Optimism in autumn term ; Nature or nurture; Fingers are not equal…

Following up from my last blogpost…. The notion of fingers not being equal should not be interpreted as some people being inherently better than others as human beings, as that is not only dangerous but untrue. Yes, some of us can do certain things much better than others; each individual has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. The eagle is happier soaring high in the sky whilst looking for its prey. If you want to sit in your lovely garden, around your big pond, and take great pleasure in feeding eagles and watching them waddling about and quacking – like a neighbour of mine used to do with his ducks when I was a child, you will be very frustrated. On the other hand, if you want to get your duck to fly and soar high in the sky so you can watch it in its magnificence like the eagle, you will be extremely disappointed. All the duck wants to do is to quack and waddle, and, in fact, if you push the duck too hard, it may poo on your head!

I do not know if one could apply the analogy of eagle and duck to university students. My recent experience of interviewing and working with young people from Imperial College reminds me of the pleasure I get when I teach Physics to bright seventeen and eighteen year olds, most of whom are much brighter than me. I will restrict myself and not go too much into this, as I may end up overindulging myself. Before I conclude, though, I’d like to explain the second point I made above: nurture and nature, as this leads nicely into it.

Nurture vs Nature

I specifically targeted Imperial College students when I advertised for scholars to do some tutoring over the summer. Not because these are the only bright university students around, as I could have widened the net and targeted students at other institutions. There are young people at less reputable universities who are brighter than many students at Imperial College, but I’m not going to go deeper into this.

What I discovered in my several interactions with Imperial College students is the amount of work they have to do to keep up with their degree course. Despite the fact that I studied a similar degree course to many of these your people, I was wrong in my assumption that although getting to Imperial is hard, but your life become a little easier once you become an undergraduate there.

Almost all the Imperial scholars I spoke to told me that it is harder work to keep up with the rigour and demand at the university than when they were studying for A-levels. I can see that all these young people are bright, of course, as they’ve got at least two A*s at A-level, with a handful of them having gained five A-level grades that include four A*s and one A. Despite this rather impressive academic achievement, the interaction that I had with them, and my experience of teaching A-level Physics to high achieving teenagers since the early 1990s,  tells me that nurture has a greater role to play in achieving academic excellence than nature. Yes, in most cases, bright students get top grades, and there is nothing necessarily too extraordinary about that. At the same time, I’ve seen young people of just above average academic ability getting the very top grades at GCSE and A-level. Sadly, I’ve also seen very bright teenagers drifting about, doing very little study and ending up with low exam grades, and in some cases failing their exams.

I’d just like to clarify one key point, which is that the norm for Excel in terms of the teachers we’ve been working with in the last 19 years is professional teachers. Those who are either teaching full time in secondary schools and working for us part time on weekends or those who are semi-retired, with a vast knowledge and experience in teaching. At the same time, I’ve employed a handful of undergraduates and graduates who are not professionally qualified teachers, but who are exceptional teachers and who have helped the students they taught to achieve highly.

In concluding, I think every human being has something unique to offer; and in most cases it is something that is useful to the marketplace, i.e. something that other people value highly and are  willing to invest heavily in. That thing that each of us has can be brought out in all sorts of ways. For young people, it can be by the parent’s guidance and direction, the inspiration of a good teacher or by the child themselves being very determined and focused.  Last month, my niece got 12 Grade 9s in her GCSE and she is not even aware of how exceptional this achievement is. She is not aware that, in 2022, only 13 students obtained 12 or more Grade 9s at GCSE in the whole country.

In concluding, one has to commend the young people who are doing well and shining in any field of endeavour, be it academic, sport, music dance, or other areas. There are so many distractions these days and those who do well do so by being better at avoiding distractions and focusing on what they need to do to achieve the results they get.

Yes, there is a lot of optimism in the air; and no, fingers are not equal, but everyone has something great to offer. It is hard work for us parents to convince our teenagers of the potential they have, and it is even harder to motivate them to do what they need to do to achieve their best. Thank you for reading this, and please don’t forget to make a comment. I value what you have to say, and you do not even have to agree with me.