Deb McDowell, Head of Drama at WHS, reviews Andy Williamson’s podcast on the importance of developing autonomous intelligence

Deb McDowell, Head of Drama at WHS, reviews Andy Williamson’s podcast on the importance of developing autonomous intelligence in order to fulfil our potential as learners and navigate our lives with confidence. Deb reflects on how embracing metacognition could help us dismantle some of the more unhelpful and outdated aspects of our educational tradition.

‘Children should be taught how to think not what to think’ – Margaret Mead

Andy Williamson is an Oxford graduate, academic and founder of the Hampton Tutors, a US based academic coaching and tutoring agency. In July 2020 he launched the Hampton Tutors Podcast Network. In the first episode in his series of talks, (confusingly Episode 2 of the podcast series), Andy reflects on what it means to be ‘intelligent’ and the skills and tools we can develop in order to maximise our own learning and operate more effectively in an educational context and the world more broadly.

His clear and straightforward approach to this topic is refreshingly unpretentious as he asks the listener to consider the different ways we judge intelligence. He reminds us of various types of intelligence so often underappreciated within a competitive academic environment and uses comparisons with physical and sporting development to illustrate his points.

Williamson asks us to recognise that our educational system rewards depth of knowledge over breadth; how well we can zoom in on one narrow area. While this requires a great deal of hard work, what we are actually rewarding is diligence and memory rather than developed intelligence. I was minded to consider how much this reinforces cultural inequality and also discourages the kind of cognitive risk-taking and creative thinking we want to to see at WHS.

Andy applauds the breadth and depth of knowledge which is borne of hours of study and hard work, but proposes that true intelligence is applied when a person has the ability to adapt to a range of situations, and any test of intelligence should be measuring your capacity to learn. When faced with a challenge can you work out how to work it out?

I enjoyed how Williamson connected with the College students in his audience by using his Oxford interview as a good example of how he was taken out of his comfort zone; being purposely asked questions about a specific area of History he had never studied in order to test whether he could extrapolate, make connections and apply knowledge from other areas whilst all the time conscious he was almost certainly making errors.

This was a timely reminder that, particularly at A level, we must resist the urge to soothe away all the anxieties of those students who come to us seeking support; waving their mark schemes and asking for exemplars. What they really need is greater autonomy and we should be facilitating this – not attaching stabilisers to the bike they would otherwise be able to enjoy riding just as fast, if not faster than everyone else.

To reinforce the need to encourage learners to use metacognitive skills to become more autonomous as learners Williamson references Todd Rose’s ‘The End of Average’ which reminds us that using a statistical mean as the basis for any system is most likely to lead to something which ‘best fits’ very few. At this point I was minded to reflect on which learners are best served by our current education system, and more importantly, which are seriously disadvantaged.

Any Williamson outlines seven skills to have in a toolkit to support the development of autonomous intelligence. He asserts that by focussing on developing these skills we will improve academic outcomes and this will also help us re-frame how we see ourselves.

  • Metacognition: Knowing how best you learn.
  • Executive Function: Knowing how to manage tasks, time and people to learn better.
  • Growth Mindset: Being willing to push boundaries and get things wrong in order to learn.
  • Resilience and Endurance: Being able to endure disappointment and uncertainty.
  • Enjoyment: Finding an angle that interests you in what you are doing.
  • Communication: Ensuring your ideas are as precisely understood by someone else as they are by you.
  • Mindfulness: Using strategies to avoid over thinking and find contentment.

Williamson promises to talk in more detail about each of these in subsequent podcasts in order to identify what we can do to build our toolkit to become more efficient and effective learners and be more confident operating outside our individual comfort zones.  (Metacognition and Executive Function are already available as chapters 4 and 6 in the podcast series).

As statues fall and monuments are being re-evaluated in the light of much needed cultural change, it’s time for a radical re-think in Education. Perhaps, rather than relying completely on the traditional regurgitation of increasingly narrow spheres of knowledge – a system which arguably restricts diversity and reinforces inequality – we should be putting the acquisition of metacognitive skills at the forefront of what we do in schools.

Listen on Apple Podcasts here

 

George Cook, explores ideas from The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) and Radical Candor (Kim Scott)

George Cook, Head of Hockey at WHS, explores ideas from The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) and Radical Candor (Kim Scott). These books show that it is less about the questions we ask, and more about the environment we create that enables us to ask them. Culture is everything.

Questioning is a hot topic in the world of education. What type of questioning do you use? What type of questioning should you be using?

There is no doubt that questioning allows us, as the teacher, to identify areas of strength and weakness in our classes. It gives opportunity to really challenge the most gifted, stretching and pushing the limits of their understanding. It is a great tool because in the same breath we can use questioning to give great confidence to those who are unsure or perhaps, normally, quieter and more reserved in lessons.

However, according to the two books listed above, the type of question you use and who you ask it to, is irrelevant if the environment we create is not quite right.

The Culture Code examines many high performing groups ranging from high end military task forces and airline pilots, to successful start-up companies as well as big hitters like Google. On the face of it, none of these groups have much in common. Apart from the culture they have developed, built on honest two-way communication and trust.

It was found that regular small snippets of communication within these high functioning groups allowed them to not only know each other better, but made sure they stayed on track throughout the task at hand to complete it in the most accurate and efficient way possible. The opposite of this in a classroom situation would be to wait for over an hour into a lesson before catching a pupil off guard with a challenging question to answer in front of their peers. Small and frequent two-way communication is much more effective.

Radical Candor states that if we are to have open and honest communication in our groups and teams then we must instil two key elements first. Firstly, care personally about all those in your class, and show it! As teachers we do this more often than we might expect and can be as simple as asking a pupil how their weekend was etc. The second element is to challenge directly. Challenge the beliefs of pupils directly, but also actively encourage them to do the same to us as this is more likely to build trusting relationships where more in depth and honest discussions and conversations can be had.

If we can take these lessons and implement them into our classroom and practical teaching, then we are far more likely to have open and lively debate and discussion that includes all members of the group and not just those that feel confident in the subject area. This is why I think the culture we build around questioning is equally important as the type of questions we use.