Leaving the Plateau
You may be pleased to know that my new school year’s resolution is to write shorter blogs, trying to summarise ideas more succinctly. This is not because I am getting lazy in my old age, but because I think I may be able to make everyone’s life a bit easier if I can work on my skills of brevity. Given that this is not my natural default setting, it will also be a good challenge for me.
In my start of term letter last week, I said that I have challenged my colleagues to find ways to ensure we are able to stir ourselves from any plateau on which we may rest and head towards the next peak. There may be some rare organisations that are able to move constantly in an upward trajectory, but most exist on the rollercoaster ride of a sine curve, going up and down over time, with key turning points along the way, which often mark the times when progress stalls.
The quality of the teaching at Radnor House is very high. I know this because I watch lessons on a regular basis, though not as much as I should. I also hear from my colleagues about the classes they visit and the engaging activities they witness, and the Independent Schools Inspectorate objectively concluded that the school was ‘Excellent’ in all categories, so we are clearly doing something right.
There will, of course, be some marginal gains to be made in lessons, not least through our work with the Thinking Matters organisation to develop the quality of questioning in class, but it seems to me that more progress can be made outside the classroom, particularly through the development of a greater sense of intellectual curiosity across the school community.
Tim Harford has become one of my favourite authors in recent months. In his latest book, ‘How to Make the World Add Up’, he made a strong case for this idea, highlighting the old saying: ‘The cure for boredom is curiosity: there is no cure for curiosity’. He then made the point that once we start to peer beneath the surface of things, become aware of the gaps in our own knowledge and treat each question as the path to a better question, we find that curiosity is habit-forming. If we want to make the world add up, we need to ask questions – open-minded, genuine questions. And once we start asking them, he says, we may find it delightfully difficult to stop.
Inspired by what Harford wrote, this was one of the ideas I highlighted to my colleagues before term started. How can we find ways to develop and promote this culture of curiosity? I also reiterated the point I made in my speech at Prizegiving at the end of the summer term, that the time of the pointy-elbowed, win-at-all-costs approach to school – and then, inevitably and unfortunately, to life – has surely come to an end and we need a softer, more compassionate approach that is genuinely underpinned by common values.
My author of choice to reinforce my point here was Rutger Bregman, from his ‘Utopia for Realists’, which sweeps across many areas of society but makes an excellent point about education. He says that all the big debates in education are about format, delivery and didactics. Education is consistently presented as a means of adaptation – as a lubricant to help you glide more effortlessly through life. He highlights how, on the education conference circuit, an endless parade of trend watchers prophesy about the future and about essential twenty-first-century skills, the buzzwords being ‘creative’, ‘adaptable’ and ‘flexible’.
This means that the focus, invariably, is on competencies, not values; on didactics, not ideals; on problem-solving ability, but not which problems need solving. Invariably, it all revolves around the question: ‘Which knowledge and skills do students need to get hired in tomorrow’s job market – the market of 2030?’ Bregman starkly makes the point that this is precisely the wrong question.
Instead, he says, we should be posing a different question altogether: ‘Which knowledge and skills do we want our children to have in 2030?’ Then, instead of anticipating and adapting, we would be focusing on steering and creating. Instead of wondering what we need to do to make a living in this or that job, we could ponder how we want to make a living. He concludes that this is a question no trend watcher can answer because they only follow the trends, they don’t make them. He throws down the gauntlet that this part is up to us.
We are looking at a new strapline for the school, with the current front-runner being ‘Great Teaching, Genuine Values’, which seems to be going down well, summing up nicely what we do and how we are wired. To illustrate the point, I finished my presentation to my colleagues as I will finish this blog (coming in at under 850 words, so an encouraging sign of progress!), with a quotation from Victor Hugo: ‘Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’