Published on: 14 May 2015

The key to developing a students academic potential is to discover their view of learning and on school

Through the looking glass

This article was published in the summer 2015 edition of Conference and Commonroom magazine.

Discovering how students view learning and school is the key to developing their academic potential, says Matthew Savage from Bromsgrove International School in Thailand.

With a diverse mix of cultures, customs and languages enriching our daily school life, one of an international school’s biggest strengths is celebrating difference amongst our students. Like all schools that welcome students from around the globe, our goal remains the same no matter nationality or languages spoken – we want all children to progress to the best of their ability during their time with us.

It’s key to our success that every child feels that each lesson has been designed specifically to meet their needs. We call this approach ‘The Mona Lisa Effect’ in homage to the way you feel Mona Lisa’s eyes look only at you when you walk past. However, when you are teaching a modified version of the English National Curriculum to a cohort who can have wildly different levels of English language acquisition, this strategy needs careful planning.

We start by doing everything we can to fully understand our students and to see life and learning here through their eyes. 

Enhancing teacher judgement

In an international school like ours, we need to be hyper-aware of cultural nuances that have the potential to mask signals teachers would otherwise pick up. With children from Thailand, for example, there can be a strong degree of cultural diffidence and deference to the teaching profession. This can lead to a reluctance in some pupils to question teachers if they do not understand something, which is not ideal for accelerating learning.

To mitigate this and glean a deeper understanding of our pupils, 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 picture of a student’s capabilities so that we can set realistic but challenging targets, monitor progression and help them to learn in the way that works best for them.

Attitudes are key

As a complement to the cognitive abilities data, we carry out the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) survey across the whole school. 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, it greatly affects their ability to progress academically.

It can be incredibly difficult to see through the mask of ‘teenagehood’, particularly given the range of cultural backgrounds at our school, but this assessment offered a way through. By uncovering any issues, we hoped to be able to identify and address any underlying concerns so that a child was free to maximise their academic progress.

Without doubt, the results of this survey have been an eye opener to us all.

Building confidence and ambition

To begin with, we discovered that students’ natural deference to authority was far more deeply entrenched than we had realised, with students taking the view that teachers are superior and learners are inferior.

Such a stance can be quite detrimental to learning – students can become averse to taking risks as they are so concerned about getting something wrong, and they are reluctant to challenge or enter into debates with their teachers.

To counteract this hierarchical structure, we are transforming the Student Voice programme we run in the school to encourage students to be more outspoken and openly opinionated, and not to accept everything they are told at face value. We hope this will alter the way students see themselves and give them the freedom to ask questions and to challenge the ‘system’, eventually helping them develop into more bold, confident and ambitious individuals.

Overcoming obstacles

As an international school with less than 10% native English speaking children, we already had an awareness that a lack confidence in English ability could conceivably hinder even our highest achievers. However, the survey revealed that many of these students had a low opinion of their perceived learning capabilities and poor self-regard as well.

Examining these findings in conjunction with the cognitive abilities test results showed us that, actually, some of our very able students do not consider themselves able at all, because they are making false assumptions about the 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 English as an additional language (EAL) programme, in order to reduce the impact of poor language proficiency on our students’ attainment.

Securing success

It’s no exaggeration to say that the attitudinal survey in particular has been one of the most exciting educational discoveries I have made. Being able to glean such useful insights from the student surveys has meant we are all 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 otherwise had. 

Our next step is to share the data carefully and strategically with students and parents. After all, it’s our aim to nurture happy and successful students and, by knowing how our students perceive both their school and themselves, we can make sure we work towards this every single day.

Click here to download the article. 

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