I wasn’t the ‘brightest’ of kids at school. I was good at Art. I could keep my head above water with Maths and Science. But everything else was pretty grim and I wasn’t happy about it.
Given that my home was at the bottom of the valley and my school at the top, it’s fair to say that my educational progress was an uphill struggle every day.
Focus on what you are good at
But in spite of my academic failings, I was persuaded, for better or worse, to drop Art and continue Maths and Science at ‘A’ level, a decision helped by the fact that Close Encounters and Star Wars came out that year and the idea of working for NASA seemed like a dream worth pursuing. And that’s when something remarkable happened. I suddenly became intelligent. All those numbers, formulas and laws started to click into place. I started to get it. My capability for learning grew.
Swimming pool full of mud
My confidence grew with it so much I practically ran up that hill each day. I left school with grades good enough to get into St. Andrews (the 3rd top university at the time) to study Astrophysics. I started university with the confidence of someone who was going to devour astrophysics and graduate with a glorious first class honours.
Unfortunately it was not to be. My newfound intelligence disappeared in first term. I went through university like Usain Bolt trying to sprint through a swimming pool full of mud. It was incredibly tough and I felt I had to study twice as hard just to keep up with everyone else. I did get my degree but not what I felt reflected my efforts.
The remarkable point of this story though, isn’t about the change of my academic abilities. The remarkable point is that nobody, not my teachers, not my parents, not even myself asked the question why? Why was I intelligent during ‘A’ levels and why not before or after?’. In fact it was only 30 years later on that it occurred to me to finally ask and answer it.
Are You Intelligent or do you just have a good teacher?
The answer was to do with something that few in education talk about.
When someone does well in a subject, we either justify it by saying they have a good teacher (school, coach etc) or they’re intelligent (bright, talented etc). Few people consider the third option: their learning techniques. Or in other words the way they learn – the strategy they use to combine the resources at their disposal to learn in a way that suits them. When done correctly, a Personal Learning Strategy can make a world of difference. Yet it too often gets overlooked.
And this is a pity because whereas we can’t genetically modify our intelligence or feasibly change teachers, we can easily change our learning techniques. During A levels I inadvertently stumbled across some great learning techniques. But because I didn’t recognise them for what they were I failed to maintain them through university and thus my university studies were much more of a struggle than they needed to be. I could have sailed through my degree, but I didn’t.
This missed opportunity has left me feeling frustrated, partly for my disappointing grades, but mostly for all other students, young or not so young, who could be reaching their potential if only they knew how to put together the techniques which suit them best. Trying to change this by raising awareness of the options we have and how to develop our own personal learning strategies to become better more quickly at whatever we choose has become my driving force.
When I see the difference it can produce, it makes me feel that getting out of bed each day is worth it. It makes them feel good and it makes me feel good, too.
That is why I’m passionate about personal learning strategies.