How we learn and what makes us tick

BEDLatLess-116
By Josh Mazas, 6.2

I wanted to share some thoughts on what I have personally found make people act the way they do, with a touch on how great a Bedalian education is.

When I say “what makes us tick” I mean the most basic subconscious motivators. Not for example, money, power, or because mum tells you to. These are important, but they apply individually, and I would be more interested in the factors beneath those – in those that apply universally.

Also, I’m only at the very initial thoughts on what I think is education and behavioural studies. In fact, most people would usually stand up and tell the audience why they’re qualified to talk on education and behavioural studies… I’m not qualified to do anything much. I have however, been at this school for a decade now, well over half of the 14-odd years I’ve spent in education. And what I wanted to do was just share a personal fascination that I think was born of going to a school that aims to be slightly different – questioning the status quo.

A few years ago, after some deep soul-searching, I diagnosed myself as a compulsive people-watcher. I find watching the infinitely varied way in which people behave and trying to understand why, fascinating. So to start with, I will spend a bit of time talking about a four-year-old friend of mine, Badger.

Badger: 1. Valorisation

The great thing about kids is that they are psychologically untouched. They don’t have any of the complexities or self-awareness of an adult that comes from scepticism and experiences and growing up, and so when I’m people-watching, it’s like their actions are a clear window into their mind-set.

Well, a couple of weekends ago I spent some time watching Badger interacting with his natural habitat at Common People music festival with his parents and all the other people we were working with. The first evening he stood on the circle of logs around the campfire and jumped from one to the other, and when he did a particularly big jump, we cheered him, which I can tell you made him very happy. The next evening he went back to the logs and did some jumping, but this time he looked at us expectantly, clearly waiting for the applause that his daring feats of acrobatics deserved. Which of course, with his chubby cheeks and bright blue eyes, he got.

As I was watching, I was struck by how much of the time, we do things because people tell us they have value, when in the larger scheme of things, they are about as significant as Badger’s hops. It was clear to me that the really basic reason that Badger was doing his hopping (which can be transferred to many other things we do) is for one of three basic reasons, the first of which I would call ‘valorisation’.

The concept is very simple. Throughout our childhoods, if we have good parents and peers who support us emotionally, then we are applauded for certain things: academic, creative and sporting feats, altruistic behaviour and generally what we think of as those acts that have ‘value’.

It’s funny, because this idea of value is completely arbitrary: we think of an action as having value if it’s worth doing. And we do stuff because we feel it has value. This tautology means that, to an extent, goodness is trained into us: we say that we inherited the creative/sporty/maths genes from our parents, but I think it’s more like our parents applaud traits they find in themselves, and thus you are subconsciously trained to be like them, with no genetic predisposition.

Anyway, when I consider the basic reasons that make us do things: work hard; be friendly; eat your greens; I think it stems at its most basic level from this idea of valorisation. Which means that although we don’t think of ourselves usually in this way, we are each individually programmed by our parents’ conscious and subconscious valorisation, as well as the valorisation we receive from our surroundings. But of course, that’s not where all our ‘ticking’ comes from.

Badger: 2. Copying and integrating

Back to Badger. The day after his log-jumping Olympic gold, Badger was following his mum Kate around, and she was walking round the campsite just dancing to the reggae-dub that was playing on the mainstage, so he started bopping with her. It was interesting because he initially watched her carefully, trying to replicate her exact movements, until the moment of realisation that her incomprehensible spasms were actually linked to the beat that was incessantly playing. You could see the comprehension as we went from dancing completely out of tune, to focussing inwards and rocking to the music with much happiness, jamming along with glee and pride, bigger and bigger moves… until he whacked his head on one of the poles.

Poor Badger.

The next basic motivator then, I thought, was clear throughout much of the animal kingdom; especially monkeys, and it was simply: copying. As an evolutionary mechanism, it makes a lot of sense, you copy your peers or people you aspire to be in order to learn from them, and improve yourself.

This is actually a vital part of initial learning, until we learn to think for ourselves, which is why you have to be super careful about what you do or say around kids. They are incredible at picking up on what you do and copying you. Without their talent in this field we wouldn’t be able to learn to speak, or eat, or any very basic communication skills.

You can also see it subconsciously in large groups of people, shoals of fish, and young Tory voters. “My parents are Tory, I’ll vote Conservative”. It’s amazing how much more likely you are to dance if other people are dancing, this feeling of copying people so as not to be different, to blend in, be part of the crowd is something we all experience, and isn’t always positive.

Anyway, so I think you’ve probably grasped quite easily the first two obvious factors of motivation: valorisation and the innate urge to copy. The third one is my favourite, and I think that between these three you can argue that they cover all the things we do in our lives, in general.

Badger: 3. Wonder

This is the last time I will mention Badger: when I woke up on the last day of the festival, I found him sitting on a stool, pouring water very gently over this little spider web and seeing how it made little droplets that sparkled in the about 11:30 sunshine. He was completely enthralled, and 100% focussed, as he was when dancing or log-hopping. It was wonderful to see.

I took the liberty of joining him in his experiments, and for some brief moments felt the same wonder at seeing the water trickle over such a delicate structure without breaking it.

Although I’m pretty certain Badger wasn’t engrossed specifically by the tensile strength of natural fibres; I thought it was clear we both felt an urge to experiment; to explore our own capabilities; to find out about the world and how it worked. I would argue that it’s the same instinct that makes people want to study at higher education, or take a course in some long-lost art, or climb K2 (the most dangerous mountain in the world to date I believe).

On reflection, I wondered again about the evolutionary perspective on this final factor, and I thought that it was deep down probably linked to fear. Fear is arguably our most innate sensation, all animals have it and it helps us to survive. When discovering something or doing something new, whether physical or mental, you gain knowledge or strength or a skill. This we can essentially call a ‘strength’. Every time you gain a strength, you feel better prepared to survive in a world that is quintessentially frightening. You feel, every time you embark on a discovery, a sense of self-betterment, which is why we have this built into us.

This is my favourite factor, as I said, because it serves us better than the two other factors. If someone tells us to do something, or just simply does something, we are initially at an advantage if we do that thing; but in a more developed world it is absolutely vital to curate and encourage the third factor, which I would like to call innate curiosity.

Bedales

Finally, a couple of quick words about Bedales. Although you may not agree, I think the wonderful thing about this school is embodied in how it approaches the three factors I have just discussed.

Firstly, the incredible amount of valorisation by the teachers is perfect for creating a self-confidence in the student body, a pride in one’s own abilities and also a willingness to do what is good, since we valorise things such as hard work, appreciation of self and others; respect; work of each for weal of all etc. I have a friend who was badly bullied before he joined, and remember vividly how he cried on his first day – such was his lack of confidence. However, through constant support and valorisation, he is now not only proud of his achievements, himself and his beautiful girlfriend, but also feels prepared emotionally for whatever is coming in the next few years.

However, in terms of the second motivator (copying), we find Bedales’ ethos rebels slightly. Bedales is a great advocate of individuality. Which precisely rejects that innate urge to do like everyone else and copy blindly until you understand why. The problem with the second motivator in our contemporary society is that much of what people do is pointless; due to the speed at which attitudes and cultures and even simply geographical positioning changes. In my opinion this is an excellent way to create ‘intelligent thinkers’; people who surpass their basic internal forces to rationally consider their options before doing them. Again, I would say Bedales has struck gold.

Finally, and I’m sure you know what I’m going to say, Bedales – as it says on the website – encourages ‘inquisitive thinkers’. I think we can all agree that this inquisitive, curious, appetite for something different is incredibly valued and valuable at Bedales; it could be considered a trait comparable to or intrinsically linked with (depending on how you see it) creativity. Sir Ken Robinson said it, and I agree, we must cultivate creativity in our schools with the same importance as mathematics or English.

You need creativity to approach the uncertain future we have ahead of us with success. And actually, I would say that Bedales, to a certain extent, is also pretty accomplished in this area too.

Before I finish, I would like to go back to the beginning point about ‘people-watching’. It is fascinating and although you may think what you like about my observations, they come from a completely free and personally tailored form of learning. The integral aim of people-watching is to not only learn about other people, but to stretch your own perspective and learn about yourself. I would highly recommend it.

Students and buyers remorse – the case for liberal arts degrees

By Vikki Alderson-Smart, Head of Professional Guidance

A recent survey of university students conducted by the website The Student Room found that nearly a fifth regret their choice of degree, with even more saying that they would have chosen differently had they been given a second chance.

These findings are far from unique. In 2016, a survey of A level students conducted by Which? found that around three in ten wish they had chosen different A level subjects. Only half felt sufficiently informed about how their A levels might affect their choice of university or choice of course, and three in ten said that advice they were given when choosing their A levels failed to take into account how their subject options might affect their degree and university choices.

As a teacher with a specialist professional guidance role, these new findings grab my attention – not least as many of those students expressing disappointment cite a lack of initial research as the main cause. Careers advice in schools has long been criticised as patchy – not least by Ofsted, who in 2013 reported that only one in five schools were effective in ensuring that all students were receiving the level of information they needed. On the surface of it, then, it sounds like this may be a fairly straightforward failing on the part of school careers guidance practitioners and the schools that employ them. However, it would be wise for us to pause before pulling the trigger.

I am fortunate to be part of the Bedales Professional Guidance Department which provides a highly-structured Higher Education (HE) pathway for sixth form students. However, making good choices also requires an investment on the part of the student. To this end, we encourage them to make use of a wide range or resources when selecting courses. University taster days, where a student can experience a day in the life in a wide range of subjects can help when deciding between courses. Futurelearn is an excellent source for students to access free online courses as another way of trying out various subjects. Our 6.1’s (lower sixth) participate in the Centigrade programme which aims to match a student’s interests with HE courses, hopefully opening their eyes to options not previously thought about. Bedales also subscribes to Unifrog – a wonderful resource that is a comparison website for university courses. It collates available data – subject requirements, typical grade offers, league table and student satisfaction scores, tuition and teaching provision, and much more. No less usefully, it allows students to calibrate their progress against what is available to them, and so make realistic choices.

Does this guarantee that our students make decisions that are right for them? Well, for those who are clear about their direction and highly motivated it is a great help, but for others the picture can be less straightforward. In my experience, about 70% of any lower sixth year group at the start of the spring term, will know broadly what they want to do, with about 20% of the cohort very clear about subjects and institutions, and how they plan to realise their goals. The remaining students tend to be pretty vague in comparison – their direction might extend towards doing one of the humanities, but with little preference as to where. Around 5-10% of the cohort will have no clear idea.

It is tempting to assume that students will make best use of what we make available to them. However, whilst at key points some want a great deal of my time, others actively avoid 1-to-1 guidance sessions with me and give resources a wide berth.

We must be wary, then, in assuming that students’ A level and university choices directly reflect the quality of careers and HE guidance available to them. And even when this is the case, things don’t always go to plan. For example, it is difficult to foresee that continuing a subject in which they had done well at GCSE may prove to be too much of a stretch for some, or that non-educational factors may change the picture for them. Working with such uncertainties is one of the ways in which we careers guidance specialists must earn our corn.

There are various approaches we can take to helping the undecided to ensure that they make sound choices for A level and university destinations. For example, we might steer them towards facilitating A level subjects which have admissions currency across a range of courses. More specifically, we may encourage those who are less than firm in their university preferences to consider applying after they have received their A level results. This removes at least some of the uncertainty from the process for them, and buys them more time to research.

For those who are struggling to identify a specialism, we might make a point of highlighting the availability of liberal arts degrees which, initially at least, see students pursue a wider range of subject options thus allowing extra time to settle on their passion. Such programmes are well established in the US, Canada and Europe, and an interesting new development has been the rising enthusiasm in UK universities for this approach.

Sound advice from school careers staff is very important, of course, but I sometimes wonder whether we might be better advised to structure HE in a way that doesn’t require all young people to settle on a specialism quite so early.