Published on: 13 May 2015

Unlocking potential with the Mona Lisa Effect

The Mona Lisa effect

Matthew Savage, Deputy Headmaster at Bromsgrove International School, Thailand, shares some surprising insights gained by seeing learning through the eyes of an international cohort in the summer 2015 edition of Boarding School Magazine (page 31).

With more and more children being educated beyond their home shores, many of the UK’s boarding schools have more in common with our international school than you might expect at first glance. We may be almost 6000 miles apart geographically-speaking, but we both know that cultural diversity and celebrating difference can greatly enrich school life and help children to become truly global citizens.

Aiming for greater diversity does bring its challenges, however. One is tailoring teaching so that all students make long strides towards reaching their potential whilst they are with us, no matter what their background, nationality or mother tongue. How can you personalise teaching effectively to a multi-lingual and multi-cultural cohort?

Personalised teaching

It’s imperative to us that every child feels that each lesson has been designed specifically to meet their needs.  Think of the way the Mona Lisa’s eyes appear to look at you and only you as you walk past – that’s how we want our students to feel about our curriculum.

To bring this about in practical terms, however, needs careful planning. We start by doing everything we can to fully understand our students and to see life and learning through their eyes. 

All in the details

Whether you’re teaching a large or small percentage of children from overseas, you need to be extremely sensitive to cultural nuances. Students from Thailand, for example, tend to shy away from confrontation and there can be a great deal of deference to the teaching profession. This diffidence can negatively impact on learning, as students don’t like to question teachers, even to clarify something they may not have understood.

One of the things our school has done to counteract any such barriers is to consolidate teacher judgements with a number of other tools. For example, we’ve found using cognitive abilities testing helps identify students’ individual strengths, weaknesses and learning styles, stripping away any bias their culture might entail and leaving us with an accurate measure of potential.

There were a number of surprises when we looked at the results – a child who had thus far not distinguished himself academically scored extremely highly, for example, and another who had always achieved well had very average scores.

We wanted to investigate these discrepancies further to find out why they had occurred. This was essential to enabling us to truly personalise our students’ learning.

Right attitude   

Pastoral care is taken extremely seriously, particularly in boarding schools where students can sometimes need a little extra support outside of their academic studies. Taking the time to understand the different facets of our students’ school life is also a priority at Bromsgrove.

To complement the data we had on a student’s abilities, we began to carry out the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) survey. Published by GL Assessment this looks at nine attitudinal factors, from a student’s feelings about school to how they perceive their own learning ability.

It gives an insight into emotional barriers, motivations and mindsets that may affect a child’s ability to achieve, and the depth of information is just so useful – research behind the survey has shown that if a child does not feel confident and happy about school, this can have a marked impact on their ability to progress academically.

Full disclosure

Identifying any underlying concerns enables schools to address them so that children are free to reach their full potential, unimpeded. It could be that an A grade student is slowly becoming disaffected or a child who appears calm is actually extremely anxious about their approaching exams or living away from home.

The thing is, you don’t know what you don’t know, so the first time we surveyed our cohort, the results were something of an eye-opener.

For example, as we teach in English to students for whom English is not their first language, we were already aware that a lack of confidence in language ability might hinder even our highest achievers. However, the survey revealed something we hadn’t expected to see – many of these students had a low opinion of their perceived learning capabilities and poor self-regard as well.

We discovered that some of our very able students did not consider themselves able at all, because they were falsely correlating their grasp of English with their cognitive abilities. This could be the case in any school attended by children from overseas or from families who are not native English speakers. 

Removing barriers

When you are trying to tailor learning for a multi-cultural cohort, it can be very useful to breakdown the survey results into ethnicity to see if there are prevalent trends. For example, we discovered that Thai students’ natural deference to authority was far more deeply entrenched than we had realised, with many students taking the view that teachers are superior and learners are inferior.

This runs contrary to our ethos of developing bold, confident and ambitious individuals so once we highlighted how ingrained the issue was, we were able to initiate ways to encourage students to be more outspoken and openly challenge the ‘system’.

Pathway to success

It’s no exaggeration to say that surveying attitudes has been one of the most exciting educational discoveries I have made. We are now looking more closely at how our students perceive both their school and themselves, and making sure the path is clear for each child to achieve their learning goals. 

To summarise, we’ve found that knowing where the key issues lie when it comes to factors that directly contribute to educational success or failure means we can really put into motion our ‘Mona Lisa’ approach to teaching and learning. Unlocking potential is the ultimate goal for any successful school, no matter where in the world their students come from.

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