Does gymnastics have the same mental health benefits as yoga or meditation?

Alba, Y9, looks at how gymnastics may help relieve academic stress and help you excel in other subjects.

When we think of calming meditation, most of us will probably jump to mindfulness. In our stressful and busy lives, meditation and mindfulness are becoming increasingly popular. However, is there a right or wrong way to meditate, and can some sports such as gymnastics be classified as a sort of meditation? In fact, gymnastics is a form of focused movement meditation, and that ultimately it is beneficial to your mental health and as such has a potential positive impact on academic results.

What is focused meditation?

Focused meditation is when you concentrate on your five senses. Many people start by focusing on their breath. It sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to think about just one thing, without your mind wondering and getting distracted.

However, being able to focus is a key attribute for success in life, and it’s a skill that we ideally need. Having considered on one of the senses like your breathing, a wider number of senses can be thought about.

But how does gymnastics compare to this?

Before moving, a gymnast must get into the right frame of mind to execute the move with skill. They must be focussed on themselves, and what they are about to do, and not be distracted. In a routine, you always think about the skill you are currently doing, and not what’s coming next. You are therefore being mindful and focussed on yourself in the present time. This can benefit your academic studies, because, just like mindfulness, it clears your brain so you can learn the next day with an open and more relaxed and focussed mind.

What is movement meditation?

Movement meditation helps connect your mind to your body through actions. The most common practice of this is yoga. Again, your focus is the mind. People who do not like sitting still may prefer this method, and it’s ideal when you are feeling energetic.

How does this happen in Gymnastics?

Tumbling in gymnastics is generating power and executing a sequence of flips and moves. This requires you to be aware of what your body’s doing and think about using muscles you may not otherwise use. As such, the movement becomes the focus, allowing all other thoughts to be shut out, focusing on the present and immediate.

Why should you try gymnastics, and why should it be considered a form of meditation?

Some studies[1] show that mindfulness is great, but if you struggle to do it, it can make you potentially more anxious. They also show that movement meditation like yoga can be more effective for people in stressful situations, or for people who are used to more active lifestyles. It explains why one of the reasons scientists like mindfulness – it is a cognitive method.

Personally, I prefer gymnastics to mindfulness, because I find it hard to keep still when sitting and just thinking about your breath. I enjoy the element of fear/excitement of trying a new skill. After doing gymnastics I feel a lot calmer and ready to study and learn.

I would argue that, although not a standard form of meditation, gymnastics offers benefits for stress relief and utilises skills and techniques such as focus which can help you excel in other subjects. We should have a wider view on what is meditation, and what can help us through the stresses of life.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201604/incredible-alternative-mindfulness-you-never-heard

GROW 2.0: a Review

Mr Ben Turner, Assistant Head Pastoral at WHS, looks at some of the key messages from last week’s Grow 2.0 conference, looking at what it means to be Human in an A.I. World.

 

Panel
Discussions and debate from our recent GROW 2.0 Conference

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the troubling determinism of social media and the corrosive effect of echo chambers on our beliefs. At GROW 2.0 however, Robert Plomin talked to us of a different kind of determinism. In a mesmerising, if slightly worrying, lecture he enthralled us all with his ground-breaking work into, what he calls, the ‘DNA Revolution’. I say worrying because, according to Plomin, 60% of any child’s GCSE attainment is down to their genetics. The other 40%? Well, there are no systemic factors, that scientists have yet identified, that make a discernible difference in a child’s attainment.

Plomin debunked outdated notions of nature vs. nurture and instead asked us to think about our genetic predispositions.  He warned that we must never mistake correlation for causation. If, for example, a parent reads to their five-year-old every night, it is easy for us to believe that that child’s predilection for books and literature later in life is because of their parent’s diligence at that early age. Plomin would argue however that we have missed the point entirely and ignored the correlation of the parent’s love of reading being passed, genetically, to their child.

This is a powerful message to share with teachers and parents. As a school and, in these turbulent times, a sector we offer a huge variety of activities, interests and passions to those we educate. It is all too easy, as a teacher, parent or pupil to put on your GCSE blinkers and ignore the world around you. If 60% of the outcome is determined by our genetics, why not embrace that other 40%? Fill that time and energy with all of the ‘non-systematic’ activities, trips, hobbies and sports that you possibly can. Because, if we are still not sure what actually makes a difference, variety of engagement is surely the best possible choice.

 

We were lucky enough to also hear from Professor Rose Luckin, a leading thinker in artificial intelligence and its uses in education. It was inspiring to hear the possibilities ahead of us but also reassuring to hear the primacy, from someone truly immersed in the field, of the human spirit. Rose talked about an ‘intelligence infrastructure’ that is made up of seven distinct intelligences. The most important of these for her were the ‘meta-intelligences’, for example, the ‘meta-subjective’ and ‘meta-contextual’. It is our ability to access others’ emotions and our context “as we wander around the world” that Luckin believes separates us from even the most exciting advancements in A.I.

VR
Does VR have a role in education in the future? How can it not have a role given the exciting opportunities it offers?

 

As an educator, where I think I gained the most excitement from Rose’s talk were the possibilities for bespoke and tailored learning for every child. The use of data to help us with the educational needs of learners has some amazing possibilities. One could imagine every child having an early years assessment to understand the penchants and possibilities that lie ahead. This could lead to a bespoke path of access arrangements and curriculum for each child. A possibility that, as Rose said, is truly exciting as we will finally be able to “educate the world”.

More photos of the event on Flickr

Coaching at WHS: developing approaches to academic and pastoral support

Emma Gleadhill, English Teacher, speaker, trainer and coach specialising in wellbeing, relationships & harnessing the power of emotional intelligence, discusses the ways we are using coaching at WHS to support the academic and pastoral strands of the school.

 

 

September 2019 marks a significant change in my role at Wimbledon – where 1:1 coaching becomes more central. It has taken a year of serious soul-searching and being coached myself in order to move away from a strength and passion (teaching A Level English) which has provided me with so much joy and fulfilment in order to use my ‘Co-Active’ training as a professional coach to work in greater depth with individuals and small groups.

So why? Why coaching? I thought it worth sharing what I see as the value of coaching – what it is and what I believe it has to offer. Coaching has been in the press a great deal over the summer – and as a relatively unregulated industry, there are many different perceptions of what it is and how it can help. Coaching is a relatively new strand to the multi-layered pastoral support Wimbledon High offers. The aim is to provide a rich range of opportunities for courageous conversations to take place that will enable pupils, and sometimes also teachers and parents to develop their voice, consider perspectives, explore their needs, and arrive at a point of choice so that they can act and thrive.

My work as a coach links strongly to my ethos as a teacher – it is about bringing my best energy, attention and training to bring about transformation. This involves examining the mindset, motivation, and creativity – for people to ‘play big’ in their lives and achieve their goals. Whether it is someone seeking coaching because they feel stuck in some area of their life, or someone who wants to dial up their performance, or change the dynamics in their relationships, for me it is about holding the space for the truth to be spoken, fears to be addressed and for obstacles to action to be brought into focus so that a clear path forward can be found. And when that connection is made, in the coachee, we really do have lift-off. Giant leaps are taken and as the momentum builds, my work is to help celebrate, savour and wire in the goodness, the motivation and energy of the possible.

Coaching is all about empowering and enabling others to engage their creativity and resourcefulness and commitment to change. As with teaching at its best – it is entirely in the service of supporting and challenging others to be the best that they can be. Unlike teaching or mentoring you are not approaching problems from a point of expertise and providing content.

What is coaching?

Coaching is:

  • More about listening and questioning than giving advice and ‘telling’.
  • Confidential – the only exception is where someone is at risk of significant harm.
  • Focused on the values and meaning of the topic or situation – what is at stake, why it matters, and what you want.
  • Forward-looking – designing practical steps towards your goals rather than dwelling on the issue.
  • Challenging YOU to do the thinking, to reflect and deepen self-awareness in areas where you are stuck or play small.
  • About using mind and body connections to tap into the emotional resonance of the topic (if it was as simple as thinking it through, you’d be doing it already!)
  • Rigorous – you will be held to account for whether you do – or don’t – take the next steps you design at the end of the sessions.
  • Time-limited – it is designed to move you on to greater fulfilment and to take the actions that will help you reach your goals.
  • Empowering – you will be called upon to recognise and act on your innate creativity, resourcefulness and wholeness. (I trained in the Co-Active method).
  • Celebratory – through the joys and the pains of doing the hard work of making meaningful life changes – as a coach, it is my job to champion you and remind you of your strengths, your capabilities and your awesomeness.
  • All about personal growth – living more authentic, connected, fulfilled and purposeful lives. Coaching is a major tool for career development in the corporate world. It is like having a personal trainer for your mind, heart and spirit.

What is coaching not?

For me, coaching is not:

  • A cosy chat or conversation as we experience in our wider lives.
  • Focused on the detail of a problem (because what you focus on grows).
  • Therapy – the assumption is that you are creative, resourceful and whole (Co-Active) and ready and able to act on the dialled up self-awareness that your sessions should tap into if the coaching chemistry is right.
  • A self-indulgent, ‘Woo-woo’, millennial fad. Trained coaches work in a way that is informed by research in the world of psychology, and emotional intelligence, and have to keep up their own training and self-development. This is why businesses invest in coaching.

So coaching is not only a response to a problem, it is also a powerful 1:1 space to dial up your performance, name and tame the things that hold you back, and generate perspectives on your situation so that you can come to a point of choice. It is all about connecting you to your power and unlocking your potential.

Coaching approaches can also be used in the classroom to develop self-direction, ownership, engagement and independence in learners– as well as to make deeper, more memorable connections with issues by concentrating on their emotional resonance. Training as a professional coach has transformed how I lead as a trainer when I am running speaker events and workshops. It has meant what I have to offer is more focused and the collaborative approach means I am meeting people’s real needs and interests, not overloading with content I have chosen! A discipline indeed!

Final thoughts…

When could we take opportunities to use coaching approaches to encourage and empower young people in our lives to greater independence, ownership and engagement in solving their problems and the problems in the world today?


Further reading

www.emmagleadhill.com

https://coactive.com

GROW 2.0 – Being Human in an AI World

On Saturday 21st September we host our second Grow Pastoral Festival. The theme for this year is an examination of what it is to be human in a machine age. What questions should we be asking about the way technology affects our lives and what are our hopes for the future? More specifically, how will our young people develop and grow in a fast-paced, algorithmically driven society and what might education look like in the future?

 
In the morning session Professor Rose Luckin and Professor Robert Plomin will be giving keynote addresses, and then talk with our Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, Rachel Evans.
Prof Luckin specialises in how AI might change education; Prof Plomin has recently published Blueprint, a fascinating read about genetics and education. We can’t wait to talk about how education might get personalised, and how that change might affect our experience of learning.

In the afternoon we’ll dive into some provocative debate with Natasha Devon, Hannah Lownsbrough and Andrew Doyle, addressing questions of identity, wellbeing and community in an online age with our own Assistant Head Pastoral, Ben Turner.

So what kind of questions are in our minds as we approach this intellectually stimulating event? Ben Turner brings a philosophical approach to the topic.


Is our ever-increasing reliance on machines and subscription to the ‘universal principles of technology’[1] eroding our sense of empathy, compassion, truth-telling and responsibility?



Our smartphones give us a constant connection to an echo-system that reflects, and continuously reinforces, our individual beliefs and values. Technology has created a world of correlation without causation, where we understand what happened and how it happened but never stop to ask why it happened. Teenagers are understandably susceptible to an eco-system of continuous connection, urgency and instant gratification. It is these values that they now use to access their world and that inform them what is important in it.

Are tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook creating a monoculture that lacks an empathy for its surroundings? If we all become ‘insiders’ within a technology dominated society, pushing instant buttons for everything from batteries to toilet roll, are we losing the ability to see things from a fresh perspective? By raising children in a world of instant access and metropolitan monism are we creating only insiders; young people who will never gain the ability to step back and view what has been created in a detached way. How as parents, schools and communities do we keep what is unique, while embracing the virtues of technological innovation?

Is social media destroying our free will?

If you are not a determinist, you might agree that free will has to involve some degree of creativity and unpredictability in how you respond to the world. That your future might be more than your past. That you might grow, you might change, you might discover. The antithesis to that is when your reactions to the world are locked into a pattern that, by design, make you more predictable – for the benefit of someone or something else. Behaviourism, developed in the 19th Century, believes in collecting data on every action of a subject in order to change something about their experience, often using punishment or reward to enact the change. Is social media, through its algorithms, gratification systems and FOMO, manipulating our actions and eroding our free will?

Social media is pervasive in its influence on the beliefs, desires and temperaments of our teenagers and you do not have to be a determinist to know that that will lead to a disproportionate level of control over their actions. Does social media leave our young people with no alternative possibilities; locked in a room, not wanting to leave but ignorant to the fact that they cannot?

Is social media the new opium of the masses?

Social media has changed the meaning of life for the next generation. The change in human contact from physical interactions to those, arguably superficial, exchanges online is having not only a well-documented detrimental effect on individual young people but also on the very fabric and makeup of our communities.

In addition to the ongoing concerns about privacy, electoral influence and online abuse, it is becoming increasingly obvious that social media has all the qualities of an addictive drug. Psychologists Daria Kuss and Mark Griffiths wrote a paper finding that the “negative correlates of (social media) usage include the decrease in real life social community participation and academic achievement, as well as relationship problems, each of which may be indicative of potential addiction.”[2]

That is not to say that everyone who uses social media is addicted. However, the implications of the ‘heavy’ usage of social media by young people are increasingly painting an unpleasant picture. The UK Millennium Cohort Study, from the University of Glasgow, found that 28% of girls between 13 and 15 surveyed spent five hours or more on social media, double the number of boys survey who admitted the same level of usage. Moreover the NHS Digital’s survey of the Mental Health of children and young people in England[3], which found that 11 to 19 year olds with a “mental disorder” were more likely to use social media every day (87.3%) than those without a disorder (77%) and were more likely to be on social media for longer. Rates of daily usage also varied by type of disorder; 90.4% of those with emotional disorders, for example, used social media daily.

Panel Discussion

However, there is more to this than just the causal link between the use and abuse of social media and poor mental health. With the march of technology in an increasingly secular world, are we losing our sense of something greater than ourselves? Anthony Seldon calls this the “Fourth Education Revolution”, but as we embrace the advances and wonders of a technologically advanced world do we need to be more mindful of what we leave behind? Da Vinci, Michelangelo and other Renaissance masters, not only worked alongside religion but also were inspired by it. Conversely, Marx believed Religion to be the opium of the people. If social media is not to be the new opium, we must find a place for spirituality in our secular age. Even if we are not convinced by a faith, embracing the virtues of a religious upbringing seems pertinent in these turbulent times. Namely inclusivity, compassion and community, because if we do not, then very quickly the narcissistic immediacy and addictive nature of social media will fill the void left in our young peoples’ lives, becoming the addictive drug that Marx forewarned against.


References:

[1] Michael Bugeja, Living Media Ethics: Across Platforms, 2nd Ed. 2018

[2] Online Social Networking and Addiction – A review of Psychological Literature, Daria J. Kuss and Mark D. Griffiths, US National Library of Medicine, 2011

[3] November 2018

Miss, Mrs or Ms; a step towards feminism or superficial shower thoughts? – 09/11/18

Sophie Robertshaw, music teacher at Wimbledon High School, looks into the forms of address for female staff.

There are a huge variety of ways of addressing a woman in a school context.  By contrast, men are addressed only as Mr or Sir.  Having worked with children as a teacher and music tutor since I was a teenager, over the years I have been addressed in a wide variety of ways, ranging from a casual first name greeting to the somewhat unexpected “ma’am” (rhyming with palm).

I would expect adult learners to address me by my first name – anything else would seem condescending.  However, in a school context, I feel that it is important for pupils to use a more formal mode of address as I believe it promotes discipline and respect for those in authority; skills which are in vital in success within a workplace. This brings me to the issue of what exactly I should be called in a professional context – am I a Miss, Mrs or Ms?  Or perhaps something else entirely?

The problem is that all these traditional titles have particular connotations about my marital status, as Dr Amy Louise Erickson of Cambridge University explains: “The ubiquitous forms of address for women ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ are both abbreviations of ‘mistress’.  ‘Mrs’ did not describe a married woman: it described a woman who governed subjects (i.e., employees or servants or apprentices) or a woman who was skilled or who taught. It described a social, rather than a marital status.”  However, unlike Mrs, which has changed from a social to a marital meaning over time, Miss always indicated an unmarried woman.

Why does this matter?  As a young, recently qualified teacher I feel that it is unnecessary for my pupils and their parents to know whether I am married or not.  My marital status has absolutely no impact on my ability to teach.  As a “Miss” I occasionally feel that there can be negative connotations in the minds of some students and parents – that I am less experienced, less mature, less qualified.  A “Mrs” on the other hand conjures images perhaps of an older woman, with children of her own, who has greater experience and expertise and is therefore an inherently better teacher than her unmarried childless counterpart. “Ms” is to my mind an unsatisfactory halfway house.

So, what then is the solution?  Should an address include education and qualifications details?  Should the whole system of Mrs, Ms or Miss be replaced? Or expanded in favour of gender-neutral titles in support of equal rights not just for females, but individuals within the LGBTQ+ community?

Back in 2017, Stuart Barette, a transgender project manager at HSBC, announced the expansion of gender-neutral titles within their banking systems to include “Ind” (individual meaning free of gender), and “Mre” (mystery). An article published in the Independent in March 2017 goes on to explain that within the title section, “Mx” is listed as an option, but that the bank will also allow nine other new titles, including “M”, “Misc”, “Msr”, “Myr” and “Sai”.

Whatever the answer, Wimbledon High School has high aspirations for all its students to become highly educated, confident and articulate young women, capable of great success in their career and life choices and they should not find themselves limited in any way by the title society chooses to address them by.

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-40530920
  2. http://www.econsoc.hist.cam.ac.uk/docs/CWPESH%20number%208%20July%202012.pdf
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/hsbc-bank-transgender-customers-neutral-titles-mx-ind-mre-a7659686.html

What’s next? Moving on from ‘Growth Mindset’ – 19/10/18

I am sure we all have engraved in our minds the excitingly named Strategic Objective 3.1? It’s ok, this isn’t a test, and I will not be asking for answers on a GROW card… Mr Ben Turner, Assistant Head Pastoral, looks at the next steps in our pastoral programme here at WHS.

The answer –which of course we all knew – is: “Developing a growth mindset across the school”. Ever since Dr Carol Dweck published her paper about the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence, the education community has been clamouring to implement her findings in schools across the globe. Another well-known theory, Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, depicts the process by which an idea is adopted over time within a community. As Everett’s ‘Laggards’ grapple with how to implement Growth Mindset in their schools is it time for us, as at least ‘early adopters’ if not ‘innovators’ ourselves, to move beyond Dweck’s original research and ask; what’s next?  

 

As we all know too well, the world is rapidly changing, and the landscape for which we are preparing our students is constantly shifting. A recent Oxford University study estimates that 47% of current jobs are “at risk” of being automated in the next 20 years.[1] The subjects we learn at school are mostly static, two plus two will always equal four and the Battle of Hastings will have always been fought in 1066. Complexity theorist Sam Arbesman[2] argues that facts like these have a ‘half-life’ of utility. Even coding, often touted as ‘the language of the 21st Century’, was first taught using the coding language of BASIC which is now defunct, and today Python is the most popular but will likely not be a decade from now. The challenge for students and educators is putting less value on what we know and more on adaption and improvisation.

Should the next focus then be on what we do with what we know, not what we have learnt or how we have learnt it? Laszlo Bock[3], formally the senior vice president of people operations at Google –  i.e. the guy in charge of hiring the talent for one of the world’s most influential and successful companies – notes that test scores are a worthless criteria for hiring and predict nothing. During Bock’s tenure, the percentage of Google employees without a college education rose to as high as 14% on some teams. What then did Bock value in a candidate? Of course, one cannot dismiss ‘good grades’, many jobs at Google require maths, computing and coding skills but the answer does not reside just in STEM and they certainly have their eyes on much, much more. The number one trait that Google looks for? Cognitive ability – the ability to ‘process on the fly’, to pull together disparate bits of information in order to work on and solve a problem.

Interestingly the other key skill sought by Google? Leadership. This is not the traditional leadership of captains and presidents. It is the leader, who when faced with a problem while a member of a team, at the appropriate time, steps in and leads. And, just as critically, steps back and stops leading and is able to relinquish power. This humility and ownership is an intrinsic part of leadership; to have stepped in with a sense of ownership while having the humility to step back and embrace the ideas of others in order to achieve your ultimate goal of problem solving, together. Perhaps the most telling of Bock’s lessons? The least important trait, so called ‘expertise’ – why would you hire someone that has done something ‘100 times’ before – what genuine innovation is there in repeating the past?

So, where then do these examples leave Strategic Objective 3.1?

I am sure that much of this will not be a surprise for most, but in evolving our thinking, it does raise pertinent questions.

  • What is the difference between embracing challenges and persevering through them and seeking out those challenges as opportunities?
  • When obstacles arise, our common response is grit and resilience but can we do more to shift our thinking to look for opportunities and possibilities; what do we do with what we know once they occur?
  • Innovation is not about ‘thinking outside the box’, it is about creating opportunities inside the box you already have; our hard work and effort are continuous, but as a school, how can we look to make time to create new solutions and ideas?

We proudly embrace failure but we cannot afford to be passive or linear in our thinking. Failures and challenges do not simply come in a procession, one by one; the most successful yet humble human beings are the ones that seek the highs and have experienced the lows and have come back for more regardless. Computers will never replace the agility of thought offered by people who can empathise, communicate and collaborate. It is that we want to engrave in our new Strategic Objectives but more importantly, instil into our girls so they can stride out and lead on the challenges facing us in the 21st century.

[1] http://www.eng.ox.ac.uk/about/news/new-study-shows-nearly-half-of-us-jobs-at-risk-of-computerisation

[2] The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman, 2004

[3] Work rules! Insights from inside google that will transform how you live and lead, Laszlo Bock, 2015

Why using your five senses is the key to practising mindfulness at school – 19/10/18

Lucy (Year 8) looks at how our senses can be used to help us to practise mindfulness within the school day and the potential benefits this can have on our overall mental health and wellbeing.

The word mindfulness can conjure up an image of a class doing yoga or meditating.  But its key essence is about deliberately bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. It is about turning ourselves off autopilot, and noticing our present being. In the life of a busy Wimbledon High girl, this can be a challenging and daunting prospect. Focusing on our five senses will bring us into the ‘here and now’, and might be the crucial tool for dealing with stressful and anxiety inducing situations.

The senses are how we understand the world, and to obtain the most positive experience from the present moment we need to employ them in everything we do. Studies by Dr. Patrizia Collard (Sensory Awareness Mindfulness Training in Coaching: Accepting Life’s Challenges, Collard & Walsh, 2008) demonstrate that focussing on our senses, and non-judgementally on our current situation, results in a significant improvement in a range of conditions such as anxiety, depression and stress disorders.

A simple mindfulness exercise that could be practiced during the day at school, and without the use of a yoga mat, is the 5-4-3-2-1 tool. This exercise is an effective method of regaining control of your mind when anxiety or stress threaten to take over and reminds us to interact with the world using our five senses. It requires you to think of five things that you can see (e.g. a picture on a classroom wall).  Then you think of 4 things that you hear (e.g. the orchestra rehearsing in the Senior Hall), three things you can touch (e.g. your earrings), two things you smell (e.g. tea or coffee) and one thing you can taste (e.g. breaktime snacks).  This exercise can help you become more aware of your present situation and reduce potential stress.

Good mental health is something we should all aim for, and psychologists around the world are investigating ways to maintain a consistent level of positive mental health. Using our five senses and practicing mindfulness can help us be resilient when going through a time of stress and help keep us grounded in reality. Learning to focus on the external factors present around us helps avoid excessive focus on internal issues and can moderate extremes of feeling or emotion. Consistency and balance are crucial when aspiring to have good mental health.

However, mindfulness should not be a tool reserved only for stressful situations. Just like training for a sport, mindfulness needs to be practiced and developed to make it the most effective it can be.  Using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique and your five senses are a simple way of practicing mindfulness because you do not need equipment, a long time, or any external help. Our body has the tools we need to master mindfulness, we just need to trust them and exercise them.

For further reading, see the book “How to be yourself” by Clinical Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen (buy it here for a paper by Harvard Medical School about the benefits mindfulness has on stress and anxiety levels.

Should standardised exams be exchanged for another form of assessment?

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Jasmine (Year 11) explores the merits and weaknesses of exams as the formal assessment of intelligence, discussing whether an alternative should be introduced that suits all students.

Exams – the bane of existence for some but an excellent opportunity to excel for others. Thought to have been founded in China, with the use of the standardised “imperial exam” in 605 AD, they are the education system’s way of assessing the mental ability and knowledge of students whilst also creating a practical method of comparison to others in the country. They are therefore an important factor and indicator for employers. But does this strict, tight method really work for assessing intelligence or is it just a memory game that is only achievable for a select few?

I asked 80 students in a survey if they think that exams should be exchanged for another form of assessment and the results concluded that 78% agree that they should. However, when asked about their reasoning, it was mostly due to stereotypical dislike for the stressful period. Some who agreed with the statement also mentioned the unrealistic exam conditions that would not occur in daily life. An example was set forth that during a language oral exam a great amount of pressure is put on the students causing them to become nervous and not perform to their best ability. However, in a real-life conversational situation they would not have to recite pre-prepared answers and the pressure would be taken off so the conversation would flow more naturally. This shows that although someone may have real fluency and talent for the language, their expertise will not be notified and rewarded accordingly

Among many students, examinations are accused of being memory tests that only suit a certain learning style; and the slow abolishment of coursework at GCSE level is contributing to this. This could be shown by the fact that many people in the country have learning difficulties such as dyslexia. These students may be particularly bright and diligent workers however, their brains do not function in the way exams rely on them to. Nonetheless, if they are put in front of a practical task that they have learned to do through experience, they are deemed to be far more knowledgeable and perceptive. Studies show that by learning something consistently for a long period of time it stays in our memory but though it is important to ingrain essential facts into our brains, especially at GCSE level, GCSEs are mostly comprised of learning facts over a period of around 2-3 years and then a final exam at the end; which does not particularly show consistent learning and is more just an overflow of information.

Stress levels caused by the lead-up, doing, and waiting period for results that subsequently follows are also a major factor in the argument that traditional standardised tests should be augmented. According to the NSPCC, from 2015-2016 there was a 21% increase in the likelihood of counselling sessions being for 15-18 year olds affected by exam stress many of whom would be doing GCSEs and A Levels. Some say that the stress these tests cause is necessary for success and mimics the stresses of the real world; but how essential are some of these exams like non-calculator Maths papers when nowadays most people of have calculators on their phones? Exams are also said to create healthy competition that prepares people for the struggles and competitive nature of the modern working world and also motivates students, but can’t this be done with another form of assessment that is more suited to the individual student?

However, the use of different approaches to examination may, in fact, lead to the risk of the test being corrupted. This would mean that grading would be mainly subjective and there would be more scope for unfair advantage for some rather than others. The restrictive nature of our exams today with a set time, set paper and set rules does ensure that fairness is a priority but is the actual exam really the most equal way to test so many different students?

Standardised exams are not the best way of determining the knowledge and intelligence of students around the world. This is due to the stress and pressure they cause, the fact that they are only appropriate for certain learning styles and their ill comparison to real life events in the working world. Changing the form of these assessments may, however, cause grades to be unreliable. My suggestion would be smaller and more practical examinations throughout the course that all contribute to the final grade as this puts less pressure on the students and helps those who rely on different learning strategies to excel and demonstrate their full potential.

Mountains and Metaphor

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Dr John Parsons, Director of Sixth, shares a recent assembly to the Senior School with us.

‘Then forward to th’unconquered peaks above’

The School Song – Kitty Ramsay (The Duchess of Athol)

A freezing cold 4am start in the Atlas Mountains sees our tired little group tackle the last 1000 meters or so of Africa’s second highest peak, Mount Toubkal. As pitch black gives way to pink dawn we climb on, and rubble and dust soon become ice and rock. At the 4167-metre-high summit the air is thin, but the view and sense of achievement is as extraordinary as the sky is now rich blue. Looking south standing on a flat rock I am confronted with Africa sprawling hazy to the horizon, so I hold aloft an imaginary Simba and sing ‘The Circle of Life’, loudly. I blame the altitude.

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I’m a mountain fan – wild, uncompromising, inaccessible, difficult (that’s mountains, not me). Mountains are part of our collective experience and our consciousness, both geographically and metaphorically. They represent the impossible made possible and the unconquerable conquered.  Our mythology is peppered with cameos from mountains; the ancient Greek gods live on Mount Olympus; the same gods punish Sisyphus by forcing him to push a boulder to the top of a mountain for eternity; and the gods gather on Mount Ida to watch the Trojan War. In the Hindu faith, Shiva lives at the top of a mountain, and in Islam Mohamed receives his first revelation on Mount Hira (not to mention examples from Buddhism and Jainism). In the Judeo-Christian tradition mountains again loom large; Noah’s ark comes to rest on the top of a mountain; Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; we see Christ giving his sermon at higher climbs, and we first see him revealed as the son of God on the top of Mount Tabor before his final hours play out on the Mount of Olives. In Inca mythology, mountain tops are portals to the gods, and the ancient Taranaki people native to New Zealand anthropomorphised their mountains. There is a sense in all of this that the remoteness of mountain tops brought ancient peoples as close to their god(s) as was possible. Mountains have long been places of revelation and transformation.

For the Romantics, mountains were endlessly fascinating. Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth and Ruskin et al developed language and ideas which soon became identified as seeking ‘the sublime.’ Perhaps this was by way of a reaction against the nuts and bolts, dirt, detail, grime and grease of the Industrial Revolution. Shelly’s beautiful line ‘far far above piercing the infinite sky’ certainly gives us a context of vast topographical scale, with the peaks (high above us mere humans beings) themselves dwarfed by the expanse of the heavens. For Shelly, as for the other Romantics, thinking about and visiting mountains allowed for ideas and encounters on an epic scale. Mary Shelley offers us perhaps the most vivid mountains in all romantic literature in her novel Frankenstein. Given the nineteenth-century’s literary love affair with mountain imagery, it is perhaps no surprise that our very own Kitty Ramsey (author of our school song) saw Wimbledon High girls throwing off corsets and crinolines and hiking up those ‘unconquered peaks’ of their own futures. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is full of peaks to climb over, go around or even go through, and, to my mind, even Jay Gatsby climbing the stairs to survey the extravagance of his party below in ‘The Great Gatsby’ or King Kong scaling the needle-like radio mast of the Empire State ‘far far above piercing the infinite sky’ (Hollywood starlet in hand) shows a (largely male-centric) mountain mythology looming large comfortably into the twentieth century.

 

Mountains as Metaphor

We talk of having a mountain of work to do and are idiomatically warned not to make mountains out of mole hills. One of the first ever self-help books by one aptly named Samuel Smiles (1859) feeds off the mountain frenzy appearing in the poems and writings of the time. Smiles writes, ‘it is not ease but effort – not facility but difficulty that makes men… sweet indeed are the uses of adversity… they reveal to us our powers… without difficulty we would be worth less… the road to success is steep to climb.’ According to Smiles, those who took on and surmounted difficulties ended up bettering themselves. This was not advice for lazy people. It speaks of its time; that by sheer effort men (and he was clearly talking in terms of gender here, not species) could rise above social class and make something of themselves. By hard work anything was possible – a sort of Victorian version of Marvin Gaye’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Inadvertently, of course, Smiles and others like him put ideas in women’s heads in the decades that followed; that with perseverance and hard graft women, too, could climb or even move mountains. In Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1959 musical The Sound of Music, the Mother Superior exhorts Maria to ‘Climb every mountain.’ That Maria and her new family physically do just that at the end of the show is beside the point. She is talking in far deeper terms; you will meet difficulties, so scale them and do not give in. There is clearly a parallel in all of this with, for example, the recent work of Angela Duckworth on ‘Grit’ and Carol Dweck’s research into ‘Growth Mindset’; success is borne of effort.

 

Rising to the Challenge

Climbing mountains is hard work, requiring focus and engagement. Mountaineers often talk in terms of being unaware that time has passed as they climb. Arguably, it is in this state when we move closest to achieving our goals and when we are at our maximum effectiveness. For Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) this was the ‘zone of proximal development’, and for Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (born in the year of Vygotsky’s death), this was defined as ‘flow’. ‘Flow’ (see right) as described by Csikszentmihalyi is certainly an attractive and accessible theory, seeking to identify the ‘sweet spot’ (my words, not Csikszentmihalyi’s) when the task at hand is just challenging enough (y) to be achievable given the skill level of a person (x). If a task is too challenging for our level of skill, we become anxious; if it is not challenging enough we are most likely to become bored or disengaged.

It is, writes Csikszentmihalyi, at this intersection of challenge and skill where our most active and deep learning experiences occur, but also where the activity is most enjoyable. Indeed, his studies detail consistent occurrences of participants being unaware of time passing when they are ‘in flow,’ perhaps proving the old saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun.’ Recent research from Philip Gable and Brian Pool at the University of Alabama sets out to explore this idea further, and their conclusion offers a twist; according to Gable and Pool, time flies when we have goal-oriented fun. Gable concludes that ‘although we tend to believe that time flies when we’re having a good time, these studies indicate what it is about the enjoyable time that causes it to go by more quickly. It seems to be the goal pursuit or achievement-directed action we’re engaged in that matters. Just being content or satisfied may not make time fly but being excited or actively pursuing a desired object can’ (Psychological Science, August 2012).

As I climbed a seemingly endless 47-degree gradient of the final ascent of Italy’s majestic Gran Paradiso mountain last summer (I know it was 47 degrees because I got my iPhone out to measure it – shortly before it shut down from the cold), I was utterly unaware of how long I had been walking. Twenty minutes, two hours – longer? Genuinely, I had lost all concept of time. I was neither anxious nor bored, and the task at hand (or rather under foot) was on the edge of being just a little too challenging for my skill set. And I was having the time of my life. Of course, we can experience the same at work, in the classroom and in the exam hall.

 

Falling and Failing

Doing anything hard requires a conscious effort to move out of a comfort zone and risk failing. American psychologist Angela Duckworth terms the specific quality at play in such situations ‘grit,’ and defines this as ‘passion and perseverance for long-term goals’ (2016).

The idea of getting better at something by simply plodding along relentlessly until it is mastered takes in Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of ‘flow’, but, crucially, Duckworth’s thinking seems to chime with Gable & Pool in her assertion that we need a goal in the first place – a summit. To find Csikszentmihalyi’s flow we must inevitably make mistakes and reflect on them. In his seminal book The Reflective Practitioner (1983), Donald Schon (1930-1997) breaks down what might in fact happen in that reflective moment – the failure occurring in the ‘experience’ part of his diagram, below.

To summarise Schon’s argument; the reflective practitioner in any given task can recognise confusing or unique (positive or negative) events that happen during practice. The ineffective practitioner, says Schon, is confined to repetitive and routine practice, neglecting opportunities to think about what she/he is doing. However, Duckworth’s important point about remaining optimistic and cheerful when we need to be reflective is also worth remembering here. Schon would no doubt have championed Captain Jack Sparrow’s mantra; the problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.

Our young people – as all emerging adult generations have done – must forget all about things being ‘insurmountable’, and respond to difficulty and failure with resilience, cheerfulness and a real quality of toughness. Failure is, after all, inherent in doing difficult things, from Maths tests to mountains.

 

Concluding Thoughts

As educators we seek to give young people opportunities for ‘flow’ moments in their academic learning, recognising the importance of that state in cementing deep learning. But this will inevitably be risky from time to time. Mountains expect us to take risks if we are to conquer them, but also to take care. They ask us slowly but consistently to put one foot in front of the other as we gain height. Despite meticulous planning, there will always unexpected obstacles on the way up, and we must acknowledge (and expect) these and respond calmly and decisively, and ask someone who knows more about climbing mountains we do to help. We must all pause from time to time to look back and see just how far we’ve come. We can’t and mustn’t spend the whole time looking at our feet – eyes on the detail – just as we can’t always be focused on the summit. Rather, we should always remember to take a moment to look back and take in the view.

 

Dr John Parsons, March 2018 (based on a 2016 assembly).

 

Photo sources:

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Where academic and pastoral meet: why we should value what we remember and will remember what we value.

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Fionnuala Kennedy, Deputy Head (Pastoral), looks at research in to memory and how this can be used to aid revision for examinations.

As with most of my thoughts about education, this one was provoked by a conversation over supper and a glass of wine with someone not involved in the educational field. Unlike most of my thoughts about education, it is based on the work of a Dutch psychologist and Chess Master born in 1914, whose initial thesis, “Het denken van den schaker”, was published in 1946 (the English translation, “Thought and Choice in Chess”, appeared in 1965).
During the 40s, 50s and 60s, Adriaan de Groot conducted a series of cognitive chess experiments which ultimately formed the basis for ‘chunking’ theory and allowed for the development of chess computers. Testing all levels of chess player, from rank beginners through to Grand Masters, de Groot’s goal was to explain how the very best chess players could visually absorb a full chess board, assess the positions of pieces, process the different numbers of moves they could make next and rank them in order of preference, and all within seconds. This process was divided into four key phases, occurring rapidly in sequence:

  1. The orientation phase – assessing the position and coming up with general ideas of what to do
  2. The exploration phase – analysing concrete variations
  3. The investigation phase – deciding on the best move
  4. The proof phase –confirming the validity of the choice reached in phase three.

This in itself is an incredibly useful model of thought and study, particularly for the examination student under pressure of time. It is, however, not this which really piqued my interest in de Groot’s study, but rather the next phases of his thinking which have since been built upon by psychologists in the US.

Having determined the role of visual perception and thought processes of Grand Masters that lead to their success, de Groot went on to consider how they would memorise and what it was about that method of memory which made them so particularly successful. And the findings were – and are – fascinating.

In de Groot’s most famous demonstration, he showed several players images of chess positions for a few seconds and asked the players to reconstruct the positions from memory.  The experts – as we might predict – made relatively few mistakes even though they had seen the position only briefly.  So far, so impressive. But, years later, Chase and Simon replicated de Groot’s finding with another expert (a master-level player) as well as an amateur and a novice.  They also added a critical control: the players viewed both real chess positions and scrambled chess positions (that included pieces not only in random positions, but also in implausible and even impossible locations). The expert excelled with the real positions – again, as might have been predicted – but performed no better than the amateur and even the novice for the scrambled positions. In essence, then, the expert advantage seems only to come from familiarity with actual chess positions, something that allows more efficient encoding or retrieval of the positions. The grand master’s memory, the test suggests, will only have absorbed the positions on the board which matter to them, which have meaning and purpose; it is not that their memories are simply ‘better’, or better-trained, but that they have become more efficient in storing meaningful patterns. Without that meaning, the expert and the novice will both struggle equally.

And this amazed me, and got me thinking. As educators, we know that theories about the ways in which we think and remember come and go, that pupils may learn in different ways, at different ages, in varying degrees of success and failure, and thus we shouldn’t jump on too many bandwagons pedagogically. I know for example that I am almost certainly more reliant on audio and visual modes of learning than kinesthetic, but then I suspect that’s because the latter didn’t really exist when I was at school; and I also tend to believe that I remember letters and words better than numbers, but this I now recognise to be because I grew up with parents who listened to music and read literature. It is not that our brains can or cannot remember aspects of learning; it is not necessarily that we have different ways of thinking and remembering and learning, or indeed brains which ‘absorb’ certain information better or worse than others. Rather:

We will remember that to which we ascribe value; we will memorise where there is pattern and meaning.

Which only goes to add more grist to the mill to Mrs Lunnon’s message delivered in our opening assembly this term: ‘What I do is me: for that I came’ (Manley-Hopkins). If we approach learning as a task which must be achieved simply to obtain an end-goal, we simply will not learn as well. Rather, if each task is ascribed a meaning and value for and within itself, it will become much easier to remember and store away. Thinking ‘I want to get 10/10 in my Spanish vocab test because I want to be top of the class’ will only make your task more difficult. Looking at each word you are learning and putting it into a context where you might use it one day, or including it in a joke in Spanish, or making a connection between the words, will save you time and maximise the chances of your brain storing that information away for you for longer.

What’s more – and this is where the pastoral side really kicks in – such an approach takes away the slog and grind of learning. Instead, meaning will surround us and be ascribed in all we do. And, of course, more excitingly than that: if we are on the look-out for meaning, it will help us to find the area which feels the most meaningful for us, in which we can readily spot and identify patterns of meaning and which fills us with joy and satisfaction. And it is this, and not simply a desire to do well or know more, which will lead to true mastery as we negotiate the chess board of our own learning and lives.

Follow @DHPastoralWHS and @Head_WHS on Twitter.