Nurturing our most precious gift

‘The free exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world’.John Steinbeck, East of Eden

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It is often the way that impressions made at times of change, when minds are open to new ideas, cut deepest and last longest.

I spent the main block of my post-graduate teaching qualification at a challenging West London comprehensive school. During my three months as a temporary member of staff, I saw some of the worst of my soon-to-be profession, but I also saw some of the very best.

One memory which has burned brightly over the years stemmed from a school assembly for the 500 or so senior school boys and girls. The assembly started as usual with the boys and girls arriving to thumping rap music, before proceedings were interrupted, in turn, by the two deputy headmasters of the school. First, the deputy for curriculum produced a dozen eggs, one of which, he told those assembled, had been fertilised and was home to a developing chicken. He then invited boys and girls onto the stage to select an egg and take the risk of smashing it with a hammer. With four eggs duly crunched, the crowd in uproar and (thankfully) no chicken discovered, the ‘discipline’ deputy strode onto the stage to a tense, frosty, silent welcome. Apologising for the intrusion, he went on to announce that due to recent strikes by teachers, boys and girls needed to make up time in the classroom. Two options were presented for consideration: students could stay behind for an hour a night for a week, or come to school for classes on a Saturday. In the unhappy murmuring which followed, the vote came down in favour of evening attendance.

At this point, the two deputies came together in the centre of the stage and asked the boys and girls to consider what they had just done. That, led by the prompting of those in authority, they had risked, for fun, taking the life of a developing animal and voted away their own time on an issue which was the responsibility of others. The effect on the students was electric as the two teachers hammered home the need for them to question, have their own minds and own voice, to engage, debate and be part of decision-making.

I stood there feeling that I finally had some sort of grasp on what this education thing was about beyond a ‘simple’ transfer of prescribed information and skills. That it involved creating a climate of considered thought rather than conformity; a nurturing of curious, challenging and strident minds amongst individuals and groups rather than meek acceptance; and engagement at a level we mathematicians call ‘first principles’ – the building blocks for all to come.

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I write at a time when, in line with the path taken by many countries, Australia is, stage by stage, implementing its national (Australian) curriculum. Whilst it is not at all difficult to make the case for a degree of consistency across the states in what young people are taught, the danger, to my mind, lies when a mixture of educational zeal and ministerial desire for control delivers an all-consuming mandate, rather than a thin trunk from which each school can branch and blossom (as was initially envisaged by former British Secretary of State for Education, Dame Shirley Williams). A good curriculum, like good teaching, should be adaptable to individual interests and talents (teachers and students), and should not be overburdened by perceived needs of the existing marketplace.

Education has, for centuries, provided such a time for people to ponder ‘big questions’: issues that have occupied minds for generations and thoughts of what a future could look like, as well as those entwined with matters of the present. With universities pressured to focus as much on balancing books as reading them, schools have a crucial part to play in ensuring space continues to exist within the curriculum for young people to explore and pit their own minds against those of others. To swamp a curriculum with content is to risk sucking the oxygen of free thought from the mix. Or, as my drum teacher used to say, what you leave out is often more important than what you put in.

Schools need to equip young people with the life skills that enable them to find employment and be integrated into society, but they should also develop minds capable of creating new opportunities for work, leisure and community engagement. As John Wyndham noted in his novel The Day of the Triffids, if we focus solely on the skills we need to make a living without allowing time for thought, then ‘knowledge stagnates and people with it’.

The reasons for a growing belief in, and acceptance of, a one-size-fits-all approach to education tied to ‘performance’ based accountability are no doubt legion. I would note that I do consider myself fortunate to have been at school prior to the ubiquitous march of the focus group (and its tendency to drive to a functional middle), and in a time when the faring of the world’s commercial markets occupied but a few minutes at the end of the evening news, just before, and perhaps appropriately linked with, the fortunes of the British weather.

Scotch remains committed to an education based on our Christian faith and values forged in the tradition of Scottish enlightenment; to a broadly-based liberal curriculum and an education built on engagement and unearthing interests rather than turning pages of an instruction manual. This is demonstrated through the diversity of our offering and our desire to equip boys with minds and bodies which can embrace not just what is, but all that could be made to come about.

It is demonstrated through a co-curricular programme rich in a diet of sport, drama, debating and music, and through the diversity of our services and activities programme. The end of Term 3 holidays saw some 440 boys and 50 members of staff involved in activities and fundraising, from cadets at Puckapunyal and Scouts at Healesville, via outdoor expeditions and kayaking on the Wellington River, to school building in Mongolia and time with our friends at Tiwi College.

It is there in the breadth of our academic pursuits including broad options for enrichment and an elective programme which, at a key stage of development, allows boys and staff to follow their interests and talents. It continues to grow through recent changes: Philosophy available through to Year 12; Year 9 retreats; the tutorial programme in Years 9-12; our joining of the Global Alliance of Leading Edge Schools and participation in its TiltShift programme; our offering of Global Perspectives as a Year 10 elective; our desire to see more boys partake in overseas exchanges; the continued mapping of our curriculum and the integration of higher order thinking skills (critical thinking and reasoning, problem solving, communication, collaboration), designed to equip boys for future opportunities.

In 2012 and beyond, we will continue to cut such a path by embracing ongoing conversations of learning. Conversations which form the basis of the classroom environment and continue between and amongst boys and staff beyond the sound of the bell; conversations directed at challenging and supporting each boy’s learning; conversations which promote curiosity and independence of thought; conversations which unearth interests and promote talents however quirky they might seem; conversations which initiate ‘first principle’ connections.

It is tempting to seek improvement through control and conformity, but better, I would contend, to nurture institutions committed to working with our most precious gift: ‘Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man’ . . . ‘And this I believe: that the free exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world’. – John Steinbeck, East of Eden