What’s important? Mental Health or Knowledge? Creating the right conditions for learning

Mental Health is not just important, it is paramount and fundamental to our physical and emotional welfare. Improving mental health cannot just be about offering something to fix the problem, it is about establishing healthy foundations and routines. Reading Dr Naomi Fisher’s blog this week about the ‘crisis in mental health’, exacerbated by the past few years of pandemic-induced isolation, asks some stark questions. How do we establish healthy foundations? What part does our current educational system play in reinforcing some of this crisis?

“The priority of the school system as it currently works is not to help young people flourish, but to get through a curriculum. Delivering content, rather than nurturing developing children. And because this is the priority, we test the effectiveness of our education system through exam results. We don’t see human thriving or psychological wellness as an outcome of the system – but they are, just as much as GCSE results. They are the outcome which can make a life worth living.”

Dr Naomi Fisher

Some punchy points raised above! It is not surprising that there are questions around the part exams play in exacerbating anxiety. As a teacher what should be your focus or goal? To educate children so that they can jump through the various examination hoops? To develop happy, confident children that can rise to whatever is thrown at them? Having worked with young people of all ages in a variety of school settings, teachers try and often achieve both. However, the challenge to deliver content and skills to be demonstrated successfully in an examination should not be underestimated. Subject knowledge can be overwhelming and sometimes becomes the driving force to the expense of everything else.  

What can we do differently?

Whether exams are the best or least worst way of assessing children is very much up for debate. Today, I do not want to focus on the narrow goal posts, instead let’s look at a wider playing field. The best way of improving our learning ability is a metacognitive toolkit! Every person should have one to aid their learning, increase progress and cultivate their interests. Equipping children with an understanding about their brain is the first port of call. By embracing the science of learning, intelligent learning behaviours and cognitive tools and strategies young people can be given the tools to thrive. 

What’s the mission?

Back to the mission: developing a love of learning. At Meta Prep, we talk about knowing the right tools to use when presented with a problem or challenge. If you use a spanner to hit nails into the wall you are not going to get very far. By using the wrong tool to achieve a job is demotivating in itself. Ever had the delight of starting a DIY project and discovered that you are missing some vital piece of equipment? Giving children a complete toolkit changes their school experience and creates a culture of success. Children will feel confident in their abilities and able to tackle problems presented to them. 

The Education Endowment Fund’s guidance report explores the positive impact of metacognition and self-regulation upon young people both within and outside of the classroom. However, we also need to look at a child’s willingness to engage and that is a key element to developing metacognitive young people.

Motivation and Autonomy

Motivation drives our behaviour. It is not a conscious decision, but comes from the underlying need for achievement, affiliation or influence. It is linked to our self-concept, personal beliefs, social expectations and personality traits. It is the root of our behaviour. We are all motivated by different things. Creating a culture where motivators are taken into consideration is key.

An education where children are free to make choices about their learning will be a much happier one. If children are motivated to learn and complete activities, they will be much more likely to enjoy learning, increasing their chances of success and becoming life-long learners. Understanding metacognition and how their brain works allows children the chance to develop their own learning schedule and problem solving methods, again increasing their mental health. Giving children different options is a good thing in any educational setting. Of course, we want to expose them to as many different things as possible but giving them some choices, whether it is the ability to choose when they complete work or what task they work on, means children feel more responsible for their learning. 

Teaching children how to make their own decisions needs to be explicit. Many children, and adults, find decision-making difficult so starting this early is important for growth and wellbeing. 

Metacognition: thinking about thinking 

Armed with the knowledge that the brain changes and how it works, pupils are ready to engage. We make learning visible through constant self-evaluation and reflection. This increases problem-solving skills as pupils can quickly identify the core thinking processes, whilst the routines and levels create a gateway for deep and profound thinking. Communicating the idea that our mental health is not static is deeply important for young people. It gives them hope when they are feeling low and helps them appreciate the need for self care when they are feeling okay. 

The extensive research Thinking Matters has done into the science of learning and intelligent learning behaviours is arranged into our 11+ Big Picture. We aim to support pupils in their quest for understanding and problem solving skills. To create expert learners and problem solvers, there must be clear teaching of cognitive tools and strategies. Learning must include deliberate practice, which is purposeful and focused practice, supported by a trained and encouraging coach. 

I shall leave you with this final thought from Dr Naomi Fisher:

This means allowing young people the time and space to manage themselves and their learning again, just like they did when they were 3. Then they can start to rebuild their trust in themselves and their ability to direct their own learning and life.”

Becoming a meta-learner, with autonomy to meet their own motivational needs, fills them with rocket fuel ready to blast off to a successful and independent life.  

This summer all of our holiday courses are established on the foundations of metacognition and instilling the principles of self-reflection and self-evaluation. Join us to become an Expert Learner or find ways to improve your Maths Skills, and more. The five-day summer workshops, daily duration of 1.5 hours, are repeated weekly and open to pupils in Years 4, 5 & 6.