From the Head - Headmaster's Newsletter 17 February 2019

Dear Parents and friends of Hilton,

Owning one’s learning!

Cognitive development is the term given to one’s progress in learning. We all develop cognitively and reach varying degrees of proficiency in our capacity to learn certain concepts at different times along this learning journey. Some of us grasp particular concepts earlier and more quickly at younger ages; others of us grasp these concepts later when we are older. This learning journey is peculiar to every individual.

Importantly, and critically, every person thinks perfectly at their particular stage of cognitive development. Strangely, society believes that we should all arrive at similar levels of understanding at similar stages in our lives - quite a bizarre expectation really.

Schools run the risk of thinking and measuring their pupils along similar lines. The notion of a ‘grade average’ is fascinating, if not frightening, in this regard. We find a strange comfort in knowing whether we are above average at something, rather than enquiring as to our own level of understanding of a particular concept - at a particular time in our development - outside of the parameters of the group.

Learning is about developing a deeper and better understanding of a certain concept over time. Schooling should be about unlocking this understanding through encouraging young people to discover more and to master certain aspects of their newfound understanding such that they can build on this knowledge as their cognitive development matures.

There is much to discuss about learning and, as educators, we read the research on what works best and why; it is indeed our life’s work.

My purpose of this particular newsletter is to alert you to one of the most significant aspects of your son’s learning journey: ownership.

Ownership of one’s own learning journey is arguably one of the most significant keys to ensuring academic success at school and beyond. If we relate this to a sporting code, the purpose of practising a particular skill is to ensure we can execute this on match day. Boys spend hours and hours trying to master their proficiency with a ball, bat, racquet, oar or club - in many ways this comes naturally to our gender, we know we get huge kudos from those around us for these beautiful skills. South African society, in particular, rewards us for this - perhaps disproportionately?

Learning is less sexy!

Perhaps this is where change is needed. A marketing campaign like no other…

Ownership of learning begins with boys recognising that it is up to themselves. No teacher, however gifted and charismatic, can replace the effort required from the individual learner. To be sure, great teachers (of whom we have many) inspire and lay the foundations for learning, but understanding comes through hard work and hours of focus by individuals. There are no short cuts.

One of the characteristics of secondary schooling over the past few years has been the mushrooming of extra lessons. I will choose my words carefully here as I do not want to be misunderstood: to be sure, some boys do require a teacher to assist them with consolidation of work already covered in the classroom, perhaps because the teacher has moved through a section too quickly or because a different explanation unlocks better understanding. It appears, however, to many of us in formal education circles, that the practice of engaging extra lessons teachers for many has become a substitute for hard, focussed, attentive work by individual students. Although it may be easier to have someone re-explain work, it may be preferable for the individual to endure a measure of struggle to unlock a better understanding of a concept or section of work on his or her own.

Extra lessons can (and have in many cases) become a substitute for dedicated practice and deeper work. When one hears of a boy suggesting that he needn’t concentrate in class as his extra lessons teacher will explain it to him later in the day or week, or when one observes a boy disregarding time allocated to work on his own as he knows that his extra lessons teacher will ‘catch him up’ later, one does wonder about the necessity of the extra?

I advocate ownership of learning - this remains one of the most striking determinants of success whilst at school and through tertiary study. Extra lessons can undermine this critical aspect of the learning process when employed too easily and without careful consideration. 

My advice is for you to engage your son’s teacher as a first port of call. This engagement should include asking the teacher how best you can assist your son’s academic achievement in his or her subject area. Questions about his commitment to his learning in that particular subject are essential first. If the response regarding his commitment and focus is dubious, then extra lessons are not the most appropriate intervention.

Importantly, cognitive development is absolutely individualised. Every boy develops at his own pace and thinks perfectly at his station along this journey. Encouraging your son to make his learning his own includes establishing a strong sense of accountability. Our young men can be brutally honest about their efforts in their learning journey - hold them to account. 

I raise this touchy subject as I believe in raising boys who will prioritise learning for themselves, such that they will succeed later on when there is no teacher available in the school of life. 

Hilton teachers pride themselves in their ability and determination to guide your son to the best end result he can attain. I hold them to account in this endeavour. A good example of this guidance is illustrated by one of our teachers who requested a Matric boy to improve upon a piece of work which was graded an A as this teacher knew full well that the student was capable of handing in work that could be graded an A+; the Matric begrudgingly redid the assignment, which was then graded an A+, and ended up being in the top 1% of candidates nationally in that subject last year. A culture of reliance on external extra lessons can undermine this resolve when boys are dismissive of their ‘regular’ teacher in favour of their ‘extra lessons’ teacher. When extra lessons are required, both teachers will work in tandem to assist your son achieve his best result. In many instances the support classes Hilton College teachers offer are adequate and preferable instead of employing an external extra lessons teacher.

Importantly, and on this note, all extra lessons teachers (if they operate at Hilton College) need to be vetted by the HOD of that particular subject. This has been our practice for a number of years now and we believe it is especially helpful. It also forces a parent to engage the HOD in a conversation around whether extra lessons are required and whether the suggested extra lessons teacher is indeed appropriate.

I want every boy to achieve his best possible result at every important milestone in his schooling career: this is part of our endeavour to unlock a plan for every boy. This begins with your son’s commitment to his learning, a commitment to owning this aspect of his development in much the same way as he does on the court, in the pool, on the course or on the field. May I ask you to engage with your son’s teacher should you be concerned as to his progress; together we can ensure every boy succeeds as he takes ownership of his learning.

Sincerely, 
George

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