SCEGGS DARLINGHURST

In This Together

Sport teaches us a lot about life – it is no accident that there are so many sporting analogies in our culture, so many sayings, quotations and truisms used to help understand how to get on in life.

“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do” - Pelé

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” - Muhammad Ali

“Champions keep playing until they get it right” - Billie Jean King.

So many men and women of sport say the same thing – it is the effort you put in to something which is most important.

I think this applies just as much to academic work at school too.

Of course the quotes above come from amazingly successful people. We are not all going to be as successful as Pelé, Muhammad Ali or Billie Jean King! We can’t all get over 90% in tests, or gain entry into the top universities or colleges. But we can try to do as well as we can at school work, to give ourselves the best possible opportunities for a post-school life, and to be well-educated, thoughtful and contributing adults. Therefore, it is really important that parents praise effort, to recognise that success rarely comes without effort. It is better to say: “I noticed that you put a lot of work into that assignment – well done!” or, “I am really proud of the fact that you started that work early, so it wasn’t a last minute rush”. Or, if they do get a good mark or comment on some work from school: “You see what you can do if you really apply yourself with commitment?”

I want to recommend a book to you – a book called Bounce. It is written by Matthew Syed who was a one-time British Table Tennis champion. His thesis is that the only way you rise to the top is through intense and prolonged practice. For example, he notes that Mozart had likely racked up over 3,500 hours of practice at the piano by the age of 6! Of course Mozart was incredibly talented, but he wasn’t a musician with special God-given powers that enabled him to circumvent practice and effort; rather he was somebody who embodied the rigours of practice. Mozart had talent, but that was not enough. Einstein said: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. That’s not to say that Einstein and Mozart were not geniuses. Just that they also worked incredibly hard!

No one thinks that academic work, the extending of skills and knowledge should be easy. If it were easy, if you could already do it, what would be the point of doing it? You go to school to learn hard things, to learn things you have to work hard to master. And it is good to enjoy that intellectual challenge - to strive and fail, and fail, and fail again, and then experience the real joy of getting it, of finally being able to do it!

A young friend of mine used to proudly say "I can easily do that....", when she had finally learnt how to use a key in the door, or how to tie her shoelaces, or remember her phone number for the first time after a long struggle. Of course she didn't mean it was easy - she meant that she knew that it was actually really hard, but that she was proud of the fact that she now felt confident in that ability - that she could do it each time.

I want to put that feeling in the context of academic work. We need, as a society, to encourage high levels of intellectual rigour. We should value academic pursuits - to tell students that it is OK to attempt hard work. We need to encourage all students to understand that academic work at school is challenging, and that is good. There are things (a great many things, indeed) which Google can answer, but you don't really learn anything that way. You learn by puzzling over, by grappling with things deeply. The joy of mastering something which has taken real time and effort is unsurpassed.

If a young person says quickly "I can't do that....", then they will definitely be right. You will not be able to do it if you start with that attitude. We want our young people to say "I'll have a go....!" And to strive and work hard, again and again.... You never know, in the end, they too might be able to say: "I can easily do that...."! All of us need to encourage academic resilience in our young people, so that they are NOT put off by a hard HSC Paper, or the difficulty of learning French verbs, or the complexity of sophisticated scientific ideas.

I worry that there has been an increase, over the 30 years that I have been a teacher, in girls' fear of getting things wrong in tests and assignments, an aversion to taking risks in their learning, in wanting a formula instead of grappling themselves, in worrying more about the answer than the process of getting there. I want our young people of today to understand that you often learn more by getting things wrong. It's about the doing, not the answer at the end. It's about the intellect, not someone else's generic recipe.

I spoke earlier of the importance of the struggle of academic work. As a teacher, I certainly know that there are times when it's good to help your child with his or her school work. Giving them some encouragement, a hint about which way to proceed, to show them something they can’t yet do is good!

But it is important to be judicious about this. If you do so much that you take away that struggle, you deprive your child of the journey of discovery, of learning, of growing. What safer place in life is there to fail than at school? There’s a marvellous book called I Can Jump Puddles by Alan Marshall. He contracted polio when he was a child and then there was no treatment available to help him. As a result his doctor operated to correct tensions developing in the tendons of his legs which were leading to curvature of his spine and as a result he was confined to crutches and wheelchairs for the rest of his life.

He lived in Noorat in Victoria and would go on “hunting expeditions” with his best friend Joe; Joe, able-bodied and he on crutches, looking for rabbits and hares. One thing he particularly appreciated about Joe, was that he always waited for him, never trying to assist or carry him. Joe would not rush ahead to search for the prey when they saw some tell-tale sign, but would walk beside him so that they could see what was there together. He wrote that Joe ‘never robbed me of the pleasure of discovery”. You should try to allow your daughters that joy in as many endeavours as possible. The struggle is an essential and profound element of learning. Don’t tell them everything. Let them find out for themselves!

If you help too much, the following happens:

  • Their teacher doesn’t know what your daughter doesn’t know, and so can’t help them. They are working on inaccurate information.
  • Your daughter doesn’t learn much about the academic work. If it isn’t their own work, if they didn’t have to struggle, then won’t really learn. (You might learn something, but they won’t).
  • Your daughter doesn’t learn the importance about honesty and integrity. If she turns in a paper that isn’t all her own work, then that is plagiarism.
  • Your daughter gets the message that you think she can’t do it. That you have to do it for her. It is better to communicate to her that you want it to be her own work – even if it is less good, but the journey of learning is a long one and that the effort and actually attempting it for oneself is the most important, not the final product.

So, by all means encourage, suggest some ways forward, listen to what she is finding difficult and help a little. But don’t take away that struggle, that independence of learning. Through the journey of failure, through the act of perseverance and determination, of “try, try, try again...” may well come understanding and mastery.

Jenny Allum
Head of School