Published on: 05 May 2015

Cognitive abilities testing identifies students’ individual strengths, weaknesses and learning styles

Seeing our school through the eyes of a child

Matthew Savage describes how attitudinal surveys are helping teachers to better understand students and develop their potential.

International schools are wonderful places in which to learn, the mix of cultures providing a rich and varied learning environment for students. However, they also provide a challenge for teaching staff in ensuring that all children progress, no matter what language barriers they may face when they arrive. This is certainly our aim at Bromsgrove International School Thailand where over 400 students, the majority of whom have yet to reach an advanced level of English language acquisition, wend their way through a modified version of the English national curriculum.

We have developed an approach we call ‘The Mona Lisa Effect’. We want every child to feel that every lesson has been designed specifically to meet their needs in the same way that when you walk past the Mona Lisa, you feel her eyes are only looking at you. To do this, we need fully to understand our students and to see life and learning here through their eyes. This is particularly important in an international school such as ours, where cultural nuances have the potential to mask signals on which teachers would normally pick up easily, or to render students easily misunderstood. For example, in Thailand there can be a strong degree of cultural diffidence and deference to the teaching profession. This can lead to a reluctance in some students to question teachers if they do not understand something, which is not ideal for learning to progress.

To help us better understand our students, we pair teacher judgement with a number of other assessment tools. One of the tools we use to identify students’ individual strengths, weaknesses and learning styles is cognitive abilities testing. The results provide us with a true picture of a student’s developed abilities in order that, their true potential unearthed, we can help them to learn in the way that works best for them.

To complement the cognitive abilities data we decided to carry out, across the entire school, the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) survey. This attitudinal survey from GL Education looks at nine attitudinal factors, from a student’s feelings about school to how they perceive their own learning ability. Research behind the survey has shown that if a child does not feel confident and happy about school, their ability to progress academically is greatly affected. By uncovering these issues, we hoped to be able to address any underlying concerns so that children would be free to maximise their academic progress. The results of this survey have been an eye opener to us all.

Breaking through barriers

With over 90% of our students speaking English as an additional language, there can be a lack of confidence in English, even among the highest achievers. We were aware of this to an extent, but the survey revealed that many of these students also had a low opinion of their perceived learning capabilities and a poor self-regard.

These findings, in conjunction with the cognitive abilities test results, showed us that some of our very able students do not consider themselves able at all, because they are drawing a false correlation between their grasp of English and their cognitive abilities. In fact, this phenomenon proved to be so extensive that we have dramatically intensified our EAL programme, in order to reduce the impact of poor language proficiency on our students’ achievement.

Building confidence and ambition 

The PASS survey also revealed that students’ natural deference to authority was more deeply entrenched than we had realised, with students taking the view that teachers are superior and learners are inferior. Such a view means that students can become averse to taking risks in case they get something wrong, and they are reluctant to challenge their teachers. As a result, we are now encouraging students to be more outspoken and not to accept everything at face value, and we are transforming the Student Voice programme in the school. By changing the way in which the students see themselves and giving them the freedom to ask questions and to challenge the ‘system’, we hope to help them to develop into more confident and ambitious individuals. One of the most exciting outcomes of the student surveys has been that we are all now looking much more closely at the attitudes and progress of individual students, and this has sparked some very worthwhile conversations that we would not have had otherwise. Our next step is to share the data carefully and strategically with students and parents. I am not exaggerating when I say that the attitudinal survey in particular has been one of the most exciting educational discoveries I have made. We talk about happy and successful students in our mission statement, and by seeing our school and our students through their eyes, we are fulfilling this mission every day.


Matthew Savage is deputy headmaster of Bromsgrove International School, Thailand.

This article was published in the April/May 2015 edition of IS Magazine

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