well. Only by ensuring a climate which promotes such success is this possible, and this is reaffirmed on a daily basis. The consistent supplementation of intelligence, which comes through high quality day to day teaching and learning, is the second building block.

It is, perhaps, in the third pillar which students lack the necessary wherewithal to move towards the fulfilment of potential.

Curiosity is the third pillar - and, for me, it marks the difference between those truly independent learners who achieve most highly and those who don’t.

Everyone is born with a degree of curiosity. When children get to a certain age (around two or three years old) they start wanting to know ‘why?’ about what seems like every little thing. Molly, my daughter, is a typical three year old, and she is a prolific questioner.

It's an incredibly annoying part of my day, but something which I know I must try never to stymie.

“Why is the sky blue, Daddy?”

“Why do I have to eat my vegetables, Daddy?”

It’s very tempting to respond “just because”, but I do my very best not to. On the contrary, I’m very happy to encourage her inquisitive nature.

Around this time, the cognitive abilities of a child this age are rapidly developing, they are beginning to learn how to make mental connections between cause and effect and are eager to find out everything about how the world works.

However, as the child gets older, this level of constant questioning begins to subside until eventually the “whys” stop altogether. A study cited in an article for Newsweek found that on average pre-school children ask their parents around 100 questions per day, whereas those a few years on asked very few questions.

According to the creator of the TED Conference, Richard Saul Wurman, in school, children are rewarded for having the right answer, not for asking a good question. Conformity begins to trump curiosity. There is an excellent TED talk by the late, great educationalist Ken Robinson on this very subject.

With the emphasis on memorisation and testing, children quickly learn that in order to succeed in education, veering off on a tangent about any given subject is not worth their time or energy and may end up losing them marks. They know that examiners and teachers are looking for them to regurgitate the ‘right’ kinds of responses and will therefore stick to the prescribed syllabus.

Asking lots of questions is a sign of creativity, an important skill that seems to be in decline amongst teenagers.

My advice for our students is simple. Never have reticence to ask questions - just ask them when the opportunity arises appropriately. They are vital to help growth.

The very best of them took that opportunity on the last day of last term were making the right moves - and asking the right questions of staff after receiving their mock exam results:

  • Why did I get that mark for that question?
  • What should I do to improve?
  • How should I change my approach to improve my performance?
  • How could I have used the time I had more effectively?
  • How can I avoid making the mistakes I made again?

There is a bigger picture here too:

With access to all the information in the world at our fingertips, we all really need to develop a natural sense of inquisitiveness and to question everything we see. Accepting everything at face value is a very dangerous prospect.

Teachers are best placed to advise students on acquiring and building this skill adeptly.

Teachers ask up to two questions every minute, up to 400 in a day, around 70,000 a year, or two to three million in the course of a career. It is not without reason that Socrates defined teaching as “the art of asking questions”

“Good learning starts with questions, not answers,” according to Guy Claxton, professor of learning science at Bristol University. He is, of course, absolutely right. As are his remarks that “Asking good questions is the basis for becoming a successful learner. If children aren’t asking questions, they’re being spoon-fed. That might be effective in terms of getting results, but it won’t turn out curious, flexible learners suited to the 21st century.”

The consensus is that questioning leads to more effective learning - and more enjoyable teaching - than explanation alone.

Creating a comfortable environment where being right doesn’t always matter will help ensure that it isn’t always the quickest and most confident pupils who make those contributions.

We are lucky to have that at Ealing Independent College.

But there is a balance to maintain. One can’t simply blurt out questions like a machine gun in lessons. It’s disruptive and stalls momentum.

That also doesn’t mean that a student shouldn’t bother. There are some excellent ways and means of adopting a manageable curiosity in lessons which allows the lesson to flow as well as encouraging the right questioning mentality. 

Students were given a tangible example of this during the assembly - former student Thomas Harper, who achieved three A* grades, sitting his A Levels intensively in 2016-2017, provided it. Those who are interested can listen to the Alumni podcast episode featuring him. He details his methods concisely with flashcards within it:

  • Keep a stack of them close to you. (He actually attached them to a medallion around his neck)
  • Colour code them by subject
  • When something is covered in a lesson that you don’t understand, write it down
  • Never ‘let it go’ - chase up the solution with the teacher, and record it on the other side.
  • Test yourself when you get a spare moment.

In doing so, a student becomes adept at identifying the problem areas and tackling them one by one. As each issue is conquered, and another barrier to learning is eliminated, confidence grows.

Not foolproof by any means, and something which requires a great deal of effort to maintain, but certainly effective if utilised properly.

Thomas has gone on to enjoy exceptional success in many fields beyond studying - and a key reason behind that is his high degree of curiosity: prioritising what he doesn’t know rather than what he does; always seeking to push his boundaries; never settling for anything less than mastery.

Effort, Intelligence and Curiosity - the three key pillars of achievement. 

Where better to perfect them than at Ealing Independent College?

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