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What Have I Learned Recently?

Now that term is up and running, with a growing sense of routine, for the time being at least, it seemed like a good time to go round to each year group and share a few thoughts with them in an assembly.  In the past, which is a much easier expression of time than ‘the old normal’, this would have taken three mornings, speaking once to Year 10 and above, once to Years 7 to 9 and once to the Junior School.  I am still able to see the youngest children in one group, but everyone else needs a separate session, so eight different assemblies in total.  Still, by the time I get to the last one next week, I ought at least to have the material down to a fine art. 

I was having my eyes tested for a new pair of reading spectacles at the weekend.  There are lots of things I wish they had told me in school when I was young, most of them practical skills like how to change a plug or mend a dripping tap.  However, as I get older, I feel increasingly that there should have been more lessons to point out the decline in your faculties that comes as you get older.  I genuinely thought I would never need glasses and I would be always be able to get a full night’s sleep, but it turns out that neither is true.  We don’t want to upset the children, of course, but I do think there should be something in the curriculum that encourages them to make the very most of their youth – though I would probably have laughed at the time if such things had been taught to me. 

Anyway, I was talking to the optician about her son, who has just started in a Reception class.  When I told her what I did for a living, she asked about schools and if I had any tips for how best she could help her little boy.  I confess it took me many years to reach a definitive conclusion, but I have got there now.  The closest you can get to a silver bullet in education is to develop in a child a love of reading for pleasure.  Computers, artificial intelligence and whatever else the future may hold will help, of course, but the child who devours books will undoubtedly be able to glean more knowledge, wisdom and a clearer view of the world than the one who is reluctant to read. 

As well as thanking and congratulating the pupils for the way they have approached their schooling in recent months, and particularly this term, I am therefore taking the opportunity to show them some of the new ideas that I have absorbed since I last saw them, all from reading interesting books – hence the title of the assembly, which is also the title of this blog.  I have, of course, learned a lot in the last few months from all sorts of sources, but the pleasure that comes from learning through books is far and away my favourite.   

I started with ‘Alchemy’ by Rory Sutherland, highlighting some trivia and something I think is a bit more profound.  Three random pieces of knowledge: from point-of-sale data, with over 30,000 items on the shelves, the single item most frequently purchased, as by all grocery shoppers in Britain, is a banana; Steve Jobs suffered from an unusual fear of buttons – koumpounophobia – which drove him to develop products that could be swiped, not pressed; and modern printer ink, ounce for ounce, is more valuable than gold – though I advised the children not to buy printer cartridges for Christmas presents this year, because gold would be much better received as a gift! 

A point that may need further thought is that, apparently, we approve reasonable things too quickly, while counterintuitive ideas are frequently treated with suspicion.  Most valuable discoveries don’t make sense at first.  If they did, somebody would have discovered them already.  And ideas which people hate may be more powerful than those that people like, the popular and obvious ideas having all been tried already.  At a time when a new way of thinking seems increasingly necessary, this idea seems worthy of further consideration. 

It was not a vintage summer of reading, if I am honest, but my daughter saved the day with a birthday present, ‘The Address Book’ by Deidre Mask.  It gives a fascinating insight about how addresses developed, along with house numbers and arguments about street names.  Among a host of interesting facts, the book revealed that only 2.6 percent of street names in Paris commemorate women; in England in the 1700s, 90 percent of men had one of only eight names: John, Edward, William, Henry, Charles, James, Richard or Robert; and also in this country, with soaring house prices and a housing shortage, more than 200,000 houses sit empty for more than six months – and at least 11,000 are unoccupied for more than ten years.  In 2019, over £53 billion worth of property sat empty in England. 

I think I am just about done now with books about growth mindset and resilience, not because I don’t agree with them, but because I can now predict for the most part what they are going to say.  If I had read ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth as the first such book in my voyage of discovery, I am sure I would have raved about it for months, claiming it was a genuine life changer.  If you are interested in such areas, this would indeed be a good read, for example when she highlights that there are two key factors to promote excellence in individuals and teams: deep and rich support, and relentless challenge to improve.  She adds that we all face limits, not just in talent but also in opportunity.  But more often than we think, our limits are self-imposed.  We try, fail and conclude we have bumped our heads against the ceiling of possibility.  Or maybe after taking just a few steps we change direction.  In either case, we never venture as far as we might have.  In summary, to be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other; to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal; to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice; to fall down seven times and rise eight. 

I finished by reminding the pupils about Hal Varian, the Chief Economist at Google, who has said many times that the sexy job in the next ten years will be that of a statistician.  He says, ‘The ability to take data – to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualise it, to communicate it – that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.’   

To illustrate the point, I quoted an example from ‘Thinking’, edited by John Brockman, where he tells the story of the American weather forecaster who announced on national television that if the probability that it will rain on Saturday is 50 per cent and the probability that it will rain on Sunday is 50 per cent, the probability that it will rain over the weekend is 100 per cent.  You will be pleased, I hope, to hear that many of the pupils laughed and saw the error; but plenty did not, so it looks like we all still have work to do, both at school and at home.  Enjoy your reading!  

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