Over the course of this term, I have been writing about what we mean by academic growth at Trinity. I have suggested there are four intertwined aspects of what it means to grow, and understand yourself, as a confident and competent learner. At Trinity we promote and support individual growth in each boy in terms of:
- His capacity for deliberate engagement
- His skills to manage deep learning
- His disposition to embrace challenge
- His expanding repertoire of what he knows, understands and can do
This week, I would like to think about our students’ dispositions to embrace challenge. The term ‘learning dispositions’, sometimes called ‘habits of mind’, refers to the ways in which learners engage in and relate to the learning process. Learning dispositions affect how students approach learning and therefore the outcomes of their learning. To me, the term ‘disposition’ represents a quality far more deliberate than a trait or characteristic, which can sometimes be thought of as an inherent aspect of personality; learning dispositions are attitudes and values that can be cultivated and improved with deliberate behaviours.
While there is a plethora of research about different dispositions, there is consensus about the importance of the learning dispositions furthering skills, engagement and deep understanding. Trinity attempts to capture some of these dispositions in the engagement behaviours we report in Semester Learning Progress Reports, but there is one disposition we have purposefully highlighted: the disposition to be persistent and embrace challenge.
The NSW Department of Education talks about persistence in this way:
Persistent students stick to a task until it is completed and don’t give up easily. They are able to analyse a problem, and develop a system, structure or strategy to attack it. They have a repertoire of alternative strategies for problem solving and are comfortable in employing a wide range of these strategies for the one task. These students often have systematic methods for analysing a problem and are comfortable in ambiguous situations. Persistence is a key attribute for students to develop as it encourages a positive attitude towards tasks and a resilience for examining different ways a problem can be solved, rather than just giving up at the first sign of failure. This resilience is undeniably a necessary skill that students needs for success in the 21st century.
It is not easy to be persistent in the face of academic challenges; it is even more difficult to actually seek out, to learn to love and embrace this kind of challenge. Students who regularly perform at high levels on tasks that don’t stretch them academically may become uncomfortable when they are asked to step into more complex and demanding curriculum, and students who are regularly asked to perform tasks beyond their current knowledge and skills will find it difficult to persist. Trinity teachers collaborate regularly around the concept of learning design: strategising to ensure all learners in a class have access to opportunities that acknowledge their current knowledge and skills, and challenge them to move further along the learning continuum. Students can be supported by teachers to develop the general disposition to embrace challenge.
One example of the way in which Trinity supports HSC students to embrace challenge is our policy requiring every Year 11 student to step into an Extension level course or the accelerated Studies of Religion Course (SOR requires students to complete the single unit HSC course in one year and sit for the HSC examination at the end of Year 11). Both these opportunities are about supporting boys to set ambitious goals and step up into challenge. Many students at the end of Year 10 don’t actually know the challenge they are capable to manage; we adopt the philosophy that the School is here to help them work that out! While the HSC offers wide choice about courses and numbers of units to be pursued, at Trinity we require students to shape challenging programmes of study – because we believe there is more within them than they currently recognise. Teachers work to design learning within Extension and Accelerated courses in ways that meet students at their current point of challenge and then extend them. It is a delight to me that while many boys begin Extension courses in Year 11 because they have to, they choose to continue to study at this challenging level, not just because they know it is ‘good for their ATAR’, but because they enjoy the kind of success that comes with knowing you have given your best to master demanding academic content.
So, what can parents do to support their sons’ growth in this disposition to embrace academic challenge? I can offer these suggestions:
- focus on the long game of your son’s disposition rather than the short game of a single assessment task result
- acknowledge that academic challenge is always accompanied by feelings of uncertainty and discomfort at the beginning of the process
- encourage your son to do something concrete in response to these feelings: make a plan, get some feedback, try a strategy, then try an alternative strategy
- celebrate the times when your son succeeds in something that was hard for him, rather than when he receives a high mark for something that was easy for him
Deborah Williams | Academic Dean