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When learning becomes wisdom

Published on 04/02/20

Have you ever thought what it takes to perform well in an exam? Our record number of candidates for 11+ entry clearly had, judging by the impressive performances in their entry tests. But when looking at the approach different pupils take to different subjects, it is important to recognise that different techniques suit different pupils. I have always believed in emphasising the importance of not working, as well as working. We have all reached a stage when we have been staring for so long and hard at information, that we have stopped taking it in.  It is only by taking some time to rest, that you can become conscious of the periods when you are working most proactively.

If you take a look in most dictionaries, you will find wisdom defined as the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments. Wearing my dad hat, I attended a parents’ evening recently - it provided a wonderful reminder that we must consider not only that we are working hard, but also that we must be confident that the way we are working is the most effective for us.

For example, it is extremely worthwhile to study your notes and your books and to produce prompt cards (or notes as I would have called them as a pupil) which concisely set out the key facts in a fashion that, when reviewed, remind you of the fuller detail of the arguments or methods you have learned. Of course, there are entrepreneurs who have recognised the value of prompt cards and who sell them online. For me as a learner, it was the act of writing these cards which helped to imbed the knowledge deep in my mind. For others, that step is not so challenging and they lose nothing from acquiring pre-written prompt cards.

GCSEs and A levels are not just about learning by rote, though there are many facts, dates, quotes and formulae to commit to memory. Public exams are mostly about interpretation and development - thinking on your feet. For instance, you may have learnt every mathematical formula in the syllabus but the challenge within an examination is to recognise that you need to use several, one after another, to get the answer.  The skill is not to be thrown off course in working out what you are trying to do. Likewise, any English literature examination essay will require the insertion of appropriate quotes but the question you are actually answering will require you to use relevant literary quotes as a tool in answering the question, and therein is the second skill: learning to answer the question.

Why was the parents’ evening I attended so enlightening? Because it reminded a pupil who had been working extremely well at compressing notes into revision cards that it was now the moment to shift focus from learning the notes towards applying them. Only by practising how to answer questions, and reflecting critically upon how you could improve, will you really learn to take the right decisions about how best to craft your answer. The parallel to life beyond exams is equally clear – the benefit of experience counts - the lessons learnt from any apparent failure in life are sometimes the life lessons which enable us to thrive.

Mr William Brierly
Headmaster