Why school underachievers have untapped potential to be high-flying CEOs… just like Tej Samani

Dropping out of school didn't stop the Founder of Performance Learning. The secret? Don't develop a complex algorithm or new piece of technology – it’s simply about re-educating students on how to use their brain in a certain way

As a three-time school dropout, Tej Samani sought to prove his teachers wrong later in life. As well as a stint playing pro tennis on the ATP circuit, he set up his first company at age 17, dabbling in everything from sleep deprivation to sporting performance. However, there was one problem that was proving an obsession. Why did he underachieve at school, and how to help others like him?

Underachievement or underperformance is one of the biggest challenges in education. The idea of identifying areas of disadvantage is not new, with research encompassing various different types of factors: race, location and gender being some of the most prevalent (and newsworthy). 

But as Founder and CEO of Performance Learning, an institute dedicated to supporting schools, colleges and universities across the UK and Europe, Samani drew a slightly different conclusion. He thought back to his anxiety and stress as a teenager, struggling to cope with the pressure of homework deadlines, as well as his discussions with the constant flow of underperforming students that came into his institute.

The most powerful single influence enhancing achievement is feedback

John Hattie, Author, 'Visible Learning'

There is a massive chasm that he believes exists between technological advancement and our cognitive ability to keep up with this progress. The solution, he says, is not to develop a complex algorithm or a new piece of technology – it’s simply to re-educate students on how to use their brain. “If you’re feeling good, sleeping well and eating well, and confident in the classroom – you will start to see improved output. There’s no question about it,” he said at the recent Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai.

The most common emotions his institute discovered when surveying underperforming students were those of feeling overwhelmed, anxious and lacking in engagement. These thoughts were echoed by Boya Yang, a Global Teacher Prize Top Ten Finalist 2017. As a psychology teacher at a school in the urban centre of Kunming, China, she expressed concern with the attention to exams in her country, stating at the forum: “My hope is that schools can develop holistic psychological support programs for students and their parents so that they can develop as healthy individuals--not just physically, but mentally as well.”

Performance Learning, says Samani, has delivered over an 86 per cent success rate in improving exam results by simply focusing on the essentials that students need to retain information. Here are the recurrent themes highlighted by educators and academics alike as key to learning success:

The new essentials for better learning

Sleep

86 per cent of the underperforming students Samani and his team surveyed had a bedtime of after 12:15am. This, he said, proved one of the primary factors behind their underachievement at school.

Studies have shown that the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for storing memories, among other functions – depletes rapidly if deprived of sleep.

As well as benefitting declarative memory – retaining facts or figures – slow-wave sleep also helps procedural memory – remembering how skills or strategies are performed.

“A great way to help you relax and get off to a good night’s sleep is to make sure you’re not exposed to any artificial light such as through television or electronic devices like iPhones,” says Samani.

Food

In analysis of 160 studies on food’s effect on the brain, UCLA professor of neurosurgery Fernando Gómez-Pinilla posited that diet (as well as exercise and sleep) are “viable strategies for enhancing cognitive abilities.”

He pinpointed the Omega-3 fatty acids found in foods such as salmon, spinach and walnuts as beneficial for learning, which has been backed up by an Australian study, where 400 children between 6 and 12 were given a drink containing omega-3 fatty acids. After six months, they showed higher scores on tests measuring memory and verbal than a control group of students who did not receive the drink.

Technique

Samani described the surprise on students’ faces when he tells them that, during the first three months of joining Performance Learning, they will not learn any facts. Rather, his team concentrate on teaching students retention, recollection and structuring techniques in order to succeed at learning.

This method has ties to Anders Ericsson’s method of ‘deliberate practice’, which cautions against repetitive practice of a particular skill or subject. Instead, the psychologist and scientific researcher counsels retaining a coach in order to pinpoint where you went wrong in order to correct your mistakes the next time.

The advice often counters popular learning techniques; in his book Learn Better, which deals with the neuroscience of learning, author Ulrich Boser warns against “skimming” behaviours, such as such as highlighting and re-reading, describing them as passive and ineffective. He instead champions testing yourself on the material and continually asking questions. Ultimately, as John Hattie writes in Visible Learning: “the most powerful single influence enhancing achievement is feedback.”