It‘s essential that we are always aware of the impact of ‘truly important things’ on those navigating the school years.
Not so long ago, I was asked how schools differ from other institutions and corporations. In response, I asked my questioner to imagine being asked to establish the key performance indicators for marriage, and then applying them to all such unions every three months to decide whether couples were on the right track.
Like marriage, much in education is about individuals (their moods, ambitions, talents, fears, strengths and weaknesses) and the relationships they form, and could form, through interaction, observation, experience and thought. But it is not even that simple, because it is about how all these factors for each boy interact with all the factors for all other boys, staff and parents. It’s like dance: some naturally want to waltz, some to tango, others prefer hip-hop or air-guitar and some like to gyrate their bellies in mesmeric fashion. Some have difficulty getting one foot in front of the other, while others flit from one style to another in the blink of an eye. And it doesn’t necessarily follow that two waltzers bring out the best in one another. The patterns are complex and ever moving, the rhythm varied, the tempo hard to predict. Sometimes the best thing that can happen is to tread on each other’s toes now and again.
This is not to suggest there isn’t an important role for data collection and measurement. Feedback is essential in monitoring alignment to goals; snapshot measures are useful when tracking individual progress; and time series data, in particular, can both prompt key questions and point to areas requiring action. But there are inherent risks in attempting to define or model multi-variable systems like education with discrete measures and indicators, not least that of narrowing the environment to fit the measurement and, in so doing, losing the magic.
The magic is based on those aspects of the human condition which are, thankfully, resistant to measurement; those things which are untameable; those things which are truly important. And it can be tempting, as adults, to view such important things solely from a ‘grown-up’ perspective, forgetting that those we work with (and for) see and experience the world through younger, more innocent and often brighter eyes. When I entered the teaching profession in 1987 I made a vow that I would try not to forget the impact of ‘truly important things’ on those navigating the school years. As always, though, such thoughts are best expressed by those who see things most clearly:
In an assembly at the start of this year, I asked the boys to ponder their current three favourite love songs. I suggested that it was good to take some time out now and again to think about such things, as, in reflecting on their choice, they would be exploring their engagement with ‘something truly important’. (To set them on their way, and to encourage some ‘noise’, I gave them my pick at the time: Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars, The Smiths’ There is a Light That Never Goes Out, and, of course, Dolly Parton’s Jolene.)
Some weeks later, in another assembly, I asked them to reflect upon their three funniest memories. Again I gave them a taste of mine, cautious that the humour in such moments tends to be idiosyncratic in nature and involve the foibles of those we know best, often family and our closest friends.
Whilst love is quickly recognised as truly important, humour is less so, and I think this both an oversight and shame. Humour for boys often provides an acceptable means of dealing with challenging or sensitive situations. It is often used to diffuse the locking of adolescent horns and it can ease the discussion of personal matters. Humour provides a means through which boys can show the depth of their feelings for each other: to really laugh hard with someone requires a sharing, not only of circumstance, but of experience, empathy and nature. Humour also provides boys with a means of coping with adversity (trench humour) and, through parody, a tool with which matters of weight can be brought into consciousness.
The importance of humour was, I believe, well-constructed by Hermann Hesse in his novel, Steppenwolf :
‘To live in the world as though it were not the world, to respect the law and yet stand above it, to have possessions as though “one possessed nothing”, to renounce as though it were no renunciation, all these favourite and often formulated propositions of an exalted worldly wisdom, it is in the power of humour alone to make efficacious.’
Another factor that can all too readily slip through the matrix of school performance measurement is that now seemingly (and sadly) old-fashioned concept of cleverness.
For me, being ‘clever’ can best be likened to being adaptable: being able to adjust readily to changes in circumstance, complexity and expectation - the sort of traits which are likely to be increasingly in demand as Scotch boys head away from school to cut their own paths.
Our broadly-based liberal curriculum, diverse co-curricular programme, proud heritage, Christian foundation and sense of community keep our minds alive to ‘truly important things’. Our school is, and must always be, more than the wonderful results achieved in examinations. We will always respect the measures thrown at us and ensure Scotch boys are equipped to achieve their best on the public stage, but we know there is much more to education, and that by encouraging a fully engaged life we better prepare boys for all the tests to come.
In recent weeks this has been demonstrated by both the breadth and quality of involvement of Scotch boys. Over the Term 2 vacation, more than 300 boys were involved with some 30 members of staff in activities as diverse and challenging as Global Village house building in Vietnam and sea kayaking and scuba diving along the Queensland coastline. Cadets were part of a bivouac at Gembrook and those boys involved in the Year 10 Outdoor Leadership Programme went to camp in Howqua. Year 9 footballers tested themselves against Adelaide’s best, good use was once again made of our facilities at Cowes and, back at base, there was a busy schedule of rehearsals for the coming production of The Mikado. For those minds inclined to wander beyond earthly matters there was a NASA tour. In the last weeks of Term 2, Scotch boys were part of the Australian Olympiad teams for physics, chemistry and informatics (the competitions being held in Israel, Turkey and Thailand, respectively), and it was with great pleasure that I received an e-mail from Adrian Li (’09) informing that, at the end of his first year at Cambridge University, he had topped the year in engineering.
In July of next year we will be hosting the 19th annual conference of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition. The theme of our conference is Unearthing Creativity. While promoting our conference at this year’s gathering in London, I made the point that boys like to create things; that they like to make things happen. They like to create music, poetry, literature, theatre and art; they like to create structures, be they mathematical, scientific, economic or of a more concrete form; they like to create games for playing fields (so many of the sports played and watched by passionate crowds the world over began with groups of schoolboys kicking, throwing or hitting a ball about in fun) and games for computer screens. But they also like to create relationships and friendships of depth and longevity and they like to create humour and, in all this, they like to be clever. GS
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