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What Have I Learned Recently?

The short answer to the title of this blog would be, ‘Lots, because that’s what happens in life’, but this week’s offering is not meant as an exercise in too much deep reflection.  Rather, it was the title I used for my latest cycle of assemblies this week, sharing with our pupils a few thoughts about some of the books I have read in recent months.  As I have said before, and will continue to say because I believe it so firmly, reading for pleasure is the best silver bullet a child can have to make progress in education and beyond.

Summarising books I have enjoyed is therefore often my default starting point when thinking about what I want to share when the opportunity arises, though there is always the flexibility to adapt the format, for example following the death of Queen Elizabeth II or at our annual Act of Remembrance.  I recently mentioned Chesterton’s Fence in the weekly bulletin – the idea that before you change something it is important to establish why it was there in the first place.  I suppose I have built my own little fence with my book sharing, and I do not see any compelling reason why this should not continue.

The first book I highlighted was ‘The Social Animal’ by David Brooks, which I plan to return to in a future blog because I found it a very interesting read.  For the pupils, time and the need for brevity meant I chose just four ideas from the book to share: apparently, men normally spend two thirds of their conversational time talking about themselves, which seems hard to argue with from personal experience; women are on average sixty to seventy per cent more proficient than men at remembering details from a scene and the locations of objects placed in a room, which I would not dare to begin to question; plays written and produced in Germany are three times as likely to have tragic or unhappy endings than plays written and produced in the United States, for reasons that can probably be worked out with a bit of thought.

The fourth idea is that people who succeed tend to find one goal in the distant future and then chase it through thick and thin.  People who flit from one interest to another are much less likely to excel at any of them.  Schools ask pupils to be good at a range of subjects, but life asks people to find one passion that they will follow forever.  For good or ill, my career goal from an early age was always to be the head of a school.  I did not immediately head that way, being drawn to greater financial reward in a different profession after university, but it did not take me long to realise I was in the wrong place and the rest, as they say, is history.

From ‘Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)’ by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson, I offered the following: A man travels many miles to consult the wisest guru in the land.  When he arrives, he asks the great man: ‘O wise guru, what is the secret of a happy life?’  ‘Good judgement,’ says the guru.  ‘But, O wise guru,’ says the man, ‘how do I achieve good judgement?’  ‘Bad judgement,’ says the guru.

From the same book, the historian Zachary Jonathan Jacobson has said: ‘What we should fear today is not the Big Lie that the Nazis promulgated but the profusion of little ones – an untallied daily cocktail of lies prescribed not to convince of some higher singularity but to confuse, to distract, to muddy, to flood.  Today’s falsehood strategy does not give us one idea to organise our thoughts, but thousands of conflicting lies to confuse them.’

To this was added a section which was published just before Donald Trump left the White House, and which describes how the Washington Post reported that by 19th April 2019, Donald Trump had passed the ten-thousand-lie mark in office – and the newspaper proceeded to list every one of them.  That number, inflated by Trump’s fury over the impeachment investigation, was up to 15,413 by 17th December…and counting.  The website PolitiFact rated 69 per cent of his statements as ‘mostly false or worse’ and only 17 per cent as ‘mostly true’, which we should surely find astonishing but which we probably do not.

Having covered some of the key ideas from ‘The Knowledge’ by Lewis Dartnell and ‘Empireland’ by Sathnam Sanghera in previous blogs, there is no need to spend long on them here, but the former provided a useful chance to consider how helpless we might be in a post-apocalyptic world, with even the skill of making something as simple as a pencil likely to prove well beyond our capabilities, while the latter provided a useful opportunity to reflect on issues of race and inclusion, which is a conversation worth having as often as possible.

The final slide in the assembly featured the cover of book by Stephen R. Covey called ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’.  It is many years since I read this book, but I have managed to construct my own myth of self-perception, as we all do all the time, whereby I regularly claim that my conclusion from reading the book was that I possess all seven habits in abundance, so QED I am indeed a highly effective person – what utter tosh!

I looked again at the chapter headings: be proactive; begin with the end in mind; put first things first; think win/win; seek first to understand, then to be understood; synergize; sharpen the saw.  This left me feeling a little disconcerted because some of them do not immediately seem to be things that I do, though there is clearly a degree of metaphor involved because sharpening the saw is all about looking after your mental health rather than preparing to cut down a tree.

The only way to resolve the dilemma about whether I do or do not possess these habits will be to read the book again, but I will need to weigh up several factors before I decide to do so.  The most obvious of these is my maxim never to read the same book twice, about which I have been fairly consistent over the years.  I also need to think about all the unread books that are weighing down my shelf at home, just waiting to unlock new pearls of wisdom to share with future audiences. Above all, however, of course, is the idea that I do not want my balloon of self-delusion to be popped.

For the benefit of the pupils, rather than inviting them to join me in the swamp of my internal monologue, I offered instead my suggestions of seven simple habits that might help to make them more effective, if not highly effective, in the way they approach their work and the challenges beyond school, both now and in the future.  Some, if not all, will be familiar to those who read what I write or listen to what I say; but, to coin a phrase, it really isn’t rocket science.

  • Work hard – give whatever you are doing your best effort;
  • Be kind – genuine kindness is a rare but deeply powerful attribute;
  • Turn up on time – lateness is disrespectful and often creates a poor impression;
  • Look smart – likewise, if you look untidy, it will usually be hard to be taken seriously;
  • Listen – hardly anyone can come close to doing this properly;
  • Pay attention – look carefully at what is actually going on in the world around you;
  • Do what you are asked to do… and then do a little bit more – the power of discretionary effort should never be underestimated.

The PowerPoint for the assemblies can be viewed here, should you so wish.

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