Better at Learning

From the Headmaster's Desk, April 11, 2018

Today we begin the final term of the academic year.  For many, this will be your final term at Blue Coat, and arguably your most important; you sit your public exams this term, which are of crucial importance for the next stage of your academic journey and beyond.  And all of you have end-of-year exams, which are important progress markers in your academic journey.  For Year 12, these exams will be the basis of your predicted grades for your UCAS applications, so they are very important indeed.

Easter was earlier than usual this year, and one benefit of this is that we have returned earlier in April than we normally do.  This means you have more time in school this half term and more time with your teachers, which is certainly to your benefit.

As we approach these closing weeks of term and exams, I thought it might be worth reflecting on what we can do to be better at learning.

I found a panel of writers and experts, from places as famous as Stanford and Oxford, who recently explained their top tips in this short clip:

So how can we get better at learning?

There are several key messages from these experts.  First of all, research shows that anyone can learn anything.  It may take longer and it is harder for some people, but everyone can learn another language, maths or to play the piano.  I often think of the London Marathon, which takes place later this month, as a helpful analogy.  In this premier event, of course the winners are lean and running world best times, but over the next few hours people of all different ages, shapes and sizes eventually get to the finish line.  Tens of thousands of runners finish every year, many of whom have never run that far before.  And it is the same in learning – we can all learn, we can all get there eventually, although for some of us it will take longer in certain subjects, but we can still get there, if we persist.

Yet it is not always easy, and we have to be comfortable with the struggle of learning.  It is discomforting because it is hard work.  Learning new things involves stretching and pushing our brain, in the same way that training the body physically is challenging and can be trying.  But then we are stronger afterwards.  Again with the London Marathon analogy – even those leading the race are doing hard work and pushing at their limits.  Everyone who runs the event does some training, which is hard work, but makes them better prepared for the day.  We have to accept that learning is hard work.  Pushing our brain to learn is also a struggle, but after the training, our brains are better placed to help us do well in exams.

Part of learning is about the right attitude.  We must be curious.  Ask questions and adopt a proactive approach.  Don’t just sit passively and wait to be spoon fed – you won’t learn as much.  Build the discipline of being curious; ask questions so that you can learn.  Teachers should not be viewed as a fount of knowledge, but as facilitators that help you discover how to learn or make progress yourself.

And as one of the experts just said, and I have repeated many times this year: sleep is important.  Whilst you are sleeping, your brain processes what you covered the previous day, and moves it from being something you encountered or remember briefly, to long-term memory.  If you sleep properly, then your memory is more effective.

And, finally, believe in yourself.  Research shows that if you believe in yourself and are confident, then you will make better progress.  And, furthermore, people who have confidence in themselves bounce back more quickly after mistakes.  Everyone makes mistakes, and do not take a mistake as the miserable end or a sign of doom and gloom.  Instead, see it as an opportunity to learn and be better the next time.  Believe in yourself, know that you will get there, and then you will.

So, a brief tour of some experts’ top tips this morning as we begin the final term of the year.  Good luck and godspeed.

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