We cannot live on grit alone

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by Danny Harrington, Founder & Director, ITS Education Asia


I was pointed this week in the direction of this interesting article in the Times Educational Supplement which suggests that the development of grit in school students is, in and of itself, not even correlated with, let alone a contributor to, academic success. As the article says, grit is defined as the combination of passion and perseverance which may take someone through the difficulties they face in life. While defined in an educational setting by researchers in the US, it seems quite clear that this has been a fundamental ethos in British schooling since schools began and is still most strongly emphasised in the UK independent school system with its emphasis on games and taking on challenges throughout school life alongside the academic agenda.

If the study debunking the link is correct, we are still left with something of a gut feeling that grit must have something to do with success – even if that success is the avoidance of abject failure rather than anything spectacularly positive. I suspect that the complexity of human psychology means that many more studies will be needed to have any chance of untangling the impact of grit, or indeed to arrive at the conclusion that it is not sufficiently able to be isolated in such a way. Just because an individual has grit does not mean she will apply it every time she is in difficulty or to the same level as she is capable of or has demonstrated previously. Certainly, if you do not have much grit then life will throw you plenty of obstacles that you might rather avoid. And should we even be measuring “success” at school in purely academic terms? I suspect many who reject the development of grit would find themselves also rejecting exam league tables and the like.

It seems to me that grit can be a positive thing, can be developed through experiential education, especially in the outdoors, and through a familiarity with it individuals can recognise when their grit is becoming a negative i.e. know when to give up. So in that sense gaining and being aware of grit can only be a good thing. Perhaps the authors are correct that too much emphasis can be put on ideas such as these, but it would be a shame to abandon programmes designed to develop grit, especially when they bring with them so many other benefits such as: personal health and well-being; teamwork, leadership and followership development; risk management; and so on. Just when school students were getting more non-academic development, let’s not rip it away and only emphasise the classroom and its trackable academic outcomes.

ITS Education Asia and Tai Poutini Polytechnic are launching a Level 4 Certificate in Experiential Learning in 2017. This is both a Foundational year for undergraduates and a potential 1st year undergraduate programme for those interested in teaching and/or leadership in the outdoors. It is suitable for any young adult wanting transferable skills for career development in the 21st century.

Brexit benefits: British schooling more affordable for international students

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by Danny Harrington, Founder & Director, ITS Education Asia


Through most of the 20th century, until about the 1980s, a private education became gradually more affordable in the UK as earning power of the middle classes grew faster than the fees charged by most independent schools. However, the last 30 years or so has seen these gains eroded as middle incomes have stagnated. The last 10 years in particular have seen the ratio of fees to incomes take a turn for the worst. It is no wonder that UK independent schools have ever more enthusiastically embraced international students who bring the double benefit of enriching the cultural life of the school while helping to balance the books.

At the same time, the growing wealth of the “emerging economies” has seen an exponential rise in middle-income earning families across the world, particularly in Asia, and an equally meteoric rise in the truly wealthy across these areas. Many newly wealthy families have opted for a UK boarding education for the children as an excellent way to build networks, develop their grasp of the global language, experience another culture and more easily access UK universities.

Now, with the incredible devaluing of sterling after the Brexit referendum decision even more people in Asia will be able to afford a private education in a British boarding school. Fees range from approximately GBP12,000 to over GBP30,000 per year in tuition. There are of course added extras, both at school and around being an international student – guardians, transport, insurance and such – but certainly for GBP20,000 per year, a child can have a comfortable existence at a private school. In May 2016, just before the referendum, this translated to about USD29,000. Today it translates to USD25,000. That is a sizeable discount thanks purely to currency changes. At the top end, where the cost is more like GBP50,000 per year, the discount is even greater – around GBP13,000 less per year.

It has never been better to access UK boarding schools. With these huge built-in discounts , the fact that school student visas are not under threat, and the reality that schools need to look further afield to keep their numbers up, means the possibility for getting to experience such a high quality education is an option for more and more people.

Remember though that you still need to make a careful choice – not every school is the same – and a certain amount of preparation is needed to be able to cope with this unique and quite foreign environment.

ITS Education Asia is an officially accredited IGCSE and A-level school organisation and has helped hundreds of students access UK qualifications and UK boarding schools over the years. We use expert partners in Hong Kong and the UK to help students choose schools and use our own schools to provide full preparation so that students arrive ready to fit into their new UK school. Email us at [email protected] for details of all our packages.

Should teachers teach?

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By Danny Harrington, Founder & Director, ITS Education Asia


Stupid question, right? Perhaps not. In January, Nick Gibb, the UK Schools Minister [for 12 years now] spoke to the Education World Forum about teacher-led education. These kind of things are important because they are often the seat of government policy around the world and ideas that happen here can influence education in any country for any child. I’ve met Nick at the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong where I used to chair the Education Committee. While I don’t agree with everything he says, he does come across as a thoughtful politician, genuinely trying to do the best he can for children in the UK education system. This, his longevity in post and the influence he has mean he is someone we need to listen and respond to.

You can read the full speech transcript here [it’s not too long, you need 10 minutes]. The thrust is that Mr Gibb feels too many children are educated in a student-led fashion, which has no evidence to indicate it “works”, and that there should therefore be a strong return to teacher-led education, based around core set curricula, an approach which has evidence to indicate “success”. So he advocates policy which insists on teachers teaching knowledge-based content in classrooms. This is based heavily on the OECD PISA data and rankings and on the slightly more anecdotal feeling that he has “never met anyone who advocates teaching children knowledge with the explicit intent that it not be used or applied.”

I have two main issues to take with this. One, that if you measure success only by measuring the outcomes particular to a specific approach then of course the results are going to be skewed. By this I mean that if I test students on how well they do at a test then those who have learned to do the test will do better than those who have not. And when you test hundreds of thousands of students within a common framework [as PISA does] then where teachers lead the preparation for that you will get higher scores than where they don’t. Now, if as humanity we think the outcomes tested by PISA are the outcomes we want of our children then I will have to agree with Mr Gibb. But I’m not convinced they are and I’m not at all convinced by blanket approaches to anything let alone education.

The second issue leads from this and his statement about intent. I would agree that no-one teaches something intending it not to be used, but we all know that much, if not most of what we teach, will in fact not be explicitly used. This is especially true for poor old Geography teachers like me. Most of our students will not explicitly use that school taught Geography content to further their education or to build any other knowledge or activity they go on to do. So the reality is we need to think about how we use content to show students how to develop the skills and approaches they will use in the future while allowing the few who will continue the subject to have the ability to do so. Mr Gibb does suggest the application of knowledge is important but not nearly enough to my mind.

Which leads us on to the big question, should teachers teach? And if so, what? I think the problem for Mr Gibb and his counterparts is the age old tension between the individual and the group. At government level, policies are needed to deliver education for the mass of society. In the UK 89% of students are educated by the state. But this often means a system which is over-regulated and overly rigid, not allowing individual students the leeway to develop at their own pace, in the subjects they enjoy and are good at. Equally, I don’t advocate total freedom of choice for school students, those experiments have proved fairly disastrous [certainly from a societal point of view, the individuals may be very happy]. This is why private school flourish and why many students choose home learning options as well.

We cannot blindly see the system as the correct way to do things for all. We need to balance the framework of the curriculum, the expertise of teachers and the needs of students. And that requires devolving responsibility to schools and teachers. I always find it ironic that Conservative government seeks to strong-arm education so much when right-wing ideology suggests the state should be less involved. I think this stems from the other ideology that exams are the only measure of success in an education system and so the tension is created. The problem is an intractable one, and I certainly don’t have “the answer” but perhaps that is because there isn’t one. We can only really hope to go on trying to balance these different needs. Meanwhile, teachers get on with teaching and should be left to do so.

ITS Education Asia runs schools in Hong Kong and online for individuals to follow their own programme of study at their own pace but still leading to UK qualifications such as IGCSE, A-level and BTEC.

Resilience – are you a survivor?

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By Danny Harrington, Founder & Director, ITS Education Asia

Certificate in Experiential Learning

Questions of resilience – what it is, where it comes from, why some have more than others, and whether there is less of it around – seem to be increasingly prevalent. While we need to be careful that we don’t make the age-old mistake of assuming “our generation had it tougher and this one has it easy”, or of failing to recognise that perhaps a constant characteristic is manifest differently in response to changing times, we might also take note of the old adage “no smoke without fire”.An article, while anecdotal, in respected journal Psychology Today illustrates the issue specific to education.

I have my own tale to add here – again admittedly a study of one. On a school camp a couple of years ago in China, a colleague observed a boy of 11 recklessly riding a bicycle until he inevitably fell off. The fall was not serious but the reaction was hysterical. It turned out the boy had only ever “ridden” bikes in computer games and had never associated falling off with pain.

It is stories like this that have led to increasing numbers of studies and queries around the issue of resilience and how we can develop it. The University of Mainz has set up an entire department although study of resilience has a history of at least 30 years. At the end of the day, we can generally agree that resilience is a good thing. A trait that speaks to the heart of our purpose. Even an atheist would agree that survival is a core purpose for humanity.

The current consensus says that resilience is born out of a combination of three key factors: psychological fortitude, societal welfare provision, and social networks. An excellent Guardian article addresses the key points quite eloquently I think. While we have little control over what the society we live in can do for us [or stop doing to us], we still have a certain amount of choice. The current refugee crisis shows us what happens when society breaks down. An interesting question would be who has more resilience? The refugee who decides to escape, or the remainer who decides to bear it out? Questions like this show us how complex resilience is. There may be no clear cut answers.

We can probably claim to have greater control over our social network and psychological fortitude, but again not 100% and the level varies from person to person. There are probably feedback loops here – greater fortitude may help people build and maintain better social networks and thus strengthen their fortitude, and vice versa. But can we develop these traits? Are they trainable? To a certain extent I believe so, and one of the areas we can see this is in the way that people who are trained to deal with highly stressful jobs, such as paramedics, are resilient. Here, the gradual exposure to increasingly stressful situations within the framework of having been assured you have the tools to deal with the risk and stress, can hep the individual to cope through what may be years of exposure to trauma. Yes, not everyone copes. Not everyone follows their training properly. Sometimes people slip through who should not be there. Mistakes happen. But generally you find paramedics to be a very resilient bunch.

I believe resilience is something that can be developed and should be from an early age and like all skills should be developed consistently to ensure it is not “lost”. An excellent place to do this is in the outdoors in managed experiential learning programmes which include thoughtful planning, supervised execution and interactive reflection. Resilience, like many other life skills, belongs on the curriculum.

In 2017, ITS Education Asia is launching the Certificate in Experiential Learning with Tai Poutini Polytechnic. With 2 months online and 6 month residential, it embraces experiences relevant to learning, including resilience, in the 21st century.

The ACT is the new SAT

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by Mike Li, Head of US Admissions, ITS Education Asia


For students and parents, there has always been confusion over which US university entrance test is more suitable, the SAT or the ACT. However, with the changes to the new SAT, we find that the exams are now strikingly similar in almost all aspects – Reading, Writing, Math, and Science. Whereas SAT probably had more recognition internationally for a long time, we’d say that the two are now inseparable.

In both tests, Reading is comprised of a predictable blend of Narrative, Social Science, Natural Science, and Argumentative passages. Writing is a combination of Grammar and Structure. Math goes up to, but barely beyond, quadratic equations. And Science questions will test a student’s ability to use charts, graphs, and diagrams to make logical conclusions.

There are minor differences. For example in the Writing section the ACT tilts more towards Grammar whereas the SAT will tilt towards Paragraph Structure. In the Math section, the most challenging ACT questions will include logarithms and geometric series, whereas the SAT will challenge students more with polynomials. But these questions comprise less than 10% of the each section.

The ACT also has a full Science section whereas the SAT scatters science questions throughout the exam. The Essay is also distinctly different for the SAT and ACT, but considering how insignificant the Essay Score is compared to a student’s university application essays, most students only need a few hours of review to master the essay formats.

The major difference for students with ACT and SAT is timing. It is almost universally agreed that the ACT has easier questions, but each ACT section gives students considerably less time per question than the corresponding SAT section. This distinction between the two tests becomes one of the major deciding factors in which test is best for your student: students who tend to be more thorough/diligent/perfectionists will find the SAT easier to conquer while students who tend to be more intuitive/fast-paced workers tend to succeed at ACT.

By and large however, we find that most students can prepare for ACT and SAT in parallel, and then take either or both when the time is right. So those who are worried about SAT vs. ACT can relax! Performance will likely be similar for anyone taking both and you can always do mock tests for each and compare the results if you want to be certain. Choice tends ultimately to be a question of unquantifiable personal preference.

Mike heads up all ITS Education Asia preparation services for applications and entrance to US universities and colleges from course choice to test prep to essay writing. He is helped by a team of expert teachers and counsellors with years of experience between them.

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