I am a Learner

From the Headmaster's Desk, October 8, 2018

I was away for a few days last week in Manchester at the annual conference for Heads.  It was a stimulating conference, and I was most inspired by new aspects of research I have encountered before.

Let me start with a quotation from John Hattie, who is one of the most well-known educational researchers:

‘Explanations of human learning in terms of native ability, talent, or intelligence are severely constrained by one consistent and persistent finding: that substantial investments of time, energy, structured tuition, and personal effort are all required in order to develop mastery in all knowledge domains investigated.  Notions such as talent, ability, and intelligence exist as useful descriptive terms.  But they are not sufficient to explain learning or achievement.’

The point here is a rather simple one: success is not about ability or talent, it is about time, energy and effort.  To become an expert in any field, be it spelling, driving, chess, swimming, the piano, public speaking, shooting a rifle, rowing or kicking penalties – hard work and practice is required.  We might call someone incredibly talented or really able, but we must not forget that they worked hard to achieve the level at which they currently operate.

The reality is that we can all make progress at anything.  I play the piano and the guitar – not very well and not in public, but if I committed serious time to either one of these, then I could become quite good at them.  I do not say this because I think I have some innate ability to play either the piano or the guitar – any of us in this room could become better at the piano or guitar if we committed to it.

I watched Dr Pennington play the piano on Friday at the newcomers’ concert, and he was very impressive indeed!  It would be easy to say he is ‘very talented’ or a ‘natural’ – he made it look so easy, with no music.  But, as Mr Meehan pointed out after the performance, Dr Pennington started at Grade 1, just like everyone does.  And in order to play like he did on Friday, he has undoubtedly committed thousands of hours to practising the piano.

One thing that always bothers me is when someone says, ‘I’m rubbish at Maths’ or ‘I’m rubbish at Spanish’.  You might be at a certain level in terms of achievement, but you are a learner and you can always make progress.  And the journey in any academic subject or pursuit just takes time and effort.

I would rather people say, ‘I’m having a hard time with this certain aspect of geometry, but I’m going to get some extra help to improve.’  Or ‘I didn’t do well in my vocabulary test this week, but watch me next week.  I’m going to work hard and make sure that I ace it.’

It is very easy to get into a negative cycle when you say something  like, ‘I can’t catch’ or ‘I’m rubbish at Maths’.  The danger with this attitude is that it becomes self-fulfilling; when you declare that you are hopeless in a certain area of school or life, you avoid it, which means you do not practise it, which in turn means you eventually lose any skill that you might have had in this area.  It atrophies or fades, just like fitness when you don’t exercise, or your memory of the summer holiday over time.

However, it is also very easy to have a different, positive mindset.  You could recognise that you’re not that good at catching, and do what people do when they want to improve: practise.  And you will get better.  And the more you practise, the better you will get.  And success breeds success and you will gain confidence and you will improve.  Sure, you might never catch as well as a professional cricketer, but accept they have practised more, and be proud of the progress you have made.

The research shows that if we have a mindset that we are learners on a journey, then this can help us to make good progress as learners.  I am confident that all of you will make progress this week, this term, this year and during your time at school.  What you do every day is important, and there will be highs and lows.  But if we all acknowledge that we are learners, and we need to invest in our own learning, we may find the process more manageable, and less discouraging.  The research is really simple: just say, ‘I am a learner, and I’m going to make good progress this week’, and then you will.

So to all of you, as learners, I say, have a great week.


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