What makes an outstanding student?

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the world to raise a language learner.

I was inspired to write this article, both as a follow up to my ‘outstanding teacher’ article, and also because of some amazing work that teachers around the world have shared with me on facebook. Work created by gifted, passionate students who are learning through social media, technology, and who are encouraged by innovative teachers who share new concepts in the classroom, and who experiment alongside their online colleagues.

As I see it, outstanding learning comes from about 70% attitude and 30 % aptitude. This may even be a conservative estimate regarding attitude. At first sight it may seem ridiculous to speak of 30% aptitude, but I mention this merely as a launching pad for excellence. Attitude creates aptitude. Attitude is the essence from which aptitude develops.

Such a concept may help us to view the power of learning from the inside out. The history of education shows us somewhat arrogant and ironic examples out ‘outside-in’ practices.

Talking about the best way to shovel infomation into unwitting skulls, and finding the cleverest and most academic white papers on how to get ready-made, pre-packaged ‘facts’ to take up residence in the minds of those who must receive what we give, has characterised much of what has shaped education to date.

Nowadays, thanks to technology and global sharing at grass roots level, as well as better insights into the psychology of learning, students are the ones giving, and we are the ones receiving.

In the past, teachers didn’t know how to ask, and therefore did not receive. Teachers were taught to be the fount of all knowledge; a pressure that burnt teachers out and placed sad limitations on individualised learning.

Back to attitude and aptitude.

Children have traditionally been seen as having different natural aptitudes as far as IQ is concerned. Childhood development was mostly influenced by family genetics and family environment, and teachers had to cope with mixed abilities, and/or learning difficulties using nothing but a blanket approach to education in order to meet curriculum objectives.

Enlightened systems tried to address special needs , and fix the problems of students who were not thriving in school. Yet, everything revolved around ‘facts’ – IQ levels, labelling of learning disabilities and imposing all kinds of different programmes on different kinds of problems. Of course all of this is necessary and wonderful – but if it’s approached from the ‘outside-in’ rather than the ‘inside-out’, we miss seeing what our students are truly capable of developing creatively. The examples I show you below will show how EQ is becoming the new IQ.

A student with the right attitude

1) Knows he has personal innate gifts to develop
2) Knows that he doesn’t have to fit in with mainstream brains.
3) Knows that he can learn in his own way.
4) wants the fishing rod and not the fish.
5) trusts in his instincts.
6) Has high self-esteem.
7) is energetic, positive and enthusiastic.

Whilst the above points are obvious to any teacher, many students are missing these vital elements of attitude, even ,or sometimes, even more so, the academically bright ones, whose brains seem to fit the system, but whose social/emotional intelligence is crying out for TLC.

Students can develop the right attitude when their teacher guides them towards experimentation, and allows them to learn from the inside out.

I think that this concept is nicely illustrated by the quote on this book cover called ‘inside out’by L.L.Barkat, now selling on amazon.com

A teacher who shares, searches and experiments with students is the stirring of air, giving wings to imagination in the classroom.

Therefore, I believe that a teacher’s job, first and foremost is to instill the right attitude in students by tuning into their self-awareness and building up their self-esteem if necessary.

Attitute creates aptitude.

What mainstream educational theory has always known, but often only in theory, is that miracles can happen when a child feels confident. I say ‘only in theory’ because the yardstick has always been ‘one size fits all’, and standardised testing excludes diversely gifted children who are recognised by their teacher, but not by the system.

Outstanding students are allowed to develop their unique aptitudes.

Subststandard students have been prevented from doing so.

Here are three examples of outstanding teachers who give their students wings to fly.

This is a video created a student of Hela Thabit, a teacher from Tunisia.The aim of the project was to integrate edutainment into project-based learning. Her student,Yassine Jazziri, is 14, and is a ninth former in (prep school)

Read what Hela has to say:

“We needed visual support for songs we use in class and there weren’t any clips available, besides the former government wasn’t allowing Youtube so we had to manage our own way and find a solution.My pupils are creative and they always find new ideas.Actually it is a pioneer school but no equipment or extra help so we have to find our own way.I believe in this quote:“Come to the edge, he said. They said: We are afraid. Come to the edge, he said. They came. He pushed them and they flew.”
Guillaume Apollinaire

“PBL is also my free space with pupils to excel and work on all their skills..artistic,communicative..all..they are fairies when it comes to project work presentation..We have to assign 3 projects a year ..we choose the topic and ask the question but I do 6 with my pupils as we have six different topics..some projects are really mega and marvellous.”

Here is a detailed presentation by students of Anissa Baa, using Prezi, one of my favourite presentation tools.

This is what Anissa has to say

“I’ve been an EFL Teacher for 13 years now. As we were dealing with Module 6: Civility in our official book, I thought that It would be interesting and very motivating for the students to work on Voluntary work, associations and organizations’ work to enhance Cooperation and charity. The idea was then to ask them to work on a ‘Huge’ project to establish their “OWN” association. My main objectives were 1- to raise the students’ awareness about charity, donations, Helping each other ….. 2- to give them the opportunity to USE English to talk but , most importantly, to be CONVINCING while talking. I was SO Happy and PROUD of them when they came up with this project. Motivation, Cooperation, CREATIVITY, ORIGINALITY, Responsability and Hard WORK , this what I felt, noticed and lived with my 15-year-old students while working on that project. I do BELIEVE in THEIR POWER to CREATE and INNOVATE when they’re TRUSTED, ENCOURAGED and RESPECTED!!!”Here is a show put on by students of Maria Alejandra Pinardi from Argentina.

As with the other creative projects above, this one is really worthy of it’s own article. I will try to be brief.

What you will see is a fascinating testament to the power of sharing and personal learning networks on the part of teachers, and the power of group synergy, inspiration and talent on the part of students.

Many of us have followed Fluency MC on facebook and you tube, and I have interviewed Jason.R.Levine more than once as you’ll see on my related articles.(He’s on a world tour as we speak, soon to be in Morocco)

Inspired by Jason’s videos, Maria took action and trained her students to RAP while learning collocations with the verb HAVE. The best part is that it was not just a calculated language drill – the deeper theme was ‘self- esteem’. If you listen to the lyrics you’ll see that although this RAP drills language chunks, the theme is ‘You have it in you’ and it embeds self-confidence in the learners. As we see them all dancing, rapping, singing, and repeating empowering lyrics, we see rhythm and vibes tapping out kinaesthetic, emotional, social and verbal/linguistic intelligence. And, most importantly, we see LOTS of fun.

I will finish by putting all of this into the persectives of the four learning stages, as discussed in my previous article.

unconscious incompetence – not knowing what you don’t know
conscious incompetence – knowing what you don’t know
conscious competence – knowing that you know (but still consciously practising)
unconscious competence – knowing it so well the it has become an unconscious skill.

If we don’t give our students power to experiment creatively, they will never really know what they don’t know ( unconscious incompetence). Therefore they will not stretch their capabilities or reach their full potential. Learning facts from course books will not raise questions in their minds for the most part. A webquest, story, video or presentation created by students who must do their own research, however, will pique their curiosity and get them to see new things they’d love to learn.

In the past, conscious incompetence was a scary thing for students and created many self-esteem issues. Most students learnt things off by heart like parrots or tried to look as if they ‘knew’ to get the teacher off their backs or to save face. Teachers liked a tidy row of students to raise hands and have the ‘facts’ right.

Now, conscious incompetence can be as exciting as a treasure hunt. In games we like the suspense of knowing we don’t know things. That’s how education should be.

Conscious competence
is strengthened when students see the results of their own creative endeavours, and don’t need praise from the teacher or anyone else to know that they did well. Of course validation from teacher and parents is essential, but for students to KNOW deep down what they can accomplish is the greatest gift of all.

As for unconscious competence and the videos/presentations above, we can clearly see that the students above learnt more than their ‘lesson’ – they went beyond the lesson. I’m sure that they were walking taller after these experiments without even realising it.

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Sylvia is is an online teacher & writer with a background in English Literature, history and education. She is also an award winning blogger featured by The British Council, online teacher, official blogger for WiziQ, professional development organiser, and passionate researcher into creative learning via Educational Technology @Eslbrain. She is currently focusing on ELT publishing and children’s publishing. Her personal projects for 2014 include writing ELT books through story-telling, comics, poetry, and social and emotional learning, while continually creating and sharing brain-friendly learning materials and ideas online. Her other main interests are art, writing, poetry, and psychology, which which help her to create fun quality time with her children and add colour to her language lessons. When she's not teaching online, she's writing course books, blogging or running her English language Facebook groups.
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  • Hi Sylvia,

    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be making a post about it on today’s TeachingEnglish facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil, if you’d like to check there for comments.


    Ann Foreman Reply
  • Hi Ann,

    I’m very excited to have another nomination:)

    hanks to the great teachers and students who inspired me to write it. I’ll be sure to follow it up on facebook.

    Thanks again!!

    silversal Reply
  • Ann,

    Great incisive post!

    One thing I would like to talk about in relation to your article is that in the area of unconscious competence ( and this is more for the teacher than the student, but the thinking student can also benefit) it is important to “grow the language”. A bit like a tree…establishes roots and grows steadily. It doesn’t try to add the fruit before the trunk, branches and leaves. A good teacher will expose learners to those experiences where the growth is encouraged FROM what is already there. Rather than attempting to graft on limbs to a fragile twig.
    The weakness of this analogy is that it does not light up the enormous efficiencies we have in language where by growing a bit of the tree we can multiply manifold what the students are capable of saying. This is especially true of the lower levels. This highlights another aspect we need to pay attention to when we are looking at the concept of growth…and that is the benefit each growth can have. Adding a word like “pen” might make sense etc but adding a word like “also” has far more growth potential.

    Hope that’s clear!

    Andrew Weiler Reply
  • Thanks for your comment Andrew.

    When you speak of growing the language, I suppose you mean in the light of optimal conditions for the brain to make more connections based on stimuli, opportunities to explore and practice, and so on…

    Your analogy reminds me of mind mapping, of course, which, itself, is a visual means to externally map out our thought patterns and linguistic explorations. ( building upon and extending what we already know)

    For me, story-telling is a way of dressing the mindmap or putting leaves on the tree…Story-telling is not just oral/written and traditional, of course – it’s also expressed in music, drama and art…

    There are so many ways for us to establish roots – encourage acquisition by stimulating endorphins, curiosity, getting students to live on the edge outside comfort zones….

    For me, creativity is the way forward for organic learning – personally I like story -telling, poetry, & exploiting the arts in general. Linking classwork to real life activities is also extremely effective.

    A great thing to realise is that each teacher/student can develop their own natural tendencies to grow their own personal language store. Whereas I like story-telling, another teacher may use other methods – in the end, it’s good to employ the best of all method/activities mindfully, in order to keep all students challenged and on task.

    silversal Reply
  • Just wanted to say this is a really informative blog. I am myself a teacher and I find myself referring to your techniques and teachings when planning my own lessons. It’s great to find such useful information on the internet. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. – Sireen.

    Sireen Reply

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