It is interesting therefore that, despite this common aim, there does not exist a simple path towards success. The universal truths of seizing opportunities and working hard still hold, yet beyond that the scientific understanding of how the human brain is inspired to learn is still very much in its infancy. Despite this, it is possible to identify proven influencers of student success, backed up by long-term research, which provide an important guide for both educators and parents.
In 1943 the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, presented his theory on the Hierarchy of Needs. This simple proposal indicates that simple physiological needs such as food and sleep are essential before an individual can focus on higher order needs such as safety, love and esteem.
Success in education follows a similar structure. If a student is to be motivated to learn then basic needs must be met in advance. As with Maslow, this does include food and sleep. Any parent will know that if a child is hungry then it is difficult for them to focus on anything else! Absolute fundamentals for success are to ensure that children have a good night’s sleep and a decent breakfast to start their day.
On the subject of food it is also important for schools to recognise their role here. The provision of nutritious, healthy food is also vital for success. The traditional school dinners involving chips and sickly desserts are very much off the menu these days.
The basic needs for education extend to specifics beyond the requirements outlined by Maslow. Resources are important such as books and a quiet place to study at home. Routines for working at school and at home provide the structure which help students adapt through the various stages of their education.
The Human Touch
A good school is, of course, not a collection of buildings. The teachers make a school what it is and each individual has the potential to influence hundreds of young lives.
The relationship between a teacher and a student is very much fundamental to success. Educational studies have demonstrated that students learn twice as much with excellent teachers in comparison to when taught by average teachers. The prime focus for a school has to be to recruit excellent teachers and then provide them with the best possible professional support and development to make them even better.
A good teacher, by the way, is not the same as a subject expert: it is rare that student learning reaches the extent of teacher knowledge. It is the human touch which the best teachers use to create learning environments and learning relationships in which every student can succeed.
And what about parents? Yes, they are fundamental to success too! Spending time with children, asking about their school work and discussing associated topics are all factors which support great learning. Helping children learn is not about having the answers to their problems; it is about supporting that child to find their own answers and, in turn, developing their own skills.
The 21st Century Skill
Seymour Papert is one of the pioneers of modern day computer programming and Artificial Intelligence. In 1998 he wrote,
“The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn……. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.”
We are all very much aware of how the world is changing around us. We need to equip students with the ability to learn and the confidence to make mistakes such that they can face new challenges and adapt throughout their lives.
The focus in good schools is on developing this ability to learn and adapt from the moment students begin their education. Students as young as 2 or 3 years of age make their own choices about their learning and talented teachers guide them to develop their independence and thought processes.
So What Does The Research Say?
The main focus of research emphasises the importance of the relationship between the teacher and the student and the development of an enquiring mind. An investigation into all the aspects of education indicates that the one which has the greatest influence on education is feedback. This means feedback for the student and from the student. The student’s reflection on their learning and the conversations which lead to the next steps are consistently demonstrated as fundamental to success and further achievement.
Further research which perhaps throws up a few more surprises is on the impact that parents can have. The following list from a study undertaken at Michigan University indicates some of the best ways to improve intelligence:
3. Watching Fiction
4. Changing Hobbies
5. Solving Puzzles
Encouraging children to take up new hobbies helps stretch their minds, as does watching fiction and discussing this with children. Yes, this is endorsement to make your child watch all your favourite movies provided, of course, that you’re watching with them and take the time to share thoughts and opinions.
The fundamentals for success are fairly straightforward to summarise:
- Ensure basic needs are taken care of and there is an effective learning environment
- The quality of the teacher and the relationships between the teacher and the student are crucial
- Develop independent thought and the capacity to learn
- Undertake challenging activities which stretch young minds
In the end though, we need to remember we are dealing with the human brain, a complex and sensitive object with which great care must be taken. However, this also comes with such tremendous potential. We all want success for young people and it is a true privilege to have the honour and the responsibility of helping to encourage and develop this.
The last word goes to the 1st Century Greek philosopher, Plutarch, who said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” The fundamentals for success focus on the kindling of the fire.