Maximising Learning Potential for Schoolchildren.

Pick up any light reading magazine and it is awash with articles on motivation and mindsets and stress-busting. Anyone and everyone it seems are experts in keeping us functioning and feeling ‘normal’. But what about the information from real experts in the field? Specifically, how does all this play out in the classroom and how does it affect the way parents can support their children in school? How does anyone mazimise their learning potential? This book provides answers. 

Educators are increasingly interested in the essence of ‘how to learn’. How to study intelligently, so at to exert a minimum of effort and yet achieve the maximum effect. That is because they appreciate how subject content is no longer king. In today’s world we all need a degree of flexibility and can look forward to several career-changes throughout our lives. It is perhaps more important we develop skills associated with efficient learning than to have specific knowledge.  Teaching children to be self-aware educationally can catapult them into the stratosphere, skyrocketing them into another world and setting them up for life. Anything else leaves us all, educators and students alike, functioning at only 50% capacity. 

Generalised concepts and highly specialised vocabulary is required in the study of how we learn. Both act as a barrier to entry for many, and teachers are not excluded from this. Also, a substantial amount of material is locked behind pay-walls, which push the barrier even higher. Imagine dedicated teachers rising to the challenge and getting stuck in – wrestling with reports and research findings. There is still a final hurdle to overcome. They have to try to figure out in practice terms how to effect anticipated improved results. Many freely acknowledge this is a real problem.

Schools run best when they are highly-organised with well-established routines in place. Imagine what happens when research findings suggest that changes would improve learning outcomes. It can be a nightmare to set wheels in motion. That’s not to say they don’t want to, only that they are forced to think and think again before wading in with both feet. The anticipated benefits must be clearly visible in some way before any action is taken. Otherwise, understandably, they prefer to leave well-alone. 

The directors of Inner Drive, a mindset coaching company, have written a book entitled ‘‘The science of learning: 77 studies that every teacher should know about’. It gets to the very heart of this matter. The two authors have completely different characters and this is reflected in their content. One hates reading and the other is a ‘detail’ guy, They have married the two styles together by using cartoons and imagery to get their main points across their main points on a single page and then supplied in-depth analysis on the adjoining page for those who want it. 

Both are experts in their own right so don’t let the use of cartoon imagery fool you. I listened to a podcast by Craig Barton who interviewed them as a double-act. Their personalities shone through, adding weight to the content of the book. Even the podcast itself was actually fun to listen to. It motivated me to share some snippets of their conversation with you.

Likely, not everyone will read through to the bitter end, so topics are ordered according to what I personally consider most useful. Naturally, I hope you do read to the end and that you feel inspired to join in the discussion by leaving a comment.

Resilience

To get students to maximise their learning potential they have to be self-motivated and resourceful.

This feeds into resilience. Resilience is about how a person copes in the face of adversity and what kind of skills they employ in an effort to overcome challenges and even to thrive afterwards.  It is fundamental to sustained and effective learning. If you are interested to learn more about this topic the American Psychological Association has written a guide for parents and teachers entitled Resilience Guide for Parents & Teachers.

It  featured in the podcast because research findings support the idea that schools should set the bar high, and then give good quality support to their students to help them through it. It’s no use dumbing down the material and spoon-feeding if your goal is to teach students how to learn. They commented that both were equally important – the high expectations and the quality of support, adding that the whole school has to be on-board for best results. Teachers who already get it, but are surrounded by people who don’t, sadly, find their results are greatly diminished and disappointing. Everyone must be singing from the same hymn sheet for tangible progress. 

Importance of parents

The feedback about the importance of the role of parents was a breath of fresh air. Bradley and Edward have discovered that for best results, parents, like teachers, must also have high expectations of their children and provide strong support. In addition, they must also support the school by getting involved and by promoting a unified front. 

The authors acknowledge there is still much work to do in this area because, on average, currently only 22% of parents turn up to parents evenings. It’s an indication of how hard it can be to reach out to parents, particularly as the ones who do attend are often already informed and involved. It’s naturally harder to work with those parents who themselves had a bad  experience at school and the ones who have an attitude of ‘I gave him to you to teach!’. More work needs to be done in this area as there is not much common ground to begin constructive dialogue.

In a past life I worked in a health care setting for many years. It means I well-recognise the need for a holistic approach to working with a needy person.  Whether it be caring for elderly people or sick people  or teaching children, it’s natural that close relatives feel protective. They want to be involved. So for me, it’s always a family affair. We all need each other’s support whether we are the student, professional or family member.

The happiest faces I see are when all have been working well together and we are actually getting somewhere, and appreciating  each other’s contribution to that progress. 

Feedback

There are plenty of articles addressing the art of  providing feedback. Research-based findings specifically for homeworks and tests etc. reveal that

38% of feedback does more harm than good.

Staggering! It transpires that in order to be able to learn, students don’t have to like their teacher but they do have to trust them. This requires teachers to be consistent, particularly with feedback. It’s likely a student will dismiss offered advice if they feel the person giving it is untrustworthy. No doubt each of us have experienced this in our own lives. It’s  nevertheless interesting to find  that research bears this out.

There is an iconic study called The Marshmallow Experiment about delayed gratification, and it has recently been updated to investigate the relationship between student and teacher. Students were offered a marshmallow and told that if they waited they could have a second. The short version is that they found that students who did trust their teacher waited 12 to 14 minutes before losing patience and giving in, versus those who didn’t trust their teacher. They  only waited two or three minutes. Imagine if students feel hard-pushed for time and are assessing whether their homework is really necessary or not before they choose whether to do it or dodge it. Trust would very likely affect their judgement.

Homework

Is homework all it’s cracked up to be? How long should homework sessions be? Students may be pleased to learn that the optimum is 60 minutes per night in total, although how that is managed across all subjects is a good question. They differentiate between optimum and best, noting that students can achieve best marks by studying longer (100 minutes per night), but that the trade-off between time and improvement was costly. Evidence also shows that little and often is better than sporadic  mammoth efforts.

Interestingly, students who did their homework without their parent’s help gained more real knowledge than those who had help. That’s not to say that parents can’t contribute by providing a good environment and supervising the homework sessions etc. It was simply to say that when parents readily provide the answers, the child is actually disadvantaged. It’s important that tutors do not fall into the same trap. 

I’ve long been aware of this and it makes me skeptical about the true value of the new wave of short online  ‘help with homework’ tutorials on offer. What can a tutor teach a student in 20 or 30 minutes when there are questions already on the table that need answering pronto? It’s more likely that the student is teaching the tutor how to have a quiet life – “Just answer the question, teacher!”

No amount of research can help when the student does not make an effort themselves. Choosing and setting homework and marking it afterwards is a very time-consuming exercise. If students throw themselves into it, and seize the learning opportunity  all well and good. We can’t ignore though, how many  times students arrive at school with an excuse instead of an answer script or copy from each other on the way to school.

Mobile Phones

It was music to my ears to hear that there is concrete evidence that even just having a phone in front of you on your desk, not even interacting with it, detracts from your performance. GCSE exam results were compared for schools who do allow mobiles and those who  do not. In schools where mobiles are banned their results were a modest 6% better. More importantly, focusing on only the less-able students, schools who did not allow mobiles in class enjoyed a 14% advantage over schools that did.

The authors acknowledge the great benefits phones bring to the classroom, for example by making technological maths support rapidly accessible, but say this is not really enough to justify their presence carte blanche. The presence of mobile phones in school is seen as a topic that people are not ready to address just yet because they don’t have definitive evidence. 

Sleep deprivation

Despite there being a massive amount of research data out there already, both authors are always surprised by people’s lack of knowledge about the effects of lack of sleep. (It’s important to note their tone is not judgmental in any way.) In tests, sleep deprivation was shown to cause a 40% deficit in memory performance. It’s a no-brainer. 40% is mahoosive!

They implore parents to educate their children regarding sleep and get them onboard. Tell them they can be superhumans with superbrains if they simply choose to sleep more. Once they are on the path they will quickly become self-motivated, particularly  when they recognise the improvement in their mental capacity for themselves. Given the lengths many parents go to, often at great expense, to help their children ace their studies, why wouldn’t they want to grab a 40% advantage free of charge.

The presence of mobile phones in the bedroom at bedtime goes against healthy sleep habits. But parents are reluctant to go head-to-head with their children on this. Many report that they can’t disallow the phone in the bedroom at bedtime because their children say they need their phone for the alarm function (!) and the second most popular response is that they don’t want to be mean parents given that ‘it’s their phone’.  Yes it’s their phone but mum and dad are paying for it and expect it to be of overall benefit. 

A compelling argument in favour of banning the phone at bedtime relates to the addictive quality of mobile phones. What else, the authors ask, that is as addictive as a mobile phone would parents pay for and allow their child to keep in their bedroom to use unsupervised 24 hours per day?

Children need protecting from mobiles. Speaking from personal experience the authors best advice is to ‘Always remember, you are not your child’s friend. You are his parent.’ 

Another interesting little snippet they quoted was that for each electrical device in a child’s bedroom that is not a light, sleep is reduced by one hour. It means that even if they only have a TV and a mobile in their bedroom they are losing two hour’s sleep every single night. It’s not looking good for mobiles.

Research into sleep is so advanced that researchers can predict both the amount and the quality of sleep a person will have based on what they do in the hours leading up to bedtime. It’s worth reporting that if you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow you are going to bed too late. I didn’t know that before. I previously thought it was a good thing to be able to fall asleep so fast.

Motivating bored students

Research results show that threats of tests do little to motivate students. What is effective is tapping into their internal motivation which is centred on their own desires and needs. Though students respond well to enthusiasm displayed by a teacher, it’s known that it is more beneficial to tap into their own enthusiasm at the earliest opportunity as this is more long lasting and effective. 

Motivation plus support leads to some measure of achievement, which is in itself more motivating. Motivation and achievement have been shown to be bi-directional and this is what keeps the wheel spinning. It won’t work if the motivation is not backed up by support though. Often demotivated students are behind in their studies and it takes time for their new efforts to bear fruit. That period is especially challenging for them.

Aside from the above, one practical suggestion the authors offered was to put lazy students with more hard-working ones. Kind of like real life! 

Dos and Don’ts of Revising for Exams

Best practice bullets: Don’t:

  • Multi-task with music. Contrary to popular belief, music has a detrimental effect on performance.
  • Have your mobile phone anywhere near you during revision periods.
  • Don’t skip breakfast. You can skip lunch, but not breakfast.

Do:

  • Practice retrieval. The act of trying to remember is much more beneficial than repeatedly reading over material. 
  • Lots of tests
  • mix up topics (but not subjects) within a single session and make heavy use of comparing and contrasting between topics. This is especially easy in maths.
  • Imagine you are going to have to teach someone else what you are learning yourself. This is called the protege effect, by the way, and massively improves your overall ability in any subject area. It is the logic behind finding a teaching buddy to study with.

Maths Anxiety

It is not that people are anxious about not knowing the subject – it is more akin to actors having a fear of forgetting their lines on the night. As a matter of  fact, people with a reputation of being smart suffer more, maybe because they have a reputation to protect.

The authors referenced a study where teachers were asked to make a judgement about a students ability based on a single test result. A bit unfair you might think. Anyhow, the teachers were classified according to their mindset.and their response. Categories were either a growth mindset or a narrow mindset.

The growth mindset group generally set extra practice and explained to the student that provided they follow the plan of action they will be successful in the end. That was in contrast to the teachers with a narrow mindset; they offered condolences and made comments such as ‘ never mind – we can’t all be good at everything’. Interestingly, the students preferred the responses of the ‘growth mindset’ teachers and felt encouraged to get down to work and show  their true worth. The students of teachers with a narrow mindset felt inadequate and felt like giving up.

If you would like to find out more I highly recommend you read their book and visit the websites they rate. 

  1. Their own website: www.innerdrive.co.uk
  2. Education Endowment Foundation
  3. Mac Smith The emotional learner

About the Authors

Bradley has coached Premiership footballers and members of Team GB, but is most heavily involved with supporting teachers and parents across the nation and throughout Europe to maximise their potential. He has worked with over 200 schools and thousands of teachers as well as regularly speaking at national education conferences. A Loughborough graduate and former university lecturer. Bradley is the co-author of Release Your Inner Drive, a book aimed at teenagers that illustrates what a successful mindset looks like, and lays out the path to obtaining it.provides 

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