Published on: 18 Sep 2020

“Beneath the mask”: why your students’ aptitude and attitude matter now more than ever

By Matthew Savage

Little did I know, before 2020, how prescient could have seemed my assertion that children and young people in international schools worldwide, in order to succeed amid the different pressures and challenges under which they have to function on a daily basis, wear 'masks'. 

My assertion was, of course, metaphor. Whether in response to unsustainable expectations from peers, parents or teachers; to having to learn in a language other than their own; to the poor mental health which is tragically commonplace across a whole generation; or to the cultural dislocation or uprooting inherent within many a ‘third culture’ experience - they wear, often thickly, determinedly and convincingly, multiple masks to protect themselves from manifold threats to their wellbeing. This is why, I have long argued, we need the extra insights afforded by the triangle of student-level data now readily available across the international schools sector - data which provides us with a window not only into student attainment, but into student aptitude and attitudes too.

However, now that students are wearing actual masks in school, if, indeed, they have yet been able to return to school at all, the challenges with which we are faced as teachers suddenly seem more serious and stark than ever before. Indeed, with millions of students worldwide having been out of school for months, we risk being even more remote from their experience as a learner, and, as a result, even less able to identify and support their disparate learning and wellbeing needs. Therefore, never has that ‘data triangle’ been more necessary in helping us to see the world through our students’ eyes.

As schools worldwide begin to welcome their students back to the classroom, governments seem to be most concerned about a lockdown-induced curriculum drought, and the extent to which students will have ‘fallen behind’. However, perhaps this is precisely the challenge that was necessary in order for the ‘god of curriculum’ to lose its ascendancy, and for other, more important priorities, to push to the front. School league tables in the UK will, in 2020, not take account of attainment data; students worldwide, in schools and universities, simply did not sit terminal examinations: I have spent years arguing that attainment is not everything, and, now, in a way, attainment is not anything. So how do we respond?

I have no doubt that schools will successfully reevaluate, restructure and realign their curricula, and that any perceived gaps in students’ learning will be effectively filled. At some point, league tables and terminal examinations will return, and schools will want to be fully prepared for this eventuality. However, what about the other two vertices on the data triangle? Amid the rush to remedy attainment deficits, we ignore, at our, and our students’, peril, their aptitude and attitudes, for these, after all, constitute who they are as a learner within our school - a learner who will have been affected by the lockdown in ways we cannot hope fully to understand. Never has it been more important that we wrestle with that challenge, and protect, as the sine qua non of our provision, their right daily to #thrive and to #belong.

Therefore, as you manage the return to the classroom of students in your school, I urge you to put aptitude and attitude centre stage. Take a fresh look at the cognitive abilities of your students, and with what needs and strengths they are emerging from the shadows of the lockdown. Examine closely their current attitudes towards themselves, and towards their school, in order that you are able to see this new world through their eyes. In this way, we can personalise their learning journey at a time where personalisation is more important than ever before. 

I have always framed #themonalisaeffect as a means to look ‘beneath the mask’ of each and every student. As your students return to school beneath all too real masks of their own, take this opportunity to meet them where they actually are. If we understand their aptitude and their attitudes, and, in so doing, keep their #wellbeingfirst, then their attainment really will look after itself.

About Matthew

Most recently Principal at the International Community School Amman (shortlisted for International School of the Year in both 2019 and 2020) and formerly Adjunct Lecturer in School Leadership at the University Brunei Darussalam, Matthew has previously enjoyed headships in ENC and IB schools in Europe and South East Asia, after 13 years of middle and senior leadership experience in the UK comprehensive sector. 

Matthew offers training and consultancy, both online and face-to-face, to schools and school groups from across the globe, and is increasingly in demand as the trainer of choice for premier international schools and school groups across every continent.

You can find out more about the training courses Matthew runs for GL Education here.

Or visit his website to discover more about ~themonalisaeffect and for information about his whole-school training solutions.