What is special about these students?
They all got straight A* grades across all their A level subjects. But what is special about them that enabled them to do that? And what is special about the other 80 who got a mixture of A and A* grades?
Are they super-humanly intelligent? Is there anything the rest of us ‘mere mortals’ can learn from them?
I have been thinking about them and their achievements. I believe that they are not super-people, not geniuses, and it is not just natural intelligence that gave them their A*s. In fact, I believe that any of our students could emulate their success and achieve at least straight A grades.
There are three factors, I think, that contributed to their success:
1) They are into their subjects. They want to know more about the subject, soak up new knowledge, interested in connections between different topics. They read relevant articles and books, watch TV programmes or videos, undertake additional reading just out of interest. Being into your subject looks different for different subjects (in my subject – maths – it doesn’t involve much reading!), but you get the idea.
Now the key thing here is that we can all be into our subjects in that way, because it’s a frame of mind. After all, let’s be honest, every single subject is intrinsically interesting; there are legions of people who follow every subject as a hobby or passion or job. How could anyone say that history, for example is boring? Millions of people read books of history, watch documentaries, visit websites to find out more: how can it be boring?
My partner loves museums. More than I do. When we are on holiday, she always wants to visit museums, and I am often not keen. For example, in the Lake District one time, she wanted to visit the pencil museum in Keswick whilst I wanted to go walking (although, to be fair, we had been walking for five straight days at that point). But seriously, a pencil museum? So, when we visited the museum, I might easily have closed my mind to it, determined that it would prove to be dull, keen to uphold my self-image as the kind of person who doesn’t find pencil museums interesting. But actually, on that day, we had been having a good time and I was feeling positive, so I went in with an open mind, prepared to be engaged. And – of course – it was great. You can learn a lot about the history and culture of people through pencils. There were loads of fascinating exhibits (like the WW2 airman’s pencil where the rubber at the end screws off to reveal a miniature compass on the inside and a map of Europe smuggled inside in case they get shot down). In a sense, it came down to my choice whether to adopt a frame of mind to be interested or bored; on that occasion, I chose to be interested, on another I might have chosen to be bored and I would have missed out.
A level subjects are the same – it’s about your attitude. If you find it boring, it is actually you that is being boring, you who have closed your mind, you who have decided not to be engaged. Being into your subject might look and feel different in different subjects, but in all subjects it is a matter of your attitude.
2) A* students work hard. They do all their work to the best of their ability in the appropriate time frame. They don’t leave things to the last minute. If they are absent, they catch up. They work hard for tests and assessment because they see them as an opportunity to gauge where they are. They do extra work, extra reading, extension materials, and they use their free periods well. They regard themselves as a full time professional student and their academic work is their priority. This doesn’t mean they do nothing but work; it doesn’t mean they don’t have an active social life and other interests; they are not perfect people. But they have a desire not to fall behind, an internal drive to make sure they understand everything and are confident and on top of their learning. All this is a matter of attitude.
3) I was talking with one of our straight A* students, and she said that she reckons about 50% of the work that most students do is not actually helpful to their progress. They are wasting their time and not concentrating on the most important types of work. Successful A* students don’t run away from challenge, and they don’t spend their working time doing easy stuff inside their comfort zone. They know that if they are not thinking hard, then it is not valuable work. So when they find something hard (which they often do), when they don’t do as well as they wanted in a homework or test, when they identify a topic as a weak point, they concentrate their time and energy on it. They do extra work on it. They go over the homework/test questions again. They don’t just read, and highlight and copy out notes; instead they test themselves against hard questions, they write essays and essay plans; they do past paper questions, concentrating on their weaker areas.
I teach maths. Every homework, I get some students who hand in their work with some questions missing. When I ask, they say they couldn’t do it. So they give up, they hand it in incomplete. I explain it to them, they nod, and move on. Such students will never get a high grade. A and A* students don’t give up; they spend hours or days on a single question. They look in the text book (or elsewhere) for extra questions on that topic to test that they have truly got it. They are like many of us adults who do crosswords or sudukos for fun – we enjoy the challenge and we don’t easily give up. We get satisfaction from that eventual light bulb of enlightenment. This intellectual resilience – not giving up, trying different strategies, determined to get there in the end – has a cumulative impact that means they become better, more effective learners and they rise on a steep curve of progress, whereas those who give up just flatline. This is also a question of attitude.
So, what marks our A* students from the rest? Not intelligence, attitude.
It’s not easy to change and to adopt the right approach. I have been trying to lose weight; it’s very straightforward, I know what I have to do: eat less, drink less and exercise more. Easy. But actually doing it, that’s the challenge, and it’s proving harder than I would like. So knowing what you have to do is one thing, doing it is another.
If a student is motivated, if they want to go to a particular university or course, if they want their family to be proud, if they want to be proud of themselves, then they have to get it together find the motivation, to commit to the right attitude, the right approach. They have to walk the walk, all year.
I believe every single one of our students can get straight A grades next summer. I say that based on 30 years teaching experience: every one of our students has the intelligence and ability. So I say to all our lower sixth and upper sixth students, if you want straight A grades, you should believe in yourself; you can do it. You will need to:
– make the decision that you are going for it
– be clear exactly what you need to do
– get on and do it