The best school?

I am constantly confronted with parents who ask the question, “Which is the best school in Bangkok?” My answer has always been, “There is no such thing as the best school, anywhere in the world.” Instead, I direct parents to asking a more reflective question, “Is my child getting the best learning experiences at home and school?”

Unrealistic expectation

For parents, schools are supposed to guarantee children’s success, and the best school is believed to accomplish this more effectively than others. Paradoxically, schools do not magically produce successful individuals. In fact a lot of students from many so-called “the best schools” go straight for extra tutorials after school hours to re-learn what they were taught at school.

It takes a lot more than just schooling to produce successful people. Parents who do not understand this demand that the school turns their children into people like Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and Ben Carson, without spending one-on-one time with them.

Home before school

Research proves otherwise. Students who excel in education are those whose parents (not just teachers) hold the right attitude toward intelligence, learning and how the brain works. They believe that intelligence can be nurtured by providing stimulating environment and exposing the child to high quality learning experiences. They take an active role in shaping their children’s learning experiences way before they go to school.

They correctly understand that a child’s success depends more on themselves (parents) than on teachers at school; and that any significant progress should only be expected if and when they systematically and consistently reinforce behavioral patterns that would lead their children to forming constructive habits of mind.

Case studies

Such were the experiences of Edith and Ruth Lawrence. Both are classified as extremely successful individuals at a very young age. Both did not necessarily possess the gene set of a genius. And yet, because of what their parent(s) did when they were young, their intelligence and mental abilities were enhanced significantly.

Edith is the daughter of a New Yorker, Aaron Stern who decided to give his daughter the most stimulating environment he could think of. From the time Edith was born, he played classical music to her, spoke only in adult language (no baby talk) and taught her lots of new words everyday using flash cards.

As a result of all the exposure and stimulation, she spoke in complete sentences by the age of one. At the age of five, she had finished reading all the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. At six, she was reading six books a day and the New York Times. At the age of 12, she was accepted into college and at 15, was teaching higher mathematics at the Michigan State University.

Another case in point is Ruth Lawrence from England. After his parents put him through an enriched learning environment of music, educational toys and exposure, he managed to pass his Cambridge Ordinary Level examinations at the age of nine when the average age for sitting for the examination was and still is 16. At the age of ten, Ruth passed his Cambridge Advanced Level examinations and was accepted into Oxford University by the age of 12.

Asking the right question

A careful analysis of both cases reveals that the journey toward success and academic excellence begins at home, at a very young age. Instead of waiting for a school to make their children successful, parents should realize that they play a key role in making this a reality. As such, the first question that parents should be asking themselves is, “Am I ready to take responsibility for my child’s success, at home, before expecting the same from teachers at school?”

Cognitively-sound materials

To get the maximum result out of classroom instruction, it is necessary for teachers to understand the psychological processes that affect how a student learns. In other words, knowledge about the structure and working of human cognition serve as useful guide to enhance teaching and learning.

While utilizing a variety of creative and engaging teaching strategies go a long way to stimulate active learning, the materials presented to students play an equally significant role in how students acquire, process and assimilate knowledge. Engaging students in active learning without using appropriate, cognitively-sound materials is like successfully dribbling the ball up to the goalpost and not scoring a goal.

Research in cognitive psychology state that it is the interaction between the properties of materials taught and the manner in which they are delivered to students that determines the outcome of teaching and learning. This explains why textbook publishers go all the way out to make learning materials more interactive, colorful and approachable for students. While these are helpful, there are additional properties that determine successful learning. This is true particularly in the context of the level of complexity of learning materials under consideration.

Whether the materials to be learned are easy or difficult, learning is possible when the following are kept in mind.

Break it down

Breaking knowledge into reasonably smaller chunks enables effective processing of information in the working memory. Various research indicate that the working memory, where real-time mental activities take place, is very limited in capacity and duration. Only a limited bit of data is held in the working memory at any given time. As such, it is highly recommended that teachers present one idea at a time. This could be accomplished by presenting an idea and reinforcing the same with explanation, examples and further discussing about it.

When a teacher dwells in a particular idea for a longer period of time, the student would have had the opportunity to sufficiently interact with, make sense of, and eventually commit that piece of information to the long-term memory. Since the working memory is the first cognitive structure that is involved in learning, a sudden flooding of information will not help in the eventual acquisition of knowledge.

Most students get frustrated in the classroom when they are not given the opportunity to actively process each bit of information presented, before moving on to the next.

Connect it

Information that is successfully processed through the working memory is held in the long term memory. Paradoxically, the long term memory is immeasurably large with no known limits. Research by psychologist Adriaan Dingeman de Groot in the 1940’s indicate that the major difference between expert and novice chess players was not superior search moves or larger working memories. Instead, expert chess players possess enormous store of real game configurations in their long term memories. While playing, they draw out from a huge bank of stored board configurations and are aware of the best moves associated with each particular configuration.

Other psychologists investigating a wide range of problem solving areas also recognize that the long term memory plays a crucial role in higher order thinking and learning in general.

Teachers should activate and leverage on the long term memory by connecting what was already learned with what is to be learned. Regularly reviewing past lessons, connecting past lessons to each other, and building new knowledge upon existing understanding enhance the working of long term memory.

Tools

Both breaking down knowledge and connecting it with previous learning could be effectively done on a day-to-day basis through the use of tools such as advanced organizers, concept maps, mind maps and regularly-scheduled-short review quizzes/exercises that are fun and not graded.