In praise of… praising

Final feast of the year

By Clare Jarmy, Head of Religious Studies and Philosophy and Head of Academic Enrichment and Oxbridge

One of the main perks of being Head of Academic Enrichment is getting to come along to feasts held by Keith and Moony (see good manners, above) for those students who are working really hard, making excellent progress and showing determination in their work.

They’re really positive events, made even the more special by the fact Moony makes the brownies herself (when the dog doesn’t eat them…). Many schools are good at rewarding academic achievement, but Bedales is really good at praising determination, dedication and academic interest.

It seems to me much more valuable to praise the qualities we want, rather than simply good products. Qualities such as determination and resilience are essential for future learning and careers. In fact, many suggest that ‘grit’ – perseverance – is a better predictor for achievement than IQ  – if we can praise good dispositions, and reinforce those, that seems to be an excellent thing. Moreover, praising the effort over the product avoids students getting fixated on replicating work of exactly the same kind – if my work has been praised, I’ll keep doing that. If my qualities have been praised, I’ll keep working in that way.

This feeds into a growth mindset way of talking to students about academic ability – all learners (including oldies like me!) have progress to make and things to improve. We want to praise students who take this challenge whole-heartedly.

Prize Work

Bedales Memorial Library Interior

How do you reward outstanding achievement if you don’t want to encourage competition between students? Bedales did away with comparative class lists very early on, because we believe that encouraging students to do their best is better than encouraging them simply to do better than others. This is a typical Bedalian dilemma, but one for which Badley had an elegant solution.

‘Prize Work’ was “…not for competition but as reward for anything that was shown up of special merit…for many years the annual show of ‘prize-work’ was one of the most characteristic features of the School” (J.H. Badley, Memories and Reflections, p.124). In order to recognise some of the outstanding independent academic work our students undertake, we are reviving the tradition of Prize Work this year. All students are invited to enter a piece of independent work they have done over the summer. It can be in any academic subject, and could be any kind of thing, for example…

  • a sketchbook of technical diagrams of birds or leaves
  • a program or an App
  • a project to research an area of interest, and write an essay
  • a translation of a short story or poem

It must be their own, and it must not be school work, as this has been assessed already. It can, however, build on school work with additional research and editing. It is a great thing to do if a university application is imminent, and a great way for students to stretch themselves whatever Block they are in. I would like to encourage you to take part!

Submission details here.

By Clare Jarmy, Head of Academic Enrichment and Religious Studies and Philosophy

What can we get out of doing exams?

“What can we get out of doing exams?” I asked the students at assembly on Monday.

This term is the most beautiful of the year at Bedales, yet it is a serious term, too, during which every student will sit exams of one sort or another by the end of term. We started addressing this question by looking at different motivations for doing something: extrinsic goals and intrinsic goals. Exams are generally thought to be good ONLY for extrinsic reasons: they are the ticket by which you access lots of other things you want, such as places at competitive universities, or jobs in industries where particular skills and qualifications are valued. There is a problem, though, in only going after extrinsic goals. Aristotle pointed this out in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he noted that if we only ever do something in order to achieve another goal, then we have no real reason for doing anything. To make this clearer, I used the example: if learning is for exams, and exams are to get you to university, and university is to get you to professional training, and the professional training is to get you to a job, what happens if, after all that, you don’t like the job you were aiming for? If we can find something intrinsically good about doing exams, all the better.

I was arguing that exams are good because they allow students to become the authors of their own learning. We talked about different philosophical/psychological theories of knowledge acquisition, including Locke (which we rejected), Piaget and Vygotsky. It was Vygotsky’s vision we settled on – that when students receive the right support (scaffolding) with their learning from peers and adults, they can progress much better, such that they develop the structures of mind to begin to learn independently. It is this that the revision period gives to students: the opportunity to make learning their own, to move from needing the structures, to taking the content on as theirs. This is part of the conceptual furniture of their mind, not simply some knowledge fed in by a teacher and received passively by the student.

I was arguing that the term ‘revision’ is misleading, because it suggests you are looking at something again; in fact, I think revision allows students to see the material for the first time through their own eyes, as opposed to through the eyes of their teacher. A student of mine in 6.1 proudly said to me the other day that she “owned Plato” now she had revised that material. Intentionally or not, she hit on something by saying this: in her process of independently working through the content, it has ceased to be my content, presented to her – her learning has become authentically her own. And this is something, I think, that we can say is intrinsically worthwhile, and in line with the school’s aim that we “cherish independent thought”.

By Clare Jarmy, Head of Academic Enrichment and Oxbridge, and Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics

Read an article in the TES by Clare Jarmy on the subject of revision (with a slightly different argument)

Watch a video about Vygotsky:

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.