Treating the brain like a muscle, not a sponge

Treating the brain like a muscle, not a sponge

A very Happy New Year to all of our parents, students, alumnae and friends of the school!

In the first week of term we shared the results from our recent parent survey with both our Junior School and Senior School parents – we were very pleased with the high return rate from parents across the school. We are feeding all of the very helpful comments and insight into our strategic planning going forward.

One thing that our parents say they want to find out more about is how we maintain excellence in Teaching & Learning. In September you may recall my blog which introduced the philosophy of High Performance Learning (HPL) - a proven, research driven and pedagogically-led approach to education that is underpinned by the belief that high educational attainment is not only the reserve of gifted or innately talented students.

We are on a very exciting two year journey to implement the HPL philosophy and framework throughout our school, from Reception to Upper Sixth. The school has committed to this approach to Teaching & Learning to build on our already excellent academic foundation, which is evidenced in our students’ achievements – from overcoming personal challenges and succeeding in individual subjects and extra-curricular activities, to A Level and GCSE examination results, work experience placements and university offers. We believe that success comes as much from confidence-building as from learning.

At St Mary’s School, Cambridge we truly value each individual student, her strengths and passions; we believe there is ‘room at the top’ for every one of them to excel, and we have a heartfelt desire to support learners of all types to achieve the very best with their abilities.  This is why we have been drawn to the philosophy of HPL. Everyone wants a high performing education system, but most people assume that only a minority of children can reach high levels of performance. Modern neuroscience shows us that, in fact, the vast majority are capable of high performance, both in terms of examination results and, equally importantly, in the development of lifelong learning skills.

In a rapidly changing world we need to prepare our students for what they might encounter in the future. The phrase ‘changing world’ may evoke thoughts of the ever changing digital landscape but it is so much more than that: we are not just talking about technology and innovations in this sector. Our students need to be equipped with the 21st century skills which will see them succeed in their school career and in the wider world. Skills such as critical thinking, communication, media literacy and creativity are among those which HPL helps to instil in students.

Through its innovative framework, it will support our school’s aim to provide an aspirational all-round education which promotes creativity, enterprise, collaboration; hence building lifelong skills.

Our implementation of the HPL philosophy is (and will remain) inextricably linked to the aims and ethos of our school. St Mary’s School, Cambridge’s students will become global citizens through spiritual grounding and enterprising learning skills, which allow them to be lifelong advanced learners. The term lifelong is crucial; we want students to be furnished with skills for life, not just for passing exams.

The most important development in education in the 21st century is our growing understanding of human capability.

We can get cleverer and we can grow our intelligence! We need to stop thinking of the brain as a sponge (which has a finite capacity) and rather as a muscle – if you use it in a particular way it can grow and develop.

Rejecting the belief that some students are naturally more intelligent, HPL works instead from the premise that, in a school that provides a challenging but nurturing environment, intelligence is a skill that can be learned and high performance is an attainable target for everyone. 

In order to make high performance a reality for all, we will continue to commit to collaborating with our parents, in the process of developing all of our students to be the very best versions of themselves. We have been working on this as a school since September and we will be regularly presenting the very exciting fruits of our labour to parents so that they can see first-hand how HPL is being implemented in the classroom, illustrating where we are and where we hope to go in the future.

However, HPL is first and foremost a teacher’s agenda. The HPL attributes and behaviours are developed through every day teaching and learning in the classroom. We appreciate that this is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach – schools all around the world are introducing HPL into their schools in a myriad of ways. Indeed, teachers within our school – from Reception to Upper Sixth – will approach HPL in different ways. For example, in Food Technology lessons Mrs Rebecca Landshoff has been using metacognition to plan recipes with her students. In Science lessons the students have been increasing their science literacy by researching scientific figures. Through identifying scientists who are taking risks, resilient and keen to learn we are empowering students with personal knowledge about real scientists and the work they do.

By comparison, Dr Andy Flint, teacher of History and Politics and HPL lead teacher, recently taught a lesson about Nazi Germany and introduced a number of HPL ways of thinking and behaviours to the students, including self-reflection, collaboration and transformative learning. For example, at the start of the lesson students were asked to score themselves out of 10 on how confident they felt about answering the question ‘Why did some people support the Nazi Party?’, they were then asked to consider this score at the end of the lesson and answer the question again to determine if it had increased or decreased, therefore reflecting on their learning.

We are truly energised as educators about this journey on which our school community is embarking to build on our existing foundation of academic excellence and look forward to an exciting 2018.