Brain Food

This last week I have been very fortunate to spend an illuminating time at the Girls’ School Association Heads’ Conference.  We were entertained, educated and learnt much from a variety of world class speakers, including JoAnn Deake, an eminent psychologist who has spent much time studying the neurological patterns of the brain, understanding how girls learn most effectively.

During the first ten years of a girl’s life her brain is growing neurons and the role of learning is to enable the dendrites in the neurons to connect. These connections are vitally important for the intellectual development of the human being; the more connections made the easier it is to learn. These connections take time to form and when a girls find a problem hard it means the connections have not ‘yet’ been made. ‘Yet’ is the important word as girls need to be encouraged to persevere when the problems are hard, as she works through the problem the connections start to occur. Too often girls dismiss themselves as not been able to solve the problem because they are not clever enough when this is not the case. They need to work at the problem for the connections to happen. We need to constantly encourage our girls to persist when the work becomes difficult, not allowing them to believe they have plateaued but instead teaching them to appreciate that hard work and perseverance is needed to make the connections and for the problem to be solved.

JoAnn Deake highlighted that these connections are made in the first ten years of a girl’s life, in the second ten years these connections need to be built upon. If the connections are not reused they will be stripped back. As the adage goes ‘it you don’t use it, the brain prunes it’. This has implications for learning, if girls are allowed to drop things too early the brain will forget how to do it and it will take decades to restore. Trying learning a foreign language or a musical instrument past the age of 30, it is far more difficult than at the age of 10.

This raises important questions for the curriculum. At what age should girls drop subjects? In the UK this happens at 16 when they embark on a narrow diet of A Levels. In most other English speaking countries, pupils continue with English, Modern Foreign Language, a Science and Maths to the age of 18. Still stretching the brain in a range of areas rather than allowing that development to stop. It is a powerful argument for International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme which insists that pupils study six subjects, which includes all of the above. Its CAS programme also ensures creativity is sustained.

JoAnn Deake’s talk was very powerful in understanding the teenage brain, but for me it again helped reinforce the educational value of IB which is why we are so proud as a school to be offering it.

“uBuntu”

I have commented in previous blogs that as Heads we are very privileged to be given the opportunity to travel to conferences and hear world class speakers discuss their views on education. Last week was no exception. I was invited to attend a conference in Amsterdam for Head teachers of IB World Schools. I was the only Head from a UK school and it was indeed humbling to hear of their experiences in a wide variety of schools from war torn Beirut, a school in Kenya, and schools in Estonia, Turkey, Russia to name just a few.

The IB Diploma Programme is extraordinary. It connects you with people all over the world. As a result of the conference, I have now been invited to an International School in Lausanne, to look at their use of iPads. We have already shared good practice on the use of iPads in the classroom and exchanged policies on effective ways of implementing them. I have made links with a school in Kenya to discuss the potential of linking a CAS project with work their school is doing in Kenya and I have been invited to Beirut to see how their school is working hard with their children to bring the different factions together. I was particularly moved to hear a Head from Panama talk about the community work they are undertaking through their CAS programme, an integral element of the Diploma that requires students to actively connect and contribute to their local community. That year the school had chosen to support a local street dwelling community with each student tasked with collecting seeds and finding animals to help the community establish a small holding from which the locals would learn to farm and provide food for their families.

Meeting such a globally diverse group of individuals served to remind me of the richness of the IB Diploma and how its international outlook underpins the core of its philosophy. It was a pleasure to hear my contemporaries discuss the varying issues facing their schools and it was hard not to be impressed by the fluency of their English, knowing that for many this was their third or even forth language. Through its international mindedness the IB encourages its students to look out and connect with the world around them, to start to understand that across the world our differences are often smaller than our similarities; that as humans we all share the common need for food, shelter, companionship and love.

At Nelson Mandela’s memorial service President Obama stated that Mandela embodied the South African philosophy of “uBuntu” – the idea that humanity is bound together and it is expressed by people caring for one another. Translated it means “I am because you are”. IB’s philosophy is the same – it encourages students to use their education to make the world a better place. We were constantly reminded of this at the conference and I was proud to be able to tell other Heads what our Sixth Form had achieved and I look forward to sharing this with them when they take up my invitation to visit BGS.

Conversations about A Level reform

Much has been in the press recently about the government’s decision to return to a more traditional A Level course with just one examination at the end of Year 13. Under the new system, AS levels will still exist but they will become stand-alone qualifications and will no longer serve as a modular component of A level. 

A number of parents have asked me this week what my thoughts are on the subject and what these changes mean for BGS girls. I am personally delighted that we are doing away with this modular mode of study and believe our girls will greatly benefit from the proposed changes.One of the major problems of modules is that far too much time is spent taking and retaking them. Even when the girls perform extremely well the first time, they are often determined to retake them in an effort to gain even higher marks. For some, it stops them performing to their very best the first time because they feel they have a second chance. I can’t help but feel that this doesn’t offer young women the best preparation for university or for life and, therefore, doesn’t sit well with our core aims and philosophy. 

I believe firmly in the importance of co-curricular interests in shaping well-rounded, capable and compassionate individuals who are equipped for their life ahead. By removing the pressure of modules throughout Year 12, we can enable pupils to start to engage in proper co-curricular activities. They can enter competitions, set up their own business, work in the community, take part in sport, join the choir and enjoy their Sixth Form experience. Hitherto, while this has been possible for girls studying IB at Bedford Girls’ School it has been increasingly difficult to ensure A Level students are able to make the most of every aspect of their Sixth Form experience beyond the classroom.   

Another question many people are asking is whether Mathematics and English will become compulsory in the Sixth Form as the school-leaving age rises to 18? If so, will the Sixth Form curriculum become more akin to the IB Diploma Programme? While this is of concern to some Heads, I am confident that our school is extremely well-prepared to ride the sea of change and we already offer a well-established and successful IB Diploma alongside A Levels.  

IB is, of course, outside of the impact of national politics so will not itself become subject to a similar programme of government reform. As well as provoking the positive outcomes for girls I’ve outlined above, I also hope that these recent changes in the A Level system will cause people to look afresh at IB and the Diploma Programme with its aims of consistently educating pupils for life and a better world.