27 May 2016

Individual breadth

This week Edrys Barkham, Bryanston's Director of Admissions, explains the need for a balance between breadth and depth in education.

One of the defining characteristics of the primate family is intelligence. Juveniles of all species have an innate curiosity and a propensity to innovate. Learning is achieved through copying adults; there is some fascinating research showing that young bonobos take years to learn the skill of using stones to crack nuts, with varying degrees of success, by imitating their mothers.

Humans have finessed the transmission of culture from one generation to another by using language to pass on information as well as skills and this has been at the foundation of our cultural evolution. Many societies have developed formal education systems to ensure the transmission of knowledge. In Ancient Greece pupils (only boys!) were expected to gain information across a wide range of subjects by questioning their mentors. In early Islamic civilisation the purpose of education was to equip an individual to be an upstanding citizen, aware of their responsibilities to the world, society and God, and only through knowledge could an understanding of their own talents be realised. To be considered well educated in Europe during the Renaissance required knowledge of a broad range of subjects and the polymath was celebrated. Increasingly, the scope of our modern education system seems to be becoming more focused than ever before with a prescriptive and narrow choice of subjects, particularly post-16.

The new A levels appear to be enforcing a sort of intellectual monogamy on sixth formers with the majority nationally studying just three subjects, each of which is closed off and taught in isolation. This specialisation at A level has led to education in some schools becoming a quest for top grades and with the emphasis on the academic outcome at the cost of the co-curricular. We believe that by encouraging our pupils to explore their full range of talents through a breadth of activities and opportunities, our pupils are able to explore what they are really capable of achieving. Through the co-curricular programme, children can discover their own particular strengths and enhance their natural skills, helping them to develop confidence. Knowing they are good at a range of things gives them the confidence to tackle the areas they find more difficult and to develop grit. It is not possible for everyone to accomplish this level of self-knowledge and confidence solely in the classroom.

There is a fine balancing act between breadth and depth: a pupil with an academic bent will naturally be encouraged to study hard and explore a wide range of subjects, but not at the expense of playing sport, learning a musical instrument or taking up a range of hobbies and interests. At Bryanston, it is not unusual to the see a first team player take the leading role on stage, or for a musical soloist to compete in national academic competitions. The abundant life is celebrated and intelligence thrives.

The breadth of opportunities encapsulated in the concept of the ‘abundant life’ advocated by Thorold Coade (Bryanston Headmaster, 1932-1959) can reveal hidden talents and interests. A combination of compulsion and choice ensures all children gain insight into themselves; learning to play a musical instrument (which all Bryanston pupils in D do), having three afternoons of sport timetabled per week, getting involved in House Drama, writing for the school magazine, helping at charity events, all these activities develop a child’s confidence and belief in themselves.

Through tutorial conversations, pupils reflect on these varied activities to determine what was successful and what wasn’t and they discover what works best for them. This is a powerful tool for the future. Encouraging an adolescent to think about not only what they did, but where they did it, how they did it and how successful was the outcome further adds to their repertoire of understanding what makes them tick. The reflective process helps develop the pupil into a self-directed learner, able to focus on improving themselves and encouraging a problem-solving approach to learning in all areas. Engaging in a wide range of activities, academic and co-curricular, broadens the mind, encourages creativity and builds confidence for tackling new problems.

In an increasingly complicated and multifaceted world, creative and innovative thinkers are needed to solve global problems with new ideas, or to use old ideas in new ways. A wide-ranging education where pupils are able to develop their own individual breadth of talents and interests will, we hope, result in broad-minded, independent thinking, creative citizens for the future.

19 May 2016

Independent learning

This week we welcome Bryanston's Deputy Head (Academic), Dr David James, with a blog on independent learning.

Bryanston has a long commitment to promoting independent learning: in every weekly assignment period, correction period, and subject room, this approach is visible, pushing our pupils to take ever greater responsibility for their own learning. Of course, that does not mean that the teacher removes him or herself from the process. Instead, an effective teacher knows when to give direct instruction, and when to provide the appropriate levels of support the pupil needs to go beyond what is prescribed in the National Curriculum.

But how is that balance struck? How does a teacher know when to intervene, and when to allow the pupil to try, sometimes fail, and learn to succeed? To some extent the answer is: we never know for sure, and there are challenges within every aspect of ‘independent learning’ that pupils, parents, teachers and policy makers have to be aware of before they start advocating it as some sort of panacea for every conceivable educational situation.

Independent learning is often a matter of judgment by an experienced teacher. Get it wrong, and difficulties may arise, but get it right, and you can inculcate in a pupil an attitude of mind that can last a lifetime. However, we live in an educational system that seems to conspire against it: increasingly prescriptive curricula, more rigorous assessment, league tables, high stakes final examinations, among other factors, contribute towards creating a situation where anything that is not clearly focused on measurable outcomes - on the part of the school and pupil – is considered a potential distraction.

But teachers have to persevere in trying to make pupils increasingly responsible for their own learning because the alternative is...what? Spoonfeeding? Do we conspire in creating a culture of risk-averse, over-dependent young people who are ill-equipped to deal with the demands of higher education and the pressures of work (but who might get good examination results)? Few teachers have gone into the profession to do this, although all will have felt competing pressures to do just that.

What we have to do is develop in our young people an ability to work on their own, and with their peers, both in the classroom and outside. We have to provide them with the skills to self-monitor, so that they know that they are progressing (or not), and to see work not as something to endure, but as something that is enjoyable and, ultimately, liberating. But we cannot assume that pupils will somehow, instinctively, know such things, and have the intellectual apparatus, to achieve an independence of mind.

Great schools develop in their pupils a real pride in their progress, but also an understanding of how they develop. And great teachers give their pupils the vocabulary to make sense of their own learning. Key to this is discussion, and reflection. Bryanston does both through the weekly charts, and through our unique tutorial system, but these can only ever work effectively if the pupil learns to play a full and active part in each: it is in both that a personalised focus of academic achievements (and challenges) is developed. And when this happens, ideally, pupils begin to learn that education is not something done to them, but with them, a joint endeavour undertaken between teacher and pupil, and with a shared destination in mind: independence in the truest, and most empowered form, because it comes with a real sense of purpose and responsibility.