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by Nigel Davis - Head of Secondary

BSAK is an incredible school - but I am convinced that we can get even better - we are embracing our own incredibly high expectations to become one of the best British Curriculum Schools in the world - to do this, we have a collective culture within the staff of personal and professional development - always trying to become better at what we do every single day.  
But I also believe that parents should feel the same way about themselves. They should have an understanding of their role in their child’s educational success; in fact, parents should embrace the fact that their input into their child’s success is absolutely vital, and that they (like us) can always probably do it a little better! I hope that the 'Science of Learning' section will be interesting, and provide an impetus for you as parents to feel even more involved in your child's learning.
May 2024

“Get off your phone!” Too much talking to be revising?  Think (and speak) again!



Last month, I wrote to you all about the importance of having a clear mind when revising - so that there is less cognitive overload which would make learning (or remembering) harder; so, students should make sure that their room is quiet and that music or the television is not playing in the background or through speakers.  As we approach exam season, this blog is another tip about revision, based on both cognitive and neuroscience.
This month, it is something that really can help - but could get students in trouble with well meaning parents!  And that is the power of speaking out loud to try to remember things.
Once students have got to the point in their revision where they need to really put things in their memory banks - putting the concepts, understanding and facts into their long term memory, it is a vital tactic to read it outloud.  The reason for this is that there are clear benefits for the memory of saying out loud the thing you want to remember (over using your internal speech that only you can hear).
The human brain is wired really well to remember stories.  The Cognitive Scientist Daniel Willingham puts it that ‘The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories’; for thousands of years prior to parchment paper and the ability to write and read, all learning was passed down verbally, through the use of stories; it seems that the human brain has adapted to remember them particularly well.  So by learning a story, or the narrative behind the piece of work to be revised, students have a better chance of remembering it.
This is coupled with the understanding of what talking out loud does to the brain.  By changing thoughts into speech, the brain has to make new connections.  It has to turn what are often multiple or slightly confused thoughts into a single string of words that make sense (a sentence!); by doing this, the brain has fired up schemas and has made them stronger.  A good example of this is remembering songs that you have heard many many times, compared to songs that you have personally sung many many times - which ones would you more easily be able to write down the lyrics for?
So students should get to the stage in their revision where they have many different sections of work they need to be able to know or understand.  At this point, with the use of either Mind Maps, Revision Cards, or Revision Questions, they should be speaking out loud the answers or the thing that they want to remember - practising over and over until it becomes second nature to say it without the need for notes.  
The alternative to this is looking at the notes again and again - but scientists have proven that this gives the mind a false perception of understanding and remembering.  Students who only internally read their notes (i.e. those who do not practise until they can read them out loud without their notes) are often under the misconception that they have learnt it when actually they haven’t - the killer “I just went blank in the exam room” syndrome… If students don’t want that to happen, they must speak out loud!
This can be to the mirror, to the wall, to the cat, any inanimate object, or to you or one of their friends - it really doesn’t matter who they are saying this stuff to, as long as it is out loud, with less and less reliance on their notes.
So in revision season - please be aware that it is great to be hearing what seems like chatter from their rooms - because this is them thinking and learning - and not (we hope) chatting to their friends on the phone!
As ever, your thoughts and feedback are welcomed.  Good luck during this revision time!
With best wishes
Mr. Nigel Davis








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April 2024

Music to soothe the soul… but to work with??

                                              Listening to music whilst learning
This blog is a little later going out than usual - thanks to the Spring Break.  As we now start the final term of the year, we approach exam season; and that means revision season for our students.  So I thought I would write about the habit of listening to music whilst learning.  Revision could be seen as different to ‘learning’ - but it really isn't - after all, the word revision has its entomology in the Latin word ‘revisionem’ which means to ‘see again’ - or in other words, to re-look at material to make sure it is learnt.
I wonder if any parents have snuck up to their children’s room to make sure they are revising, and have come away satisfied because you can see them with their headphones on, books open, pen in hand - thinking, oh they are really in the zone…?  My challenge is for you to stop them and tell them to do it without music - because science tells us that without music, they will be far more effective. 
HERE and HERE you can find an infographic and information about a study conducted by Inner Drive, a UK company who supports learning development.  It demonstrates the same thing as many other studies have shown - that silence is the best way to learn.
Many youngsters will want to revise while they listen to music - why?  The common answers they give are: because the music helps them to relax, or that music helps them to concentrate.  This is, ofcourse, simply not true (even if they believe that it is!).  The neuroscience answer is that music is a distraction to the brain - it is an input to the brain, which the brain has to play a part in listening to.  And if the person is truly trying to learn the material in a deeper way, then it is taking important brain power away from this process; in effect, by listening to music, the person is trying to multitask.  Human beings are not good at multitasking; because it means that our brains become overloaded - our short term / working memory is not great (you may remember that from an earlier blog).  When we overload our working memory, the brain will struggle and will not be able to retain as much information into our long term memory (learning).
An example of multitasking is this - have you ever had a go at rubbing your tummy in a circular motion with one hand, whilst simultaneously tapping the top of your head with the other hand?  It is hard!  And even if you can do that, you must admit that you are better at doing one of them at a time than doing both together… and even if you disagree with that, try introducing a third thing - such as a mathematical sum!  It is the reason why you should never use your mobile phone whilst driving - with many studies showing that mobile phone use while driving raises reaction times by half - creating more risk of accidents.  It is the reason why countries such as the UAE have rightly criminalised mobile phone use while driving.
So, the question is - do our children want to do their best?  If they do, then they need to get into the habit of revising with quietness - so that their brains are totally focussed on learning the task at hand.  
Good luck out there!  As ever, please feel free to get in touch with a comment or question.
With best wishes
Mr. Nigel Davis




March 2024

Harkness Teaching Method

A Harkness Session in practice
The last few blogs have concentrated on behavioural norms; how we want our BSAK students to develop, and how we can support this. I always want to mix these blogs up, so this month, I am returning to classroom learning.
I would imagine most parents would scratch their heads if their child comes home and said “we had a Harkness lesson today”... What on earth does this mean, and why is BSAK championing it?
In the early 20th century, US philanthropist Edward Harkness was a great admirer of how Oxford and Cambridge universities conducted their seminars with small groups of students, and gave the topics to them so that they could drive the learning. He considered this crucial for moving away from the rote learning (memorisation) that had become the staple of US schooling.  With a hefty donation, he encouraged Phillips Exeter Academy, a renowned US Private school, to trial this system, which became known as the Harkness Table teaching method.
At its heart, Harkess teaching is student centred. The traditional way of setting a Harkness lesson up is for the teacher to provide opportunities for independent study, where students are asked to work towards mastering a topic or an element of the curriculum in their own time.
Students are then asked to come up with questions that they think would probe other students learning about the topic, and bring them into class.
The students sit in a circular, or an oval shaped seating, with the teacher outside of the ring.  There is minimal intervention from the teacher, although they record who has made contributions, and who have made the most telling contributions. Students drive the learning about the topic, with everyone having a voice. At times, the teacher may need to intervene, if the topic is moving off in a tangent, or if one or two students are dominating.
The method does several things: It develops independence in learning (as students will need to do at university), where there is a list of reading or watching, and the student needs to come prepared, so it develops accountability for their own studies; it encourages oracy, where students develop the ability to speak their thoughts; it helps develop curiosity as they consider questions to ask others; and it develops speed of thought as they make deep connections with the learning and the questions asked by other students - you truly need to understand the learning to work at this level; it also creates empathy for others’ views and opinions, and this therefore generates learning led by each other.
Finally, it encourages the use of tier two and three vocabulary in vocal form - tier two language is educational language which can be used across many domains - such as ‘analyse’, or ‘examine’, whereas the tier three vocabulary is subject specific language such as ‘algorithm’ in a maths class, or ‘globalisation’ in a Geography class. Students being able to better use these in spoken form, using them in their questions and responses, lends itself to developing their written work also.
So who uses the Harkness method? At BSAK, we are currently using this periodically across several subjects, and increasing the number of subjects, and the number of year groups who are exposed to it. They do not happen every lesson - we feel that roughly every 2 or 3 weeks, when the right sort of topic comes up which lends itself to using the method. It is not something that students engage with in every lesson.
So far, our pilot project has been incredibly well received by students. Although it has taken some time for them to get ‘into’ the Harkness philosophy, those classes who have now been using it for two terms are more confident with this way of working, and the feedback is that they really feel the benefit as learners.
As always, I would be really interested in your views on this topic.
With best wishes
Mr. Nigel Davis


February 2024

Lombardi Time

I met a friend for a coffee a few weeks ago - and he was a few minutes late; on arrival he shared that he was mad with himself because he had set himself a target of always setting his arrival times onto ‘Lombardi Time’. So what is Lombardi Time, and why should/does it apply to you and your children?
Vincent Lombardi was one of America’s most celebrated ‘Hall of Fame’ American Football coaches - famously coaching the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, when he led them to 5 NFL championships and 2 Super Bowl titles in 7 years.
He was seen as being way ahead of his time for many reasons - one of them being the professionalism of players and team coaches that he led. Early on, he noticed that the relaxed relationship with timings and the tardiness of players had become problematic, with training session times being cut into by players turning up ‘roughly’ on time; meaning a lot of waiting around by those who did manage to get there ready to start at the pre-arranged time. But why is it an issue?
According to Shep Hyken from Forbes magazine, “Being late is a sign of disrespect to your colleagues at work, your customers and even your friends and family. The message you’re sending is that your time is more important than theirs. It also erodes confidence. Being on time, or even a little early, creates confidence and a sense of dependability”. These are strong words, and although we may feel that it is more subtle than this, what is clear is that being punctual does show someone who respects the person, institution, or meeting they are attending; it shows someone who is saying “I care about this enough to be on time”, and it does engender trust that you can depend on a person to do a good job. This is a virtue I want all BSAK Students to have.
So, Lombardi made a simple rule - whatever time he set as the start time to a practice, then every player must turn up 15 minutes earlier than that time - or they would be considered late. What an impact it had - the team were sharper, better drilled, and more together. Vince Lombardi attached this principle to everything the Green Bay Packers did - not just training, but also for meeting times for buses, board meetings, and being ready to run out onto the pitch.
It made such an impression on the Green Bay Packers American Football team, that when the new clock was positioned to overlook their Lambeau Field Stadium in Wisconsin, it was set to permanently show the time 15 minutes earlier than the actual time… which apparently still catches out non-informed passers-by.What is interesting is the synergy with BSAK. Our school day starts at 7.45am.  However, we actually open our doors at 7:30am, and want students to arrive as close to that time as possible - why? Because we do not want our students arriving at 7:45am - if they do, they are already late. We have a mechanism for asking Students to reflect on their poor time-keeping… although we do all realise that often it is just as much the parents’ issue as it is the Students; every day we still see a small proportion of our Students arriving at school just after the National Anthem is played at 7:45am, and some still find it hard to see what the issue is, as they are “only a few minutes after 7:45”! 
So, moving forward, what I will ask from every parent is that you try to take on board Lombardi Time with the family’s morning school run - 15 minutes earlier than 7:45am, so as to never be late; I am convinced that it will be another small marginal gain for our wonderful school to make it even sharper than it already is.
With best wishes.

January 2024

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Over this festive period, I wonder how many of you (like I did) looked around at a family gathering and saw far too many of your loved ones with their heads buried in their mobile phones or iPads?  It sometimes seems that the art of a family gathering - of chatting, storytelling and passing on wisdom, is slowly dying - being replaced with a move into a virtual world - and this got me thinking about this virtual world where many people (young, and old it has to be said), spend so much of their time these days… and the impact of that.  Over the last term we have had several incidents where BSAK students have got themselves into some pretty serious trouble because of how they have acted online (having spoken to school leaders here in Abu Dhabi and several back in the UK, it is the same trend all over)… and this got me thinking of the story of Jekyll and Hyde.
This classic story was created by Robert Louis Stevenson over a century ago (written in 1886 during Victorian Britain).  Many of you will know the tale - where the mild mannered Dr Jekyll invented a serum to turn himself into the vicious creature ‘Mr Hyde’ who then went about London committing the most heinous crimes - Dr Jekyll knew he had the capacity for evil inside of himself, but because he was a product of a civilised society, he could not bring himself to perform such crimes as himself - so he needed to change into the monster Hyde: who was evil, self-indulgent, and uncaring to anyone but himself.
The ability to change yourself into a monster should be a work of fiction.  Sadly however, there is such a possibility today… and sadly, too many people drink freely from it, and turn into that alter-ego creature.  What am I referring to? Although the internet and social media isn’t something you physically drink, the effect can sometimes be the same as Dr Jekyll’s potion - sometimes, we have seen truly wonderful young people, brought up well, with impeccable manners, choosing to act in a way that they would never dream of behaving in real life; choosing to write things, or do things online that they then live to regret.
The crazy thing is that, no matter how many times they are asked to learn about the dangers of the internet, some young people still believe that they have a cloak of invisibility when using it - or believe that their actions will somehow disappear over time… one of the key things to learn about the internet is your digital footprint can now potentially be seen by universities and potential employers in the recruitment process - cancel culture is now rife in society - I do not want a single BSAK student to miss out on something special because of a poorly thought through action online.
This is a crucial issue for our time - it is something that previous generations have (thankfully) not had to cope with.  It is something that our MELS programme, Computer Science and Digital Fluency curriculums cover, and Heads of Year present assemblies on.  It is also something that we need your support with as well - in the same way that you will ensure that your children talk to people in the correct way, play nicely with their friends, and show by their actions that they are decent young people - these attributes must be instilled into their online behaviour as well.  Something for you to consider - do you discuss their online persona and how it still needs to be held to the same moral code that they are held to in real life?  The devices they use to gain access to social media are (I would imagine almost always) purchased by parents - so parents own them and gift them to their children - so please (at least prior to age 16 as they are formulating their online ‘voice’), check their devices and make sure that their postings on WhatsApp, Tic Tok, Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook are postings that you find acceptable.
Over the next term, we will be looking into some more opportunities to bring parents into school and to look to further strengthen the partnership between school and home in this area so that we can best support our brilliant BSAK students as they navigate their way through the online world.  It is a world filled with traps and dangers - where we need to ensure that they understand how to use it without becoming a monster!

Nigel Davis | Head of Secondary


The COP28 Edition

A wonderful image for the British School Al Khubairat - the British King, King Charles III together with the President of the UAE, HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan - two very powerful and eminent voices for a more sustainable world, and two people who are very special to BSAK.  What great joy it brought to read that COP28 has produced an agreement from world governments to triple the world's renewable energy capacity by 2030, and eradicate fossil fuels from the global energy system by 2050. Of course, it remains to be seen if these promises become a reality; it is only with continued efforts and education can the necessary changes be made a certainty.

What a different world we live in now to the one I was launched into when leaving school. When I completed my A Level studies in the summer of 1990, even though 2 of my 3 A Levels were in Geography and Chemistry, I had not been taught about the impact of Greenhouse Gases, and what they could potentially do to our world. The fact is that in 1990 when I left for university, the world was slumbering towards disaster. Even though the world had been warned of the dangers from Greenhouse gases almost 100 years before, by a Swedish Scientist called Svante Arrhenius back in 1896!

Then, in 1992 in Rio De Janeiro, there was a turning point - or so it seemed. The Rio ‘Earth Summit’ gave the world the very first ever environmental treaty of climate change. It was meant to be the start of the global community truly coming together to save the planet that we all share.  It recognised the need for change…but the failures of the world since then has shown what a complex situation the world is in. The very thing that threatens our world is the very thing that helps individual countries develop and thrive. So while it is relatively easy for the richest countries of the world to change to a cleaner energy, whilst still keeping their affluence and levels of development, this is far harder for less well off countries to buy into. 
Only with a global education of the perils of not putting into place these huge changes, can enough momentum be found to create a tipping point for our world. Many BSAK students can see this; our growing numbers in our Sustainability Committees, which are student led, is testament to this. Their ideas are helping to drive our school forward - ideas including improvement to how our light system works; the use of solar power; of hydroponic farms; and of creating a BSAK Pledge for each student for their support in making a difference.
One of my (slightly corny) guilty pleasures is the Whitney Houston song - ‘The Greatest Love of all’, that starts with the lines: 
I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
I certainly believe that, and see it evidenced every day at BSAK!
For those who would like to find out more about human induced Climate Change, the National Geographic is a great start:
As ever, please do get in touch with thoughts or comments.
November 2023

Magic Pill number 2!

Although I am sharing the above image of a fantastic book by E D Hirsch, this month’s blog is not really about the book; however, there is one section that really drills this month’s message home - but more of that later!
Last year, I wrote to you about a magic pill; something that could give your children the edge: more alertness, more energy, more concentration, and less stress; and therefore more chance of doing well in school, their learning, and life. That magic pill was, of course, sleep!
This month, I am letting you into the secret of a second magic pill… this one has different outcomes: it allows our children to escape from reality and have vivid dreams of fantastical places, which can have a positive impact on their emotional health. This magic pill will also make your child a more interesting person - able to have discussions and make insightful contributions in many more situations. It also offers our children the ability to learn while they enjoy these trips into new worlds, gives them abilities that they can then use in all subjects, and makes them better at school without doing any school work!  
What am I talking about?… Reading!
Reading widely for pleasure brings so many advantages to our students. So much of academic and adult life revolves around being able to read really well. But actually, the most important thing about reading is vocabulary acquisition. This is where E.D Hirsch comes in… his book is all about the power of knowledge; or more to the point the power of an education system that prizes knowledge over skills - because those systems that slavishly went after ‘21st century skills’ over knowledge acquisition are now seen to be less successful (and he dwells on the French and US educational systems in detail), as they did not understand the science behind cognitive development - where new learning is built on prior learning; where having mastery of the knowledge within a discipline will then lead to skills such as problem solving. 
Hirsch argues that the best measure of academic quality are the reading ages and vocabulary scores of students. The ability to comprehend text, also predicts the ability to comprehend both oral and written language, and therefore allows people to operate effectively within the public and educational spheres. Therefore, if we can improve students’ reading and vocabulary, then we are truly helping them succeed.
So easy then - get students reading…? Maybe not quite so simple. Reading is given a bit of a bad press among today’s young people. Compared to the instant gratification that comes from social media, from video games, or even from Hollywood or Netflix, reading does seem a little dull. It is, however, impossible to get the same growth through any of these other mediums - even watching documentaries (brilliant as they are) are not nearly as good for vocabulary development (although far better for visualising learning, obviously!).
The key years are actually Years 8 through to Year 11. Our data suggests that Year 7 do read a lot - they have brought the habit of reading up from their Primary years. However, by the time they are in Year 11, other things have taken over, and the decision to read is often not taken by young learners, which is a pattern we would like to break here at BSAK.
What we want to see is a development in the reading habits of our BSAK children - continuing to develop their love of fictional reading - normally with a particular favourite ‘genre’, but also developing the practice of reading for learning - outside of the school curriculum, into what is now referred to as the ‘super-curriculum’, where students throw themselves into their subjects and read around it and broaden their understanding beyond the school curriculum…Now this is where reading truly can help with the very highest A Level grades and with university applications and interviews. But if our children lose their habit of reading through Years 8 to 11, it is hard to then pick it back up.
What does this mean for parents? Firstly, it is important for you to know your child as a reader: are they a good reader (or not), a reluctant reader, or an avid reader?  Knowing this can help you to help them. If your child struggles with their reading, it is crucial to have age-appropriate reading in their zone of proximal development - i.e. not too easy, not too hard; this will help their understanding and enjoyment, but will also give them the opportunity to increase their vocabulary.
Our BSAK Secondary library is superb; I honestly have never seen a better school library in all the schools I have visited, and our two librarians are amazing. One of the things they offer, which parents may not know about, is a parental hour. Every Tuesday between 2.45 and 3.45pm, parents are able to come into our library and borrow books themselves, and are encouraged to bring their Secondary children with them to entice them into reading more.
This brings me onto the final thing about reading - and this is hard for some parents - but modelling good reading habits will clearly help!  Do you read? (I would imagine many of you are in that phase in life where reading for pleasure takes a back seat as work and commitments take over). A suggestion would be either a family reading hour on particular days an hour before bed time, or even allowing children to stay up a little later if they are using that time to read.  This modelling and encouragement from parents can be extremely powerful - and could lead to direct improvements in school, and life in general - like a magic pill!




September 2023


Welcome back everyone, and for our new parents - welcome to the BSAK family.

I started writing this Monthly blog last year (I send it on the first Monday of every month) - I felt like it should have 3 golden threads through it: firstly, to bring secondary school parents a little closer to what we do here - as parents of primary aged students, many parents feel very ‘hands on’ in terms of what is happening in school - but as children get older and more self sufficient (and with more hormones) this very quickly stops; secondly, it will (hopefully) include some tips about how to be even better than you already are now as a parent - how to support your child’s educational development by getting more involved in their learning; finally - and this is firmly where this month’s blog sits - it will try to explain our core purpose - learning, and how it happens - to parents who maybe have never considered how the student’s progress in their learning happens.

Last year, I mentioned this amazing and seminal book - ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ by the cognitive scientist, Dan Willingham.  It changed my professional thinking in several ways.  The title of the book is a little vague - what it means is that to really enjoy something (like school, which by its very nature is challenging), humans have to find reward in it - and as teachers, we need to understand how the brain works a little better to help those endorphins to be released. 

One thing that Willingham makes clear, and what I want to concentrate on here, is Attention.  Willingham uses the following simplified version of how learning happens (and by the way, by learning, he means a change in our Long Term Memory - which is different to our Short Term Memory - more of that in another blog) - this shows you where Attention comes in:

The slightly larger white circle in the ‘Environment’ (which, in school, mostly means the classroom) is the thing that the teacher wants the student to learn… which (through their eyes, ears, and sometimes other senses), the student needs to put firstly into their short term memory, before transferring it to their long term memory.

There are two issues with this - the Environment, and the student’s Attention.  These can both have a detrimental impact on learning - because learning happens when students think really hard about what it is they are to learn.

You can see that the environment has lots of other dots in it - these represent a whole host of other things that could be happening in the classroom: noisy other students; noises from outside the class; a classroom too hot or too cold; itchy uniform; an argument they had at lunch; something displayed in the room that catches their eye and their thinking.  Anything that will capture the student’s Attention.

Attention is absolutely key. Going through the motions of being in a classroom and hoping that the learning will happen by osmosis (learning gradually seeping into their brains just by being there) does not happen in schools - it does for things like speaking development in young children, but not for more complex academic learning.  

So my staff have been told to keep a tidy classroom, with nothing that will take away from the learning. They know to watch for the class temperature, and to ensure that they keep the noise level in the room low (that includes themselves - giving instructions or guidance when students are quiet and thinking about work is one of the worst habits that teachers get into). They know to ask students to listen with their eyes as well as their ears (to help ensure attention is there)... but a huge chunk comes from the students.

For students to truly achieve, they must understand Attention, and the impact that thinking hard about something has on their learning. This is a really crucial, but tiring thing that students need to do each lesson. 

What I am proud to see on a daily basis is exactly how wonderful our classrooms and lessons are and how learning focused they are - with students truly engaged and staff who really know how to get the best out of them; but we should always be looking for the marginal gains (me in my staff and students, and you in your children).

So, as parents - how can you help? You can understand this yourselves, and ensure that your children realise that you know it too - talk to them about attention being the most important thing that you expect of them, as it will truly help them flourish. I feel that parents engaging with their children about the learning that is taking place each day is one of the best ways to help your child to learn well (that was covered in the very first blog last September - the ‘forgetting pit’).

I hope the start to the new term has been a smooth one for both you and your children.  As always, if you would like to send a message regarding this month’s blog, please do feel free!

July 2023


I grew up in the South West of England - in the county of Somerset - in the 1980s.  When I reflect back on my summer holidays through my secondary school ages, it feels like a halcyon time of long summer evenings, cycling to friends’ houses, playing football or cricket, or days spent at the Lido (our town’s open air public swimming pool, when all sorts of playful shenanigans took place!).

While it was a little more developed than the famous autobiographical ‘Cider with Rosie’ by Laurie Lee, it also wasn’t all that different either - wherever you look in Somerset are beautiful rolling hills and farmers fields.  

I was a fairly avid reader, spending hours with my head in any book of the sword and sorcery type - from Tolkein to Eddings, I would dive into different worlds with words on pages and my own imagination.

There was no internet or personal computers.  So my summers were spent either lost in another world of literature, or out in the fresh air.  What I was certainly doing was enjoying myself!  What I certainly was not doing was any school work!

When I started teaching, it was the first time I had heard of the Summer Learning Loss… studies have documented that it is possible that students lose around 25% of their attainment through a summer of not using their brains for education.  I remember the UK system being very concerned about this and all sorts of efforts being put into trying to ‘stop’ this, including educational reading essentials, summer schools, and re-testing of students on their return.

Now, I feel very different about this.  What we now know about how the brain works means that yes, when information (or learning) is not used (retrieved), then it will slip further down into the forgetting pit.  However, what we also know is that the next time it is retrieved, then the schemas in the memory will be strengthened - so yes, there may be some learning loss - but when that is remembered again, it will be a more powerful memory!

And, probably more importantly, every student deserves their time off in the summer (with the possible exceptions of Year 10 into 11 and especially year 12 into 13, where they are half way through a two year course, so some retrieval of learning over the summer would be a good idea!).  Students deserve to ride their bike, to go on holiday, to have adventures, to read books that help get them lost in a new world.  As parents, we have an opportunity over the summer to spend more time with our children.  To help shape them into the young people we want them to be.  To stir an interest in them that could inspire them.  To talk about culture and places and politics.  These are a crucial part of your children’s education - allow them to grasp it and do not be concerned about any Summer Learning Loss!

Enjoy your summer everyone - see if you can facilitate a summer for your children that they look back on in 30+ years time with the same nostalgia that I look back on mine!

Best wishes always - as ever, please feel free to respond or ask for any follow ups.

May 2023

P is for People who spread Positivity

As we move through life, we come across some people who give off an aura of positivity; likewise, we also come across those who seem to suck any positivity out of any situation…In English, we use the expression - ‘are you glass half full, or glass half empty’ - meaning, in the same situation, some people will see the positive side (the glass is still half full), while others will see it negatively (half the glass is already gone).
Personally, I want to be surrounded by glass half full people - because they create a positive ‘can do’ atmosphere… and I’d like to think I am one of those people too… but I do think that it is something we should work on with our children and our students - because positivity is a frame of mind - and it is a frame of mind that truly impacts not only on your persona, but also on others. But young people model what they see - so we need to role model positivity - for example, as teachers and parents, responding to requests for support with positive strategies and solutions. Developing our young people into being young adults who are able to offer support in a positive way not only helps others, but it has a decidedly positive impact on them as well.
But positivity is even more than that. It is also about how we overtly show gratitude, or love; how we embody playfulness, curiosity and adventure. All of these emotions trigger positivity in each other and create an upward spiral - which ultimately creates positivity not just for us, but for all those around us.
Modelling being altruistic and the power of giving is so incredibly powerful. In a world that is unequal, and frankly unfair at times, encouraging our children to give back to society - and the positive impact that has on their own wellbeing, is a wonderful gift we can give to them.
Barabara Fredickson has gone a step further in her book (called simply ‘Positivity’) - she has listed the key elements that create positivity…beyond the BSAK school curriculum, these are the real curriculum for our children - if they can discover and build robust mechanisms for themselves to have all of these in their lives in a positive way, then they will be doing an amazing job:

A Level results are, obviously, really important - but I would argue that all of these elements are even more important for our BSAK children. If we are developing young adults who see the benefits of joy, of hope, of love and gratitude; who take an interest in many things, show pride in themselves and others, are inspired and inspire others; and who can find serenity from the hectic life we lead, and remember what peace can be found in silence…Can we ask for more?
April 2023
Firstly, I would like to thank those parents who have got in touch about this monthly blog so far this year. Many have got in touch to ask questions, some have asked for more information, or have written in to confirm that something in the blog has resonated with them; thank you to you all. The purpose of doing this is to allow an insight for parents about how we think about learning, and about students’ development, at BSAK… and also to perhaps signpost you to things that I wish I had known as a parent when my daughter was moving through school!
This month, I am reflecting on a book I read over the Spring Break, called ‘Outsmart Your Brain’ by Daniel Willingham. This is the second Willingham book I have read - the first was called ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ - which changed my (professional) life…Willingham is a cognitive psychologist, and explained like never before how the relatively new understanding of how brains (and more importantly memory) work, can be used in schools to genuinely make our young people more able to do better at school (and therefore enjoy it more!)... I will write more about this first amazing book in another blog. 
In ‘Outsmart Your Brain’, Willingham writes about a lot of things, but one thing is clear - there really are ways that all students can get better at learning - and this book is about learning the tactics that the most successful students utilise. A few years ago, BSAK invited the brilliant UK educationist, Sir John Jones, to come and speak to all the BSAK staff. His messages were bold and blunt; and the one that stuck most with me was about never putting a glass ceiling on a student - because no educator can truly tell how much potential each student has. Willingham’s book truly gives solutions to students about how to break through any glass ceilings.

Willingham offers advice on many things: revision, note taking, test advice, defeating procrastination, and overcoming anxiety and gaining self confidence. But fundamentally, he writes about learning, and how to get better at it. He puts it down to 3 powerful principles, some of which are things that teachers can help with, some are for students to acknowledge and target:


  1. Memory is the residue of thought. By this, he means that if we are not thinking hard about something we need to learn, then we wont remember it. Teachers have a great responsibility for this, and luckily at BSAK, we know this. No longer in Geography lessons will students be asked to colour the sea blue (a very relaxing task but requires no thinking!), or making ‘wacky maps’ which require imagination, but no geographical thought; or History lessons where you invent your own family shield; or English lessons of copying writing off of the board with no analysis or questioning. Our lessons are developed to ensure that students are thinking hard about the intended learning outcomes.

    But students also have a responsibility here - some students ‘drift’ through their school day - like Highway Hypnosis (where you complete a familiar car journey, and then when reaching your destination you can’t remember the journey at all) - students aren’t daydreaming, but they are not in the moment, and they are not thinking hard… Unlike those students who know the secrets of success.  

    When we see our children at the end of the day, as parents we often ask “How was your day” - sometimes we even ask it in a very rhetorical way - hopeful that the answer is “ok”... My challenge to you as parents is to reframe that question into either “What do you remember about today”, or “What did you learn today that you can teach me”... this will really help your child realise if they truly are in the moment in their lessons… more on this later.
  2. Organisation helps memory. This seems obvious if you think about it - trying to learn something that is a complete jumbled mess is a real challenge - it is the reason that teachers and subject areas consolidate the learning process into ‘Schemes of Work’ - so that the learning makes sense and so that each new bit of learning builds on top of previous learning in a clear sequence.  It also makes sense for learners too, especially as they are proceeding through a course - especially at GCSE and A Level - if notes from classes are not kept chronologically, or if their note taking (in exercise book, in A4 folders, or on files on a computer) is messy and hard to understand when they look back at it, then the very start of their revision will be really daunting (and therefore harder to start, and sometimes easy to give up on) - whereas if the notes are kept well, then the re-learning of information in the revision stage of learning is a much easier process.
  3. Probing memory improves memory. This is vital. The answer to why can be easily understood if you think back to a really good memory you have from the distant past - perhaps winning something, or perhaps involving a lot of pain like a broken bone… you perhaps think that you remember this incident because of the pain or joyous emotions it produced… the answer is no - it is because over the years you have played it back over and over again, and probably told many people about it - hence, you have probed your memory banks again and again for it, so that it is really easy to remember. The same happens for all learning.

    The highest achieving students are constantly interested in, and thinking about their learning, and are not only going over it in their minds, but also questioning their minds about it, and doing more reading or watching about it, ready to go into their next BSAK lesson armed with more questions.

    As parents, you can help this process too by asking the questions we posed above… So, when you ask the question “What did you learn today” or “What do you remember about today”, you are actively engaging your child to probe their own memories and to bring back memories from today, and therefore make them stickier.

    They will protest at first, of course - telling you that they have been thinking really hard all day so why are you bothering them… but make it habitual and you (and they) will see the benefits!

    Willingham’s chapter on revision (studying for tests) is brilliant. I found it reassuring that he went over much of the ground we covered in last month's blog, explaining how re-reading notes and highlighting are ineffective techniques (the mind tries to trick us into thinking that we are learning when we actually are not), and the use of meaningful questioning of yourself is vital. He also thinks that study groups can be really useful - but only after the majority of the hard work has already been done. Finally, understanding that revision is time-consuming and must be started as early as possible.

    The book is available online and is published by Gallery Books, and would be an interesting read for parents and students as well as teachers.  As ever, please do feel free to get back to me with your thoughts about this month’s blog.
March 2023

Revision - that dreaded word!

“Have you got any revision?”... a phrase that instils dread into secondary school students; and even more so is the reply “I don’t know how to revise, can you help me?” for their parents!  There is a train of thought that says, if children are taught to ‘mastery’ level, then there is no need for revision before tests (or exams, ‘progress checks’, ‘assessments’ or ‘assessment points’). However, the idea that anyone who wants to perform at their very best doesn’t practise and keep trying to get better right up until the end is a little odd… so high quality revision is an important toolset that every student should possess.
However, the problem is that students do not enter secondary school possessing the skills of effective revision. At BSAK, we have a graduated approach to helping students to revise, with a little bit given to year 7, increasing through the years until by Year 11, they should (hopefully) understand much better how to study for summative assessments.
What we perhaps do not do so well, is to pass this information onto parents. So this month’s blog is aimed at helping parents consider what is effective, and what is not effective revision, and what parents can do to really help their children as they prepare for tests and exams.
Firstly, it is a realisation that revision should not be started the night before - indeed, the further away from the assessment the better; it is not ‘reading through books’ - or even highlighting important parts in texts - neither of these are effective for remembering… So what is effective revision, and how can parents help?
The first and easiest way you can help is creating a space at home - where can your child effectively study? A room away from distractions will be great - their bedroom is OK if it is on a desk - not their bed!
Inner Drive are an educational company from the UK, who give some excellent advice to parents - their top ten tips are here: 
So, once you have done your bit, what is next? It can be tricky, as tension can be running high for students who really care about their results, but do ask them about their techniques. The main thing to ensure is that they are planning their revision - this is especially needed in the run up to the actual GCSE and A Level exams. A revision timetable is absolutely essential - it does two things: firstly, it ensures that revision is spaced out and not crammed, and that they plan an equal amount of time for each section.
The next thing is to ask about how they are revising. The main part at the start of the revision process is to deconstruct and then reconstruct learning - this makes it stick. There are several ways of doing this: spider diagrams, revision cue cards, bullet-pointed notes… but the crucial element is not the rewriting of information into a new form - it is the learning of this information - and this means speaking them out loud - either to themselves or to someone else UNTIL THEY CAN SAY IT WITHOUT USING THE PAPER; because if they can say it they can write it. So be prepared to hear your child talking to themselves in their room!
Once they have completed this part, they need to test themselves - designing questions, finding them on the web (or an AI bot?), revision guides - all of these things work, as does being tested by you or their friends (yes, revision dates can be effective, at times!). The most important part of this section of revision is not just that they can regurgitate knowledge, but that they can explain why it is the right answer!
The final bit of revision (at least, for the GCSE and A Level exams) is exam paper questions - going over how they would answer questions of past papers. Not so easy for Key stage 3.
At times, as parents, you will be facing brick walls from your children. This is normal, as preparing for assessments is not easy. Again, Inner Drive has come up with a list of typical concerns and negative thoughts from students, and how parents can help them overcome these:
Finally, I turn you back to one of my favourites, professor Barbara Oakley - here, in a podcast that lasts just under an hour (or about 40 minutes on speed 1.5!) She explains how children can utilise effective tools to remember things - which after all, is all revision is, and also how parents can best support their children.  I find her anecdotes and her understanding of how the brain works fascinating, and really helpful for our students. I hope you do too - you can listen to it by clicking here.  
Ultimately, revision must be seen for what it is - a way of allowing our children to be the best version of themselves when they walk through the exam hall; it is the secret weapon of those who achieved great exam results. It is hard, and laborious; but the payoff is huge if it is effectively done.
As ever, I would welcome any thoughts or questions or discussion points!
February 2023

Artificial Intelligence - have we reached that point?

As a 50 year old, I have a slightly embarrassing admission; a guilty pleasure: Marvel films.  From Iron Man, to Thor, Avengers, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel - I love them all. They are classic battles of good versus evil, where good people always eventually prevail. But… While they are normally seen as classic fantastical escapism which we know can’t happen in real life: with superheroes, magic and far fetched characters and technology, one thing has suddenly become almost real.
Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) has a speaking artificial intelligence called Jarvis - like a computer generated artificial butler. Jarvis seems to be all-knowing, and can make things happen - booking opera tickets, telling Tony who is at the front door, releasing his next Iron Man suit, and telling Tony how much damage he is taking when being shot at by the bad guys - he is the perfect non-human companion.
So are we on the brink of having a real life Jarvis? Many of us these days do have an Amazon Alexa (I believe there are other brands too!) in our homes, and to some extent, they can do things for us like order some shopping and answer simple questions… but the level of Artificial Intelligence has just gone up to a whole new level.
Some of you may have heard or read about ChatGPT. An online Open AI platform where you can have really intelligent conversations with an Artificial Intelligence just like you were chatting (in written words) to the world’s most intelligent human being. Ask it to answer pretty much anything and it will provide the best answer from accessing the whole of the internet to search for the most appropriate and (apparently) accurate answers possible, and will provide them to you in an expertly written form. You can then challenge it to improve the answer by adding more subtlety to your request; you can ask it to change it for a different audience; you can ask it to increase or decrease the level of detail. Incredible.
Incredible. But dangerous too? Maybe. Just maybe if it is abused. I’m not sure I would want a structural engineer to use it for the plans of a new bridge; or for my doctor to use it to tell him or her how to perform an operation I need. Some people in Education are also very worried about the use of this type of AI by students.
I have a more pragmatic approach for our students, and would argue that they should be used - in the right ways. ChatGPT, and the other Open Access AI can be incredibly useful, in many different ways. For a start, they can help students when they are stuck - giving the nudge of understanding that helps them crack that challenging topic - in this way it can help with cognitive development in the same way as working together with a partner can. When needing to find a reading list for something they are studying, ChatGPT can do this if you ask it the right questions. When revising, you can put in the subject, the syllabus and qualification type, and ask it to generate revision questions to test yourself. It will then,10 minutes later, provide you with the answers to each question and the reasons why they are right for you to check your understanding. Your very own revision tutor.
A particularly helpful way of using ChatGPT is when a student is really struggling to understand why they are having trouble with something very challenging, such as a maths problem or computer programming that just won't work; typing their incorrect answer into the system and asking it to explain why it is not working can create a real ‘lightbulb moment’.  Another great way of using ChatGPT is with its link with Youtube: it can provide transcripts and summaries for long videos - which can be a real time saver for anyone who wants the general points of a video without watching the whole thing. Powerful stuff.
And so to the dangers.  With these open access AIs becoming more numerous, it is impossible (and I think not the right approach) to try to ban them all.  Instead, we need to educate our students about the pitfalls their use can bring.
First of all, using them for work to replace student effort or learning.  If a student is given a task or a homework which is a series of questions, with the aim to get them thinking hard about the topic and learning the work (making neural-connections) as they struggle to answer the questions, then the use of ChatGPT or other open AIs is a real issue - much the same as allowing a home tutor to complete the work for a student would be - the learning links made by the student completing the work for themselves would be lost.
Of course, we can question why students would want to do this - often it is not just laziness.  Often it is simply short sightedness - taking the easy route today without considering tomorrow.  Because if students do take this approach to its use, then they are piling up issues later down the road.  If it is used to complete work that is designed to help a student learn, then the instant gratification of a good mark or praise from the teacher, will inevitably be replaced by poor exam marks in the future, as the work will not be learnt as well.  
Coursework, of course, is another challenge if it is allowed outside of the confines of the classroom - having integrity and honesty is something that both parents and BSAK want to instil in our students. Gaining support on something that is meant to be completed on your own is immoral - just like asking your Dad to do it for you. That is simply the end of that line of thought.
So is it a good thing? As with many things, it depends on how it is used. On balance, I see huge benefits; but we must ensure that our students know exactly how they should use it, and why there are certain ways of using it that must be avoided.
Finally, I thought it would be interesting to see what Chat GPT thought about this topic, so I asked the question: “Can you write a short blog for parents of students aged between 11 and 18, which informs parents about Chat GPT - what its benefits and issues are.” And this is its response.
Enjoy everyone - this is the future. As always, I would welcome any thoughts or feedback!
As a parent of a secondary school student, you may have heard of ChatGPT and other OpenAI software, and may be wondering about their potential impact on your child's education. In this blog post, we'll explore some of the positives and negatives of these technologies, and what you can do as a parent to help your child make the most of them.
  • ChatGPT and other OpenAI software are incredibly powerful tools for language understanding and generation. They can help students with writing essays, understanding complex texts, and even learning a new language.
  • These technologies can also save teachers time by automating repetitive tasks, such as grading homework and providing feedback.
  • OpenAI software can also be used in the classroom to create interactive and engaging learning experiences. For example, ChatGPT can be used to create virtual conversation partners for students learning a new language.
  • One of the main concerns with ChatGPT and other OpenAI software is the potential for them to replace human teachers. While these technologies can assist teachers and save them time, they should never be used as a substitute for human interaction and instruction.
  • Another concern is the potential for these technologies to perpetuate bias. OpenAI software is trained on large amounts of data, and if that data contains biases, the software may perpetuate those biases in its responses.
  • The last concern is the potential for students to become too reliant on these technologies, and lose the ability to think critically and independently.
As a parent, you can help your child make the most of ChatGPT and other OpenAI software by:
Encouraging them to use these technologies as a supplement to, not a replacement for, human instruction. Teaching them to be critical consumers of the information provided by these technologies. Monitoring their use of these technologies and setting limits if necessary.
One of the dangers of using ChatGPT and other OpenAI software to complete homework and coursework for students is that it can lead to a lack of critical thinking and independent problem-solving skills. When students are able to simply input their homework questions into a program and receive the answers, they may not be challenged to think critically about the material and may not fully understand the concepts. This can lead to a lack of mastery of the subject matter and difficulty in applying it to real-world situations.
Another danger of using ChatGPT and other OpenAI software to complete homework is that it can lead to cheating and academic dishonesty. Students who use these technologies to complete homework and coursework are not truly demonstrating their own knowledge and understanding of the material. This can result in them receiving grades and credit for work that they did not actually complete themselves, which undermines the integrity of the education system. Moreover, it can also result in the student being caught for cheating which can have serious consequences in the long run.
Additionally, the use of ChatGPT and other OpenAI software to complete homework and coursework can also perpetuate biases that are present in the training data. As these technologies are trained on large amounts of data, if that data contains biases, the software may perpetuate those biases in its responses. This can lead to the reinforcement of stereotypes and discrimination and can be harmful to students from marginalized communities.
In order to avoid these dangers and to help students make the most of these technologies, it's important for teachers and parents to encourage students to use ChatGPT and other OpenAI software as a supplement to, not a replacement for, human instruction. It's also important to teach students how to use these technologies responsibly and to be critical consumers of the information provided by them. Parents and teachers should also monitor students' use of these technologies and set limits if necessary to prevent cheating and academic dishonesty.
In conclusion, ChatGPT and other OpenAI software have the potential to revolutionize education and make learning more engaging and effective. However, it's important to use these technologies responsibly and in conjunction with human instruction to avoid negative consequences. As a parent, you can play an important role in helping your child make the most of these technologies while also avoiding potential pitfalls.  ChatGPT and other OpenAI software can be powerful tools for education, but they can also be a double-edged sword if not used responsibly. It is crucial for parents and educators to be aware of the potential dangers of these technologies and take steps to mitigate them, while also helping students to make the most of their capabilities.

If you fancy reading a little more on Living with a Teenager…
the Most Challenging Years… please click here 

 January 2023

Living with a Teenager…
the Most Challenging Years…

At BSAK we are so lucky that we have built, and continue to work on, our culture. As soon as students arrive for the day, they are greeted at our entrances by members of the pastoral and senior team - this is not by accident. This is because we want every BSAK student to feel welcomed, appreciated, supported, and loved. Our BSAK values feed into our relationships between students and staff, and I am consistently stunned at how much of a supportive family feel this school culture produces. I am convinced that this is the crucial starting point for any successful school, and I am proud of how we have achieved this at BSAK. I firmly believe that because of this our BSAK students feel that sense of belonging; and therefore their behaviour is nothing short of spectacularly good: they are polite, happy, friendly and committed young people.  
But… As parents, this side of your child may not be the one that you always see… When I was a parent to a teenager at BSAK, I was constantly being told by colleagues how delightful a human being she was - which confused me at times, as it was in stark contrast to the teenager we sometimes saw at home! My daughter is now 21 so I am delighted to say we are now through this era, but there were a number of tantrums, a few slammed doors, and sulky moments - as most parents of teenagers have to deal with, from time to time… indeed, if that does not apply to you, I am not sure if I should salute you or just feel extremely jealous! 
Why is this, and is there anything that can be done to help our beloved children as they navigate through this stage in their lives? And why is it that often the same child can be so unbelievably different in alternate situations - with some parents being constantly told how lovely their child is when they are at school, or at a club, or around other peoples’ homes; when they are behaving like a devil-child for you at home!
A teenager is, as we know, a turbulent time in any person’s life. The challenging transition between child and adult, and the physiological changes taking place, all lead to a young person who is going through new experiences and making their way in a scary new adult world. What we know from studies (and this was verified at BSAK in our own internal research study last year) is that self esteem and self confidence drops as children enter secondary school - often a greater drop for girls than boys. The reasons for this drop are multiple, and complex: they leave the safety of having one primary teacher, to having 15 teachers; they have new friends to make, at a time where neuroscience shows us that they are beginning to think more abstractly about the world around them: how they fit in, if they are liked, how other people perceive them, at a time when they are noticing their own body image and going through huge physical changes. 
These new social connections can create heightened sensitivities which can affect self esteem, self confidence, and moods. These moods and outbursts are often expressed most to you, their parents - the people the child knows loves them the most (also knowing that this love is unconditional). This is also at a time where the teenager’s prefrontal cortex in their brain is developing, but not yet fully developed. This is the part of the brain which impacts decision making, planning, attention and impulse control. This, linked with the new social need for peer validation, can often lead to rather poor decisions being made impulsively, to be regretted later. (Most people can think back to at least a few really poor decisions they made when they were growing up!).
There is no secret that the teenage years create massive challenges for young people, and this means that they have a higher ratio of emotional and mental health issues. Recognising these, and supporting them through these times is the most important job of every school and every parent.
So what can parents potentially do to stop having to bear the brunt of this teenage angst, and to support their children to thrive as they move towards adulthood?  Having a recognition of their challenges is an important start, but here are a few tips:
Never forget that, although teenagers do naturally increase their social sphere of influence to include their peers, you - the parents - are always the most significant role model for them. Your actions have the biggest impact on your children. Being a parent is the toughest job in the world!
Ensure that we try to celebrate the things that will truly make them happy - celebrate their kindness, their hard work, their happiness, and their healthy lifestyle; try to not only celebrate beauty, fashion, wealth.
Consult with your teenagers as much as you can. Discussions have a number of benefits: a teenager with a growing, yet fragile, understanding of the world needs a safe space to express views and also have their views shaped by wiser role models; open discussions help to build stronger relationships as your relationships gradually move from dependency to adult peers.
Provide a homelife that has as few heated cross words as possible (between spouses or towards teenagers) - a teenager with fragile emotions wants to know that there is stability and love in their most important community of family life. This is sometimes very hard when teenagers are at their most challenging!
Encourage physical wellbeing - healthy diets, habits and lifestyles (no better time than with new year resolutions!). A healthy body is often the best way to achieve a healthy mind and set of emotions.
Do give freedom to be on their own (some teenagers do seem to really like dark bedrooms!) - but also, do insist on family time. Your unconditional love, especially when you are able to explicitly show how proud you are of your children and celebrate them to ensure they feel absolutely included in and connected to your loving family unit, will really help. This can often be around the evening meal table - if so, please have a rule of no electronic devices!  This time can be challenging with our busy adult life, but the benefits are truly worth it.


December 2022
Grit - Passion and Perseverance
Around 10 years ago, I read the brilliant book by Matthew Syed called ‘Bounce’. In it, Syed tells us that when we witness something that we think is remarkable: a piece of sporting brilliance, or an amazing memory trick, or musical performance, what we are witnessing is not actually someone's talent. What we are witnessing is an iceberg effect - the end product (the tip of the iceberg) that is only there due to the hours and hours of practice (that huge amount of ice under the water) that has gone into producing such a virtuoso performance.
He argues that to become an ‘expert’ in anything boils down to 4 things - none of which are actually innate talent! They are: your Mindset - do you have the drive to keep going? Your Motive - do you really, really want it? Your Practice - how many hours are you willing to give to this (apparently, to become an expert, Malcolm Gladwell is quoted in the book to claim this is around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice) And Opportunity - are you in the right place at the right time (for example, in a school like BSAK!).

The first three are really interesting, as they are not about talent, but they are about things that every one of us (and our children) can impact for ourselves. Do we have drive, do we have passion for what we want to achieve, and are we determined enough to put the hard work in?
Passion and Perseverance is what Dr. Angela Duckworth calls ‘Grit’. She is a senior lecturer at the university of Pennsylvania, and her inspiring TED Talk on the topic of Grit can be found here (it is only 6 minutes long):
It is about her research into what truly makes a difference in schools… her answer?  Not IQ…  But Grit. The ability to persevere, and the passion to really want to achieve. The one quote that truly resonates with me is “What if doing well in school, and in life, depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily”. It turns out that it does - it turns out that it depends much more on your ability to keep going, your ability to practice your exam writing, to start revision early and to keep working hard; and having the ability to use your time productively instead of being distracted. In the same way that a concert violinist is there not on talent, but on sheer hard work, and that Neymar is the player he is: not because of talent, but because he has worked harder than all the other players of his age group who were equally as talented.
What does this mean for you, and for your children?
Having an understanding of what works is crucial, and discussing this with your children is really powerful.
Starting with a goal (and you can help with this) - ask your children: do you want to do well at school?  Why? Discuss with them the benefits of doing well.
Helping your child to change their mindset: for example, from “I am not good at Maths” to “I can work harder to become better at Maths”. This is often called having a Growth Mindset - and although this may not work by osmosis, what it will do is take down barriers to being able to learn, and remove the self-imposed glass ceilings.
And help motivate them into being prepared to put in that effort - the hard work. While GCSEs and A Levels should not actually take 10,000 hours of work, if we have the assumption that it will take a huge effort out of class as well as in class - because it is safe to assume that the A* students do work hard outside of class, so to join them, you need to as well. This means during time at home, and (for 6th Formers) during non contact study periods during the school day.

Grit.  The one thing we can all choose to have that can truly make a difference.

 November 2022

Knowledge - the King of Learning

Educational theory has been truly transformed over the last 15 years - by many people, such as the brilliant E. D. Hirsch.  Prior to this, the general theory about learning was based on constructivism: it used to be believed that students learn best when they construct their own learning; and best when using high order thinking such as problem solving, analysing, evaluation, and critical thinking.
However, there has been a revolution in how we understand how learning happens. Today, we understand that new learning hooks into prior learning (remembering last month’s blog on ‘memory’!).  Therefore, the more knowledge base a student has, the easier it is for them to learn new material in their zone of proximal development.  Today, it is only after students show a mastery of knowledge do teachers move to the application of that knowledge to develop the higher order thinking skills for that topic.
This flies in the face of the train of thought that ‘skills’ are what we need to be teaching our BSAK students.  And after all, surely Google can just tell us all the knowledge we need to help us in our lives?  The trouble is, while it is true that Google helps all of us as adults with information we have either forgotten or do not know, it does not help us with true learning - how would you feel if you went to see a Doctor and she/he had to google to find out what was wrong with you?!  The Doctor’s understanding of your ailment is born from 5 years (at least) at medical school, working incredibly hard to learn all the knowledge they need to problem solve all potential ailments.  This is the same with students - they must have knowledge of a topic to then be able to be challenged to critically think or problem solve.  So it is knowledge, not skills, that are king.

If that is hard for some people to agree with, I am not surprised.  Some of you, I am sure, will have watched the most popular educational Ted talk ever given, by Sir Ken Robinson, who lamented about the loss of creativity in schools.  However (although highly entertaining and passionate), Sir Ken was wrong.  We cannot simply ‘teach’ things like problem solving or creativity.  We teach knowledge, which is then used to be able to solve problems.  And here is a good example of why this is true: 
Imagine you start your car one morning, and a terrible rattle comes from the engine.  Could you problem solve it because you have been taught the skills of problem solving? Would you lift up the bonnet of your car and try to work out where the rattle comes from? What then?  I imagine you would not be able to solve the problem of what the rattle is or how to fix it… So, as with most people, you take it to the garage.  The mechanic then asks you one question, and is able to solve the problem.  Amazing. What a problem solver; what a high order thinker that mechanic is, right?


The car mechanic has simply got a lot more knowledge about cars than we have.  There are quite a few reasons why the engine may be rattling.  It may simply be low on oil; it may be the timing belt; it may even be the harmonic balancer on the crankshaft.  However; the mechanic knows the intricate working of engines really well, and has seen hundreds and hundreds of cars with rattly engines, and can identify one rattle very quickly.  The question the mechanic asks is: does the rattle go away when you slowly increase the revs? And because the answer is yes, he knows that it is the hydraulic valve lifter that has failed.  An easy fix, and easily identified by someone with a great knowledge of cars - NOT fixed by a great problem solver!*

What does this mean for parents?

As ever with this blog, I want to give suggestions about how educational thinking can influence parents, so that they can help their children.  If knowledge is so important, how could you increase your child’s knowledge to help them in school?  The answer is, you can do it in many different ways:
  • Read to them at an early age, and then encourage a love of reading.  Reading is the gatekeeper to so much knowledge.  Encourage reading of a variety of different genres. This is the best thing young people can do to gain knowledge.  Do you know if your child is now reading anything? If not, why not? Ask them!
  • Talk to them about the things in your lives that they can learn from - for example, do they know about your job, and the things that you have to know about to do it properly? It seems old fashioned to many, but eating a meal together and ensuring that they are listening and engaging in conversations that engender knowledge can be really powerful.
  • Take them to places and allow them to learn about the world around them - discover new places, cultures, foods, and histories together and discuss them.
  • Encourage the watching of programmes that can be educational as well as fun - for example, age appropriate documentaries on topics they are interested in.
Increasing your knowledge is always possible - our brains never seem to reach ‘full’ - so we can always learn more - so never think it is too late - no matter how old your child is.  So keep persevering and provide as many opportunities as you can for your child to gain as much knowledge as possible!

*N.B.  Important to say, my knowledge of cars is very limited, and I would never have solved this problem, but the website: helped a lot… I looked all this up, using Google; but it does not mean I know any more about cars!  Get it?!

October 2022

The Magic Pill

We all want the best for our children.  I would imagine all of us, if offered, would allow our children to take a free magic pill, proven to have no negative side effects, which would improve their mental health, increase their physical health, lower their stress, make them more efficient, and more effective learners… What if I were to tell you I have such a pill for your children? 
The pill is, of course, sleep!  Sleep has been scientifically proven to do all of these things.  Can we prove this? Certainly, we can for learning: the work of neuroscientist professor Barbara Oakley has demonstrated an understanding about how we learn, and one of these is about the importance of sleep to the process of learning.
We know that learning means a change to our long term memory; when our brain’s neurons make connections with each other.  We have around 10 billion of these neurons, trying to connect together to learn new things:

Each new piece of learning happens when a neuron, or group of neurons, join together via their Dendritic Spines. This happens when you think hard about a new topic, and repeat it, and apply it to other situations.  
When we sleep, something amazing happens. The brain actually washes and cleans toxins in the brain that stop learning, and the Dendritic spines can then grow much better than when you are awake. 
Listen to Barabara tell us this here: 
The great thing about this is that sleeping actually helps learning, and this can actually  be seen in a microscope - you can actually see the increase in Dendritic Spine here after sleep:

There is no doubt that adolescents often do not get enough sleep - sleepy, irritable, unfocused and angry - four terms that I am sure many parents could at times use to describe their teenage children. This is neither unusual or surprising based on how most teenagers often live their lives: up very early during the week for school;  Friday and Saturday nights late to bed; Saturday and Sunday mornings are sleeping until very late morning or even early afternoon, meaning it is difficult to get to sleep on Sunday evening, meaning they start each week already sleep deprived. This is called the Vicious Cycle of Teen Sleep. The reality is that a teenager needs between 8 and 10 hours of sleep every night. This is more than the amount a child or an adult needs. Yet most adolescents only get about 6.5 – 7.5 hours sleep per night, and some get less. 
So how can parents help?  There are several ways that we can educate, guide, or mandate (I leave that bit up to you) our children to make their sleep longer. Certainly, please talk to your teenager about their sleep.
Ideas for improving sleep include:

  • Not being on stimulating devices an hour before bed - reading a book is often seen as a wonderful relaxor before bed; whereas viewing social media, which is designed to agitate and release endorphins, creates alertness rather than relaxation.
  • Not having their phones in their bedrooms - having all phones charging in a central area of the house rather than in bedrooms reduces FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) which often has teenagers not sleeping as they are waiting for the buzz of their phone beneath their pillow.
  • Create a bedroom prepared for sleep - are your child’s mattress and pillows comfortable for them? Do they have black out blinds?
  • Have a routine for bedtime; this sounds silly for teenagers, but if the brain knows that this is a routine that leads to sleep, this can help.
  • Not eating heavy meals late at night.  When this can be avoided, this is best - as heavy meals will make it harder to sleep.
  • On Friday and Saturday nights (and the following mornings) - allowing teenagers to be awake until the early hours needs to be thought through.  They are reaching an age of independence, but if they are then changing their sleep cycles by staying asleep until the following afternoon (and therefore not being able to sleep on Sunday evening), this has a direct impact on the Monday morning lessons in school.
  • There are several over-the-counter pillow sprays (lavender is a favourite option) that may help with relaxation, and many people find that wearing either ear plugs or eye masks also help.
  • Be careful with naps.  If your son/daughter likes to nap too late in the afternoon, this can impact getting to sleep - getting out of the house / mild exercise instead of a nap will refresh you, so that you are still able to sleep at night.
  • If you and your child are concerned about sleep, please do speak to a doctor - if your child is trying everything to sleep better, but are still having difficulties with their daytime energy, then a doctor may be able to find solutions.

September 2022

Memory and How Parents Can Help

Everything is learnt because it has stuck in our memory and is able to be brought out of the memory to be used - whether that is knowledge, understanding, or the ability to do something. To move something to our true memory (our Long Term Memory), it has to go through our present mind (our Short Term Memory) - for example, we can all say back 6 numbers if someone asks us to “remember this number” and 10 seconds later asks us what the numbers were; however, knowing what those numbers were 2 weeks later is a much different proposition - we haven’t learnt those numbers because our true memory (Long Term Memory) is like a forgetting pit - as shown below… things slide away downwards towards the ‘Point of no return’ - after which they are forgotten.  
However, there are lots of ways of making learning ‘stick’ in the memory and not sink downwards. One of these ways is what is called retrieval - the more you retrieve a memory, the more it sticks to the side and doesn’t move downwards; another way is by reforming the memory to tell it to others, because you have to make sure it makes sense to someone else.
Hence, the question “What did you do at school today” that many parents ask their child each day, takes on a far more important meaning - it firstly makes them retrieve the information learnt; and then if you can engage your child into explaining what they have learnt today so that it makes sense to you, that will help create truly sticky learning!

The ‘Forgetting Pit’ by Bruce Robertson (from ‘The Teaching Delusion’, 2021)

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