02 Feb 2018

Alex Hems: Head's Blog Feb 2, 2018

A2.SMY AlexHems096 Crop 250wIn the last couple of weeks I have been speaking in assembly about the less than glamorous topic of the virtues of hard work and the links between achievement and the time and commitment invested. Anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers will be familiar with the idea that 10,000 hours of practice or experience are necessary in order to achieve success on the global stage, whatever the field. Gladwell explores a number of  contributory factors in success: being born at the right time, when social and economic conditions are favourable to one's particular area of expertise; opportunity; cultural legacy; the influence of upbringing. Underlying all of these factors, however, is the need for 10,000 hours of practice.

I was keen to make the point when speaking to the school that most of us will not become world class performers of whatever kind, but that our efforts and achievements are still worthwhile nonetheless. School life is the richer for the contributions of the many who join in, rehearse in the choir or the second violins, play in the third or fourth teams for the school or in their year group or volunteer to help out when we have visitors. Of course we rejoice in success in competitions, examinations, races, tournaments, performances of every kind, because we are proud of our students' achievements and their commitment, but as school we also put a high value on participation for its own sake. This is a central tenet of our ethos. While I hope that everyone at St George's sets high standards for themselves, success measured by objective criteria is only one reason for getting involved with any activity or undertaking. We do things for the challenge, for fun, because we enjoy a shared endeavour, because we hope to learn something new. 

One of the chapters in Outliers explores what we can learn from the TIMMS international mathematics tests (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), taken in countries across the world every four years. As part of these tests, students are also required to complete a questionnaire containing around 120 questions, asking them about the level of education that their parents have, what they think of maths, what their friends are like for example. Plenty of of students actually get so bored with these questions that they skip some of them out. The average number of questions answered on the questionnaire varies from country to country, as does the average score in the mathematics test. Gladwell explains that the curious thing is that a table drawn up of all the countries according to how many questions their students answered in the questionnaire shows identical results to a table of average scores in the test. It would seem that the students who are prepared to plough through the whole list of 120 questions in the questionnaire, are also the ones who are most successful in the test. What this might suggest is that ability in maths is directly related to how willing a person is to persist or to put time into solving a problem. We speak so often as though ability is something that we are born with and is immutable, but this set of results would seem to suggest something different – that while there are of course some people who do find certain concepts easier to understand, or who enjoy certain kinds of work more than other people do, fundamentally the key to success in mathematics, at a certain level at least, is how long you are prepared to work at a task to arrive at an answer.

For our students who are just emerging from their mock examinations and getting papers back at the moment, I hope this is an encouraging message. Success might mean something different for each of them but the key point is that everyone should know that it is within her power to make a difference over the next few months.

Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls

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