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The Iceberg Illusion

One of the things I most love doing is watching movies – particularly old movies. These days, there is very little time to veg out. Happily, last weekend, a group of friends and I took some time to sit back, eat popcorn, and watch the various ‘Titanic’ movies that have been produced over the last 50 years.

Every time I read or watch something about the Titanic disaster, I am fascinated. Part of that fascination is with the poverty of thinking and contingency planning, that resulted in such a catastrophe. Part of it is with the sheer travesty of human loss. Part of it is with the folly of human beings, who are so happy to buy into things that are illusory.

While Hollywood and historians will continue to debate culpability for the 1912 disaster, there are a couple of key learnings which resonate beyond safety at sea. One of those key learnings relates to the propensity of human beings to rush, act too late, and fail to appreciate what greater care should have made more obvious. In a desire to set records, the Titanic captain moved too quickly through treacherous waters, heedless of feedback about icebergs. At just after 11.30pm on the 14 April, the night watch, in foggy, freezing conditions, rang the alarm bell, screaming: “Iceberg, dead ahead!” While senior staff responded quickly, they had left their manoeuvres too late. By 11.40pm the Titanic had hit the iceberg, resulting in the buckling of the hull plates on the starboard side, the flooding of watertight compartments and the eventual drowning of the vessel. More than 1500 lives were lost.

When it comes to evaluating academic success, people often are susceptible to the iceberg illusion. They tend to see only what is immediately above the surface, rarely looking beneath. They view academic achievement as a product of natural capacity, rather than skills honed intentionally, with effort, over time. Too often, students are enticed by the desire for quick glory. Like the captain, they rush and react too late, taking insufficient time to clarify feedback.

Happily, much work is being done at Ambrose Treacy to confront the iceberg illusion and assist student awareness of what it takes to be successful and meet challenges. Teachers are challenging attitudes which see success as something which individuals have an innate capacity for. Instead, they are highlighting some of the dispositions of successful learners, including: slowing down, moving with intention and taking deliberate care to appreciate the success criteria.

Key initiatives undertaken by the College to enhance learning outcomes this term include:
- Timely availability of assessment calendars to enhance student forward planning
- Use of learning intentions and success criteria throughout all classes, to ensure a focused approach
- Smart goal setting lessons, where students identify areas for progress and the strategies they will use to succeed
- Cohort goal setting with an emphasis on progress of 2016 and areas for focus in 2017. Key strategies outlined include: Writing to Learn, The Two Whys, Beta rather than Alpha Thinking
- Learning How to Learn sessions focussed on – Study Skills, building a study timetable and memory enhancement techniques

While we are not looking to replicate the Titanic disaster, we also understand that boys need to learn from experience, and that failure or disappointment can be a necessary precursor to success and improvement. Indeed, it is no coincidence that after the Titanic travesty, major improvements were made around maritime safety. As some of our students come to prepare for their first examination and assessment block of the year, we will continue to work with our boys to ensure that they better understand the characteristics of success.

Consistent with our Learning Vision, which calls on us to shape students who know not only what to learn, but how to learn, we will continue to encourage our boys to reflect on themselves as learners, exploring not only what they are doing that is obvious, but what they are doing when no-one else is looking.

Kath Little, Dean of Learning
littlek@atc.qld.edu.au