The conspiracy of success

This article was written for Sec Ed magazine and was first published in February 2015. You can read the original here and access my archive of monthly columns for Sec Ed here.


I don’t believe in conspiracy theories but Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy have always made my spine tingle. After all, they have an awful lot in common…

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846; John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.

Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860; John F Kennedy was elected president in 1960.

The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters.

Both men were particularly concerned with civil rights.

Both their wives lost children while living in the White House.

Both presidents were shot on a Friday. Both were shot in the head.

Lincoln’s secretary, Kennedy, warned him not to go to the theatre; Kennedy’s secretary, Lincoln, warned him not to go to Dallas.

Both were assassinated by Southerners. Both were succeeded by Southerners.

Both successors were named Johnson: Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808; Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.

Both assassins were known by three names which comprised 15 letters. John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939.

Having assassinated Lincoln, Booth ran from the theatre and was caught in a warehouse. Having assassinated Kennedy, Oswald ran from a warehouse and was caught in a theatre.

Both Booth and Oswald were assassinated before their trials.

Spooky, eh? I don’t know about you, but the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. But, as I say, I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. I do, however, believe in coincidence.

So what’s the difference? When you think about it, coincidences aren’t spooky at all; they are in fact perfectly rational because they express a simple, logical pattern of cause and effect. Take, for example, academic achievement…

Several years ago, while working as a deputy headteacher, I interviewed 50 students in years 11 and 13 who had achieved high grades in their GCSE and A level exams. I found something spooky – a series of apparent coincidences. For example…

All the students I interviewed had an attendance of more than 93 per cent; 90 per cent of them had a perfect attendance record.

All the students I interviewed told me they used their planners regularly and considered themselves to be well-organised. As a result, all the students I interviewed completed their homework on time and without fail.

All the students I interviewed told me they always asked for help from their teachers when they got stuck. They didn’t regard doing so as a sign of weakness, rather a sign of strength. Admitting they didn’t know something and asking questions meant they learnt something new and increased their intelligence.

Most of the students I interviewed were involved in clubs, sports, or hobbies at lunchtime, after school and/or at weekends. Though not all were sporting, they did all have get-up-and-go attitudes. They didn’t spend every evening and weekend watching television. They were sociable and, in order to unwind, they read books. Lots of books. In fact, the school library confirmed that my cohort of high-achievers were among the biggest borrowers in school.

All the students believed that doing well in school would increase their chances of getting higher paid and more interesting jobs later in life.

Many of them had a clear idea about the kind of job they wanted to do and knew what was needed in order to get it.

They had researched the entry requirements and had then mapped out the necessary school, college, and/or university paths. They had connected what they were doing in school with achieving their future ambitions. School work and good exam results had a purpose, they were means to an important end.

Was it spooky that nearly all these high-achieving students had done the same things? Or was it a simple case of cause and effect: because these students shared these traits they went on to succeed?

I believe it was the latter: it was because these students had attended school, were well-organised, completed work on time, and had an end goal in mind that they had achieved excellent grades in their final exams. The cause was diligent study and determination; the effect was high achievement.

As such, these young people can teach our students a valuable lesson: that the recipe for success is to:

  • Have good attendance and punctuality.
  • Be organised and complete all work on time.
  • Be willing to ask for help when you’re stuck.
  • Have something to aim for and be ambitious.
  • Map out your career path and be determined to succeed.

I now wish to explore the second of these ingredients in more detail: personal organisation. One means of becoming better organised is to acquire effective study skills. According to Paul C Brown et al in Make It Stick, the following study skills are proven to be particularly helpful for students.

1. Self-quizzing

Self-quizzing is about retrieving knowledge and skills from memory and is far more effective than simply re-reading. When your students read a text or study notes, you should teach them to pause periodically to ask themselves questions – without looking in the text – such as:

  • What are the key ideas?
  • What terms or ideas are new to me? How would I define them?
  • How do the ideas in this text relate to what I already know?

You should set aside a little time every week for your students to quiz themselves on the current week’s work and the material you have covered in prior weeks. Once they have self-quizzed, get your students to check their answers and make sure they have an accurate understanding of what they know and what they don’t know. Your students need to know that making mistakes will not set them back, so long as they check their answers later and correct any errors.

You should space out your students’ retrieval practice. This means studying information more than once and leaving increasingly large gaps between practice sessions. Initially, new material should be revisited within a day or so then not again for several days or a week. When your students are feeling more sure of certain material, they should quiz themselves on it once a month.

They should also interleave the study of two or more topics so that alternating between them requires them to continually refresh their memories of each topic.

2. Elaboration

Elaboration is the process of finding additional layers of meaning in new material. It involves relating new material to what students already know, explaining it to somebody else, or explaining how it relates to the wider world. An effective form of elaboration is to use a metaphor or image for the new material.

3. Generation

Generation is when students attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or the solution. The act of filling in a missing word (the cloze test) results in better learning and a stronger memory of the text than simply reading the text. Before reading new class material, ask students to explain the key ideas they expect to find and how they expect these ideas will relate to their prior knowledge.

4. Reflection

Reflection involves taking a moment to review what has been learned. Students ask questions such as:

  • What went well? What could have gone better?
  • What other knowledge or experience does it remind me of?
  • What might I need to learn in order to achieve better mastery?
  • What strategies could I use next time to getter better results?

5. Calibration

Calibration is achieved when students adjust their judgement to reflect reality – in other words, they become certain that their sense of what they know and can do is accurate. Often when we revise information, we look at a question and convince ourselves that we know the answer, then move on to the next question without making an effort to actually answer the previous one.

If we do not write down an answer, we may create the illusion of knowing when in fact we would have difficulty giving a response. We need to teach our students to remove the illusion of knowing and actually answer all the questions even if they think they know the answer and that it is too easy.

Other study skills to teach our students:

  1. Anticipate test questions during lessons.
  2. Read study guides, finds terms they can’t recall or don’t know and learn them.
  3. Copy key terms and their definitions into a notebook.
  4. Take practice tests.
  5. Reorganise class material into a study guide.
  6. Copy out key concepts and regularly test themselves on them.
  7. Space out revision and practice activities.

Tips to help your students study better

Create desirable difficulties in the classroom by using tests frequently. Design study tools that make use of retrieval practice, generation and elaboration.

Return to concepts covered earlier in the term. Space, interleave and vary the topics covered in class so that students frequently have to “reload” what they already know about each topic in order to determine how new material relates to, or indeed differs from, prior knowledge.

Make learning transparent by helping your students to understand the ways in which you have incorporated desirable difficulties and other strategies into your lessons.

Plan for “free recall”, whereby students spend 10 minutes at the end of each lesson filling a blank piece of paper with everything they can remember from that lesson.

Set a weekly homework whereby students create summary sheets (perhaps a side of A4) on which they summarise the previous week’s learning in text, annotated illustrations, or graphical organisers. The purpose of this task is to stimulate retrieval and reflection, and to capture the previous week’s learning before it is lost.

And finally, explain how learning works. Help your students to understand that creating some kinds of difficulties during the learning process helps to strengthen learning and memory because when learning is easy it is often superficial and soon forgotten.

Help your students to understand that not all intellectual abilities are innate – in fact, when learning is “effortful”, it changes the brain, making new connections and increasing intellectual ability. Students learn better when they struggle with new problems by themselves before being shown the solution, not vice-versa. Help your students to understand that, in order to achieve excellence, they must strive to surpass their current level of ability. This, by its very nature, often leads to set-backs and set-backs are often what provide information that’s needed in order to achieve mastery.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley



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