Something different: the role of contrast in academic enrichment

Enrichment is widely accepted by the educational community as a good thing, but what exactly does it mean? It can be hard to pin down an exact definition of enrichment, because it means different things to different people. Searching for a slightly more rigorous definition of the concept led me to the work of US author Eric Jensen, who maintains that it must be something that produces a measurable, biological change for the better. In his words,

“Enrichment is a positive biological response to a contrasting environment, in which measurable, synergistic, and global changes have occurred within the brain.” (Jensen, 2008)

Nobody (I hope) is suggesting that we should wire our students’ brains up to monitor and measure their learning and progress in the classroom, but the key to Jensen’s assertion here is the role of a contrasting environment in their academic development. If we place a student in the same environment every day, with the same structure to each lesson and the same kinds of tasks to undertake, it does not matter how rich that environment is, there will be little contrast and therefore little progress made.

Bedales is a wonderfully rich environment, of course, and opportunities to get involved with a large and diverse range of activities (academic, artistic, musical, sporting, charitable and many more) are everywhere. However, variety within the context of a single classroom is crucial too. Think back to your school days and try to remember your favourite teacher. Why were they so memorable? The odds are that they were either extremely enthusiastic about their subject (and therefore able to inspire enthusiasm in you) or their lessons were different in some way – possibly to the point of being a little quirky. When we ask our students which lessons they enjoy the most a common response is that lessons become even better when the discussion reaches matters that lie beyond the scope of the exam syllabuses. Naturally, time is at a premium when preparing students for exams, but we should always find time to go beyond the narrowest of constraints that exam boards sometimes dictate. It is the “something different” that makes all the difference.

Not all students are comfortable with such free-ranging discussions and methods of learning and a few need to be encouraged to indulge in a bit more risk-taking with their work. Fear of failure or just fear of making one simple mistake can be all-pervading for some, and familiarity (with their classroom, teacher, lesson structure etc) provides an important crutch. We as teachers have techniques to help students with this, however. A good example would be giving students a choice of task: perhaps graded by difficulty. The more confident risk-takers may opt for a rich and complex problem to tackle straight away, while those a bit less forthcoming may be more comfortable with something more straightforward before building up their confidence with weightier things.

Introducing contrast can be a worry, but ultimately, the freedom that increasing variety provides gives the best opportunity for progress: freedom to explore, freedom to discuss and freedom to learn from our mistakes give us all the freedom to succeed.

By Michael Truss, Head of Mathematics and Head of Academic Enrichment
(based on recent talk to the BPA)

Jensen, E. (2008). Enriching the Brain. Jossey-Bass.

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

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