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How to be an extraordinary student in any school

British film producer, UNICEF ambassador and educator, Lord David Puttnam shares personal insights from his childhood and the problems he faced with traditional schooling growing up. As Chairman of Nord Anglia's Education Advisory Board, Lord Puttnam envisions an education which encourages students to achieve more than they may have thought possible.

  • Lord David Puttnam

By Lord David Puttnam, Chairman of Nord Anglia’s Education Advisory Board

Being a student can sometimes be difficult. Each day, young people are met with a host of challenges, whether it is navigating the social landscape of the teenage classroom, meeting the expectations of aspirational parents and teachers, understanding new academic concepts or steering a course through the labyrinth of contemporary social media. Being an extraordinary student is even more difficult, and indeed rare. But, I believe it is achievable – a goal that teachers, parents and (of course!) students themselves, can realize if the ingredients are right.

My own experience at school was neither extraordinary nor challenging. At age 11, I was awarded a scholarship to my local grammar school, much to the relief and pride of my parents. I turned up on my first day eager to impress, with every intention of being a success. However, my teachers failed to respond to this enthusiasm and quickly dismissed my capabilities, concluding rather early on that I was ‘not university material’. As the days and months progressed, I sank into a form of bored stupor that would only lift five years later, when I collected a very modest certificate and literally fled – without having ever received one word of what could honestly be described as ‘constructive encouragement’. 
This experience – and my realisation that it must have been mirrored by those of thousands, possibly millions, of other students – has been a driving force behind most of my career, particularly my work in improving the quality, the reputation and the relevance of education.

Our expectations of ourselves are formed very early on – frequently to be reflected back later in the form of ‘underachievement’. So, I’ve sought to help those many students who’ve struggled to find sufficient self-belief when surrounded by indifference. If we focus on improving (and constantly updating) the way knowledge is imparted, consumed, and valued, we can help these young people during the most formative moment of their lives – their education.

So, how can students be extraordinary in any educational setting?

Firstly, the students themselves have to decide – “do I wish to be the architect or designer of my own future – or am I going to allow myself to be the victim of decisions made by others; people who may be a lot less interesting, and who – quite possibly, don’t share, or even understand many of my values – the things that really matter to me”. 

In other words, it is vital for young people to take ownership of their own pursuit of knowledge, to surround themselves with friends who encourage and share their curiosity, and to challenge how they think. The right friends can support and even inspire the very best in each other’s school work.

This will be further facilitated by a diet of thoughtful observations, from differing viewpoints – students should read what they can, when they can; question what they know, and where their knowledge comes from; and, ask why they believe what they do. Such critical thought will supply the type of understanding needed to participate, socially, culturally – and usefully, with other similarly ‘engaged’ people, in school and the wider world beyond.

From this point of view, Nord Anglia’s Global Campus initiative offers its students a wonderful opportunity to explore a world beyond the local and familiar. By collaborating with other schools across the globe, the programme expands horizons and helps to develop valuable skills needed for university and professional life.  Similarly, Nord Anglia’s ability to offer students an opportunity to work with experts is a hugely beneficial. Members of a young person’s community – be it their parents or other role models – have an important role to play in supporting students’ innate inquisitiveness and encouraging them to ask questions. I was one of those fortunate kids who, as a result of being blessed with parents who never wavered in their belief and support, felt unprepared to accept the fate my school had consigned me to. In that, I would suggest, I was a comparative rarity. Our sense of identity, and capacity to develop, is formed from the cultural knowledge we learn, first from our parents, then from teachers.

Perhaps the question should therefore not be ‘how to be an extraordinary student’, but instead, ‘how not to be an ordinary school’. The impetus is on us – the educators, leaders, policy-makers and families of these kids – to ask how we can be better. One way to help students is to embrace the immense power of the most recent digital learning technologies.

We desperately need a generation of well trained and confident education professionals, comfortable with the implications of living in a digital society, but also keenly aware of the huge new challenges it’s likely to bring. People like this represent the most promising foundation upon which we can build a sustainable and even a successful society in the 21st century.

We have to bring ourselves to see digital technology as 'transformative', not simply as some kind of useful 'add-on', but as something that's already fundamentally changed the nature of the way in which young people, and indeed their teachers, go about their daily lives. If we can do this, we may well have found the catalyst needed to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.