People are all the same but students are all different

ayam-titaniumThis month’s blog is coming from Malaysia, I have been presenting at the ICAEW learning conference in KL. The only relevance of this, is that as with any lecture/presentation or lesson you have to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and ask, what do they want to get out of this, why are they giving up their valuable time and in many instances money to listen to what you have to say?

The difference in presenting to a group of people from another country is that you start to question the way they think and perhaps learn, is it the same or could you be making a big mistake by assuming it is.

Neurologically we are all the same

What gave me confidence was that I was talking about how you learn and examinations. And although there will certainly be many differences in culture, language, opinion, even what is considered funny, our brains are all made exactly the same, and as a result the process of learning is the same.

Malaysian jokes

Q: What is Malaysians’ favourite dish? – A: Astro

Q: What is the strongest chicken in the world? – A: Ayam Titanium

So everything I said about memorising content using spaced repetition, the importance of having bite sized chunks of information, the need to present an overview at the start of each session etc was met with nods of approval.

Students are different


However just because we have the same neurological components does not mean they are all used in the same way. And so it would have been a mistake for me to have presented trends observed in the UK as to the attitude of students towards learning as if they were the typical attitudes of all students, in particular Malaysian ones. The reason being, I have little knowledge of the Malaysian education system, parenting skills, culture etc, these are what help shape the beliefs, values and attitudes of students in Malaysia and in turn give every student their own unique learning style.

Learning styles are unique

The generalisation about Malaysian learning styles was that there was a tendency to rank passing exams as being the most important aspect of education. This had resulted in a number of issues, one being a lack of leadership skills. Who did they blame, well they blamed the teachers for being uninspiring and measuring students by the grades they had historically achieved rather than the grades they might achieve. The point here is not in any way a criticism of the Malaysian system, there are equally many problems in the UK but to highlight why learning has to be personalised. It of course goes even deeper than nationalistic trends, clearly not all Malaysian students are focused only on passing exams and some will make great leaders, everyone is unique.

But are the teachers to blame?

If you agree with the research produced by John Hattie from the University of Auckland, the answer is yes, the teachers are to blame. His research which was built up over 15 years suggest that an individual students inherent qualities account for 50% of their ability to achieve, but on the basis this cannot be changed it would be better to look at the next biggest attribute that can be influenced. Interestingly this had little to do with who you went to school with, the so called peer effect, your home life, the school you went to, and certainly not the technology used. It was all about the teacher or type of teacher you had. It is what teachers do, know and care about that makes the difference, 30% of the difference in fact.

I am sure that advocates of on-line will suggest that this is not about the teacher but the type of instruction, but at this stage of the debate that will only cloud the issue. This simply highlights the importance teaching or instruction as being the most important aspect of learning wherever you are in the world. Of course your peers, classrooms, technology all contribute but if you want to make investment in learning, spend it on developing the teachers.

My time in Malaysia comes to an end this evening but even if my presentation did not achieve all I had expected, and I hope it did, I feel I have learned a little more, as the Malay saying goes….. Everyday a thread, soon a cloth.

And if you would like to read more about John Hatties research, read the Click the link.



True Grit – Passion and persistence

True Grit“They say he has grit. I wanted a man with grit.” So says Mattie Ross in the 1969 film True Grit staring John Wayne. But what exactly does the young Mattie Ross actually mean, what is grit?

Well maybe Angela Duckworth can answer this, she is the author of a book called, Grit, the power of passion and perseverance.

IQ, EQ and Grit

Many will be familiar with IQ (The Intelligent Quotient). It was developed by Alfred Binet around 1911. Not to measure intelligence so that individuals can demonstrate superiority over others, but to identify under performers so that remedial action could take place. Then in 1995 Daniel Goleman wrote about the Emotional Quotient (EQ) or Emotional Intelligence. The idea that individuals can recognise their own, and other people’s emotions, discriminate between different feelings and use this emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour. This idea has enjoyed some success and helped people shift their focus towards valuing something other than simply being clever.

Grit in a way makes a similar point. If we took at a group of highly successful individuals, what qualities would they have, what would it be that made them so successful? Would it be intelligence, maybe a high EQ or is it something else. Angela Duckworth found that it was grit, which she defines as having a passion and persistence for long term goals.

Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.’

Gritty people work hard, but they are doing this with a long term goal in mind.  They also find their work meaningful, important and interesting.

I’ve never interviewed someone who was truly world class in what they do, who didn’t say in the first five minutes “I love what I do”.

You can become grittier

To learn how to become “more gritty” we need to bring in Carol Dweck. A professor of psychology from Stanford University. Dweck coined the phrase a growth mind set and identified two groups of people. One those who believe their success is based on innate ability, a fixed mindset and two, those who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness a growth mindset.

The logic being that you are more likely to develop grit if you have a growth mindset. This is because if you fail, rather than giving up, you see it as a learning experience and continue to work hard towards your long term goal. Dweck even uses the term doggedness, often described as someone who has an obstinate determination or persistence.

Grit and exam success

I would argue that examination success has far less to do with intelligence and more to do with grit. This is not to say that passing an exam does not require intelligence just that along the way most will face some form of failure and having a growth mindset together with a large dollop of grit is more likely to result in success.

Think about the following:

  • You don’t have to be the cleverest person to pass the exam
  • It is possible to learn most things – if you work hard
  • It’s a marathon not a sprint – failing an exam can be a setback but that’s all, pick yourself up and carry on
  • Be clear what your long term goal is – three years to pass an exam is a long time but your goal is probably much longer. Passing the exam is only part of the journey
  • You may not at first find the work meaningful, but almost everything you learn can be interesting

Find out your grit score

If you would like to find out what your grit score is then click here, it will take less than a minute and you get immediate feedback.

John Wayne also said

Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.

A growth mindset perhaps.

Test obsession and Test Anxiety

Tests anxiety

“We live in a test conscious and test giving culture in which the lives of people are in part determined by their test performance”

Sarason, Davidson, & Lighthall

What’s interesting about this statement is, it was first published in 1960 and was based on students in the US, yet would not seem out of place in describing the situation in the UK.  The UK, as with so many other things has unfortunately caught up with the US and become a nation that tests and measures…everything.

Where a person’s worth is judged only by the tests they have passed it is perhaps not surprising that examination success has become so important and test anxiety increased.

But it’s not just the UK, this is a global obsession, take China for example where the pressure to succeed has become so intense that cheating in the Gaokao, the nation’s A-Chinese-invigilator-sca-010university entrance exam is a major problem. The government has not been slow to react and for the first time anyone found cheating will face a possible seven year jail sentence. In Ruijin, east China’s Jiangxi Province, invigilators use instruments to scan students’ shoes before they entered the exam hall, while devices to block wireless signals are also used to reduce the opportunity to cheat.

Test anxiety or stress

Stress is a broad term that is experienced when you find yourself in adverse or demanding circumstances, sitting an exam perhaps. Test anxiety is a situation specific type of stress, experienced by people who find examinations threatening. Recently, there has been an increased interest in exam stress and test anxiety in the UK and a need for it to be given closer academic scrutiny.

The research so far shows that test anxiety can actually impair learning and hurt test performance. And this is the issue, are students underperforming in examinations, which as stated above can have a significant impact on their lives not because of their lack of knowledge or even their ability to apply knowledge, but simply because the medium used to assess them is an exam.

In simple terms test anxiety effects exams results and exam results play a major part in people’s lives.

There are three components of test anxiety (Zeidner 1998)

  • Cognitive – the negative thoughts you can have during tests e.g. “if I fail this I will fail all my examinations” and the performance limiting difficulties experienced as a result of anxiety e.g. inability to read questions clearly or solve problems.
  • Affective – physical symptoms e.g. trembling, tension etc.
  • Behavioural – test anxiety creates an environment that encourages students to avoid studying or best delay it.

The reason people develop test anxiety is thought to be rooted in certain social issues e.g. how you are judged by others and the fear of failure in the public domain. It may also be related to the type of anxiety people experience when they have to make a best man’s speech, for example. Another aspect is that it is not always what others think, but what you think of yourself that is the issue and so the expectation of exam failure could impact on an individual’s ego and self-esteem.

Phase one is OK BUT

I think in the UK we are through the worst part of this, let’s call it phase one, and by that I mean we know that examinations and testing are not the answer, and that people are not their exam result. We have learned this the hard way by producing groups of exam qualified students, releasing them into the world of work, ill prepared to cope with the demands of the workplace. In addition, we have developed helpful techniques that enable people to better cope with test anxiety. Some of these I have discussed in previous blogs, Stress or Pressure – Don’t let the bridge collapse, Exam stress – Mindfulness and the “7/11” to name but two.

BUT………we still have some way to go with phase two, which involves answering the question, what do we replace exams with if they are so bad? And until we solve that, helping good people perform in the system we have just now is the best we can do.


Reflections on Understanding ……Brexit

great briitain leaves european union metaphorI have to admit in the last few months I have spent a fair bit of time looking into the facts behind the EU and checking on some of the statements made by both the remain and leave sides, attempting to discover truths or otherwise so that I could make a more informed decision. It proved difficult; much was opinion dressed up as fact by using numbers open to interpretation. Another technique used on the face of it to offer clarity, but in reality did just the opposite, was to state the “facts” forcefully, with conviction and repeat them often, giving the impression that what was being said was not only true but believed to be true.

But this blog is not really about Brexit, well kind of, I couldn’t let the most important decision made in this country for over 40 years go without some mention.

Following the announcement of the results on Friday the 24th of June I found myself going through what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described as the five stages of grief. Denial, no that can’t be true. Anger, WHO was it that voted like that, they must be MAD or words to that effect. Bargaining, let me break down the statistics and find out who voted and what group they came from, old/young, North/South, maybe they could be persuaded to change their minds, or better still perhaps we will have a second referendum. Depression, we are all doomed, and finally Acceptance, it is what it is, we now need to make the most of it.


What I have described above is not simply the ramblings of a disgruntled and disenfranchised supporter of the in campaign but goes some way towards illustrating the process of reflection, one of the most important components of learning and a key technique in developing a deeper understanding.  It was David A Kolb who in 1984 put forward the argument that we learn from reflecting on our experiences.

KolbModelStep one in Kolb’s learning cycle is to have the experience. Step two, reflect, think back on what we have experienced. Step three, conceptualise, generate a hypothesis about the meaning of the experience, what is it we have learned, and step four, test that the hypothesis is supported by the experience, does it confirm that what we have learned is correct.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. Confucius

Reflection – purposeful thought

Getting students to do this consciously is however difficult, in fairness I didn’t reflect consciously myself, it was part of a process in trying to understand why I was feeling the way I did. I felt angry but on one level didn’t know why, so I had to reflect on what had happened to find out.

The point being simply asking a student to complete say a reflection log, no matter how much you state the value of keeping one, will probably result in little more than blank pages. You need to have a reason to reflect, this might be to identify the cause of an emotion as was the case for me or to answer a question, which may be as simple as, “thinking back on the last essay you submitted, what have you learned?” it just needs to have a purpose. Of course the reflection log may still remain blank but that is more to do with motivation than the power of the exercise.

One simple technique to help with reflection is to think back on what has happened, identify the impact that it will have today on the present and what the implications will be for the future.

Lessons learned

So having passed through the stages of grief, rather too quickly I am sure some will say and reflected on the experience, what have I learned? Well, some has been confirmation of what I already knew. Firstly, that Politicians will make statements that they may or not believe at the time but will back away from after the event. This can be achieved whilst still retaining an internal level of integrity by pointing out that they never used those exact words, standing in front of a bus that has them blazoned across it, is not the same. Did anyone really believe that £350m would be spent on the health service or that Europe would not trade with us at all, after Brexit. Secondly that I like democracy as long as it comes up with the answer I want, but not when it doesn’t. Thirdly, the electorate does not make decisions using in-depth analysis and reflection but by deep held beliefs built up over time, often reinforced by the people closest to them. And lastly that the status quo is not sustainable and that happiness is a comparative process thus making change inevitable and with change comes risk.

Will it be for the better, only time will tell, we will have to wait for the historians to reflect on what the UK looked like in 2016 and whether it was better in 2026, as you can see reflection has many uses!

Let me leave you with my favourite quote of the campaign, not from one of the leading politicians involved, but Abraham Lincoln.

 “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”




Currywurst , apples and the £33,000 a year boarding school


Currywurst fast becoming the most popular dish in Berlin

I have three relatively unrelated stories this month.


The first follows a trip to Berlin this weekend and the obligatory city tour. Just of Unter den Linden you will find a sunken glass plate between the pavement that provides a view into a room full of empty bookshelves, sufficient to house the 20,000 books that were destroyed on this site on the 10th of May 1933. Some 70,000 people, many German university students gathered to burn books with “unGerman” ideas. Joseph Goebbels joined the students at the bonfire and declared: ” The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character.” “It is to this end that we want to educate you.”

This was not only symbolic but practical. Without these books or to be precise only having the ones that remained, it might just be possible to create a nation of people who all think the same? Who all share the same ideals and live life by the same values. And yet of course this is not how you create an educated society, a society able to think for itself, the result will be compliance and idealism. Which was more likely what Goebbels had in mind.

Goodwill Hunting

When I got home one of my favourite movies had already started. Good Will Hunting tells the story of a maths genius, Will Hunting who struggles to come to terms with his past and as a result is unable to make a commitment for fear of being let down. But for me the best scene is where Will confronts a first year grad student who has been belittling his friend Chuckie.

Will: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth…” You got that from Vickers. “Work in Essex County,” Page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us, you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend, you pawn it off as your own, your own idea just to impress some girls? Embarrass my friend?

Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.

Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip. Will: [smiles] Yeah, maybe. But at least I won’t be unoriginal.

This of course challenges the idea that knowledge is the same as thinking. Knowing something is not the same as having manipulated the information in your head, questioned and explored the arguments from many angles, the result should be an opinion, not someone else’s but your own.

Wellington college

And finally to bring my trilogy up to date. Only this week Wellington College who boast George Orwell and Sebastian Faulks as past students announced that have introduced a six-hour interview process to help teachers see beyond children’s over tutoring. They encourage families to spend more quality time instead of having their children tutored, Julian Thomas, Wellington’s head master, said: “When parents ask how should they prepare their children for our selection process, we tell them ‘have supper together and talk as a family; go to plays and good films and discuss them. Help them to think critically about the world around them; enjoy interesting conversations go out for walks and see the world”.

What Wellington are trying to do is encourage behaviours that will help children become thinking adults.

In conclusion

Knowledge like information is becoming increasingly accessible, unlike Germany in 1933 we have no restrictions, the internet has given us that power. But learning is more than knowledge you have to take the facts and make them your own, stitching them together carefully and thoughtfully, and that takes time and a considerable amount of effort. On the whole absorbing information will probably not come as easy to you as it did to Will Hunting, yet even with his genius he only knew what he had read. His learning had in fact only just begun as he went looking for the real life experiences that would test if he really understood anything at all.

Examinations are moving more towards tests that require you to think, asking that you provide an opinion or make recommendations given a set of circumstances, case studies are a good example. Of course you need knowledge as a foundation but the ability to sift quickly through the vast amount of information available may in time become more important than knowledge itself .

Ps apples is taken from Good Will Hunting – “How ya like those apples”



The tip of the iceberg – exam tipping is becoming obsolete


Assessment is changing, there was a time when all examinations were sat in a room, the answers would be hand written on a piece of paper and a retired English teacher would stand at the front reading out instructions as to what you could and couldn’t do in the next three hours.

Not any more…….you request a date that is convenient, turn up at the exam center, no longer is this a sports hall, it might be a driving school test center or the college you studied at. Then you log onto the PC and answer questions on the computer screen in front of you. The results may be immediate; it depends on if it is “human marked” or computer marked.

But in some ways these changes are only the tip of the iceberg!

What no past exam papers.

As examinations move into the digital world we are seeing other changes as well. There is a move towards objective testing, scaled scoring and examining bodies no longer providing past exam papers, what did you say, no past exam papers……!

This is partly down to the nature of the test i.e. you can’t provide an exact replica of a past exam question if it is an objective test. Remember objective test questions are randomly selected from a pool, and are different for each student. But there is also a shift towards some examining bodies only providing an example of the type of questions that could be set rather that a continuous flow of, the last exam papers.

If the test changes – how you study (and teach) has to change

Now for someone who has advocated that students analyse past exam questions in order to identify key areas so as to better direct their studies, this is a bit of a blow. It has also been the method I have used in the past to focus my own delivery in class and on line. Of course using past exam questions has always been much more than just spotting key areas, it is about focus, providing a place to start, showing content in the right context, helping with writing style etc.

There will still be past questions, sample questions will be provided. What we don’t know is how representative they will be of the examination. Or will it be as we have seen in the past with pilot and specimen papers, they change over time, drifting away from the original in terms of style and emphasis. Although I can see the logic in examining bodies not releasing papers, I hope they will continue to keep the sample papers fresh, in keeping with current thinking about the subject and how it will be examined.

What to do?

Students and tutors still need focus, there has to be emphases on key areas in order to chunk the content so that it can be more easily learned, it’s just that we won’t be able to use past questions or at least as much as we have in the past. That emphasis will now have to come from articles written by the examiners, examiner reports and syllabus weightings. If faced with a new subject where there is only one sample paper, it will be necessary to read the guidance from the body closely, noting reference to “this being a key part of the subject” or “one the examiner thought was answered badly in the past.” These together with the syllabus weightings and specific learning outcomes will have to be your guide. It is of course possible that the subject has not changed much from before and so some of the older past question can be used. As far as questions style is concerned then that will have to come from the questions and answers that are published, it may not be ideal but it’s the best we can do.

The overall impact of these changes is that students will have to know more, something that is hard to argue with. Students and tutors alike will have to devote far more time to the subject, which is fine if students have the time and can afford the extra costs involved in longer periods of study.

But it’s not all bad news, new technologies can help students make the most of dead time, studying on the train using their mobile phone for example. Also knowledge is more freely available than ever before as many top institutions provide a huge amount of free easy to access content online.

One final thought, examinations may change and they may not be fair but on the whole they are equal, everyone as before is in the same boat, and someone will always pass, wont they!

The future – Sitting the exam at home?

On line exams

An online student, all be it a mature one shows his ID to the online assessor

And maybe even the exam room will become obsolete. Proctur U is a US based company that also has a presence in the UK offering online invigilation. Watch this video to see how it works and judge for yourself



Video killed my teacher – metaphorically speaking

Video killed the radio star

What did you do the last time you needed to repair, cook or dare I say learn something? Did you google it and follow the link to YouTube? If so you are no different to the over one billion people who actively use YouTube every month.

This blog is not actually about YouTube but the medium of video and the increasingly important role it plays in our daily life and how we use it to learn.



Social learning and the bobo doll

Albert Bandura is the Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and is widely regarded as one of the greatest living psychologists. He is perhaps most famous for his Social learning theory, the theory of how people learn by observing others, and the bobo doll experiment. Click here to listen to Bandura himself explain.

Behavioral theories of learning suggested that all learning was the result of associations formed by conditioning, reinforcement, and even punishment, see Skinner and Pavlov. Bandura’s social learning theory proposed that learning can also occur simply by observing the actions of others. And that is where the true value of video lies, it is in the ability of people to watch what others do and learn from them.

What makes a good learning video?

Firstly, as with any form of delivery it needs to planned and structured. What is the purpose of the video, why use video and not send an email? Think about the audience, why will they want to watch it, what makes it relevant for them? Break it into three sections, a beginning, where you tell the audience what you are going to tell them, the middle, where you actually tell them, and the end where you tell them what you have told them.

Secondly It has to be relatively short, 10 minutes is a maximum. Even 6 minutes of good video takes a lot of planning, equally it wont test concentration levels too much. This does not mean you can’t record many hours of video, it just needs to be chunked, labeled and structured so it can be easily followed.

And lastly think about your delivery. Pace, tone of voice and body language all help the learner. This is where you manage the mood of your audience, if your happy they will be happy. Generally, speak more slowly than you would normally but be careful toooo slowww can be boring, vary how you say something depending on what you’re saying. Also think about the visuals and if it would be better to show an image rather than talk. But don’t go mad and put too much on screen all at the same time, it gets confusing.

Examples of good video 

But of course the best way to explain the power of video in learning is to show the videos.

1.The queen of cooking Delia is also the expert of slow deliberate, perfectly planned presenting. Here she explains how to cook an omelet, notice the attention to detail.  Ps Delia left school at 16 without a single GCE O-level. 3.43 minutes in length.

2.Here is someone who breaks the presenting rules, certainly the one that says don’t talk too fast. However, CGP Grey is great at using visuals, his dialogue is fast but incredibly informative, its packed with information, and it’s funny. If you are confused by the US elections, you won’t be after watching this.  5.19 minutes in length.

3.Crash course is a little like Khan academy which I have written before, what makes it different is the humour and how it is shot to camera using powerful visuals. Watch this clip if you want to learn about supply and demand. This pushes the boundaries time wise at 10.21 minutes.

4.This is the big one certainly as far as hits are concerned. James Stevens, Vsauceis watched by 19 million people. This one answers the questions as to, what would happen if everyone jumped at once? 7.12 minutes in length.