CEO’s Blog: August 2021: “But the light is better in here.”

Readers of my July blog may recall a brief reference to the work of physicist Richard Feynman. Taking my reading of quantum theory and its impact on us “down the rabbit hole”, as they increasingly say today, I was struck whilst reading some more of Feynman’s work – this time a series of lectures entitled “The Meaning of it All” – by his thoughts on what he describes as “the unscientific age” in which he argues we live. 

Without wanting to be too reductive by way of a summary, Feynman argues that whilst we value scientific discovery, as expressed through our technology (and perhaps the most recent example of this takes the form of our gratitude to the microbiologists and virologists working tirelessly to fight Covid-19), we haven’t sufficiently embraced science, and scientists, within our broader culture.  He compares our world with that of the ancient Greeks and Romans where their military heroes were almost the exclusive source of poetry, plays, prose, architecture and art, or the medieval period in which religious figures and stories were the primary source of cultural inspiration.  Yet, from the times of Newton, through Priestly, Darwin, Watson and Crick, Einstein to Hawking we have admired, but not embraced these individuals and their work to our hearts via our stories, songs, and art.

Feynman attributes this in no small part to the greatest gift that the onset of The Age of Reason in the eighteenth century brought to us – the value of doubt.  It is through the admission of uncertainty that we learn, we discover, we find out more and we grow.  Those of us who are parents or spend considerable time in the company of young children know the persistence, and insistence, of “but why?” questions.  These are a natural and effective way for them to try and make sense of the strange world within which they find themselves – an imperative for a young child, but still hugely important for us grown adults too.  For scientists, the “but how?” question is arguably even more important, as it propels us towards an understanding of function, not merely purpose.

In our schools – through our curriculum, assessments, our teaching and leadership – we seek to encourage curiosity and scepticism in all children of every age.  It is our mission to help the next generation on how to think, not what to think. 

We need to walk the talk as teachers and leaders in our schools in this regard.  Reading “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni, I was amused to read an analogy which he related to organisations and their search for accurate information through data.  He recounts an old episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucille Ball has lost an earring whilst at home.  Her husband comes home from work (it was the 1950s, after all!) to find her on her hands and knees in the living room looking through the pile in the carpet.  “Now, are you sure you lost your earring in here?”, he asks.  “Oh no”, she replies.  “I lost it in the kitchen, but the light is better in here!” 

The message?  We may be tempted to look for answers in “well-lit”, but inappropriate places.  The absence of secondary school external examinations and primary school tests gives us the opportunity for a re-set when looking at our schools and what they are exceptional at, and what needs improvement.  Only from there, can we ask the scientists’ question of “But how?” in order to secure that improvement.

I will sign off here on perhaps a more sombre note than usual in my blogs by reaffirming my admiration for all those who value doubt and articulate their doubts and scepticism – sometimes at great personal cost.  The opposite of doubt is certainty, and one only has to watch the news to see where certainty leads: to absolutism of authority and the polarisation of people and society between those who believe the ascribed orthodoxy and those who do not.  It is the imposition of dogma based upon certainty where in reality there is none, that leads to despair and societal regression. May we always have the good sense, and the freedom, to doubt.

As always, thanks for reading – and I hope you are enjoying a good summer. 

Mike

CEO’s Blog: “The Pale Blue Dot”

Regular readers will know that I am “late to the table” with regards to reading for pleasure, and also that I’m no scientist by any definition of the term.  Yet, I enjoy reading the work of great scientists, particularly those who see the awe and wonder in the scientific world as additional to, as opposed to a substitute for, the aesthetic, creative and imaginative feelings and stirred emotions of the universe.  To paraphrase the great physicist Richard Feynman, knowing that a rose has bright petals to attract insects for pollination does not make the petals any less vibrant in hue or beautiful in appearance to the scientist than they are to the artist. 

For this month’s blog, I wanted to share with you a piece that I re-read recently by astronomer and broadcaster Carl Sagan.  Growing up in the 1970s, my imagination was captivated by science fiction television series (Dr Who, Space 1999, and The Planet of the Apes being particular favourites) and great feature films such as Logan’s Run, Silent Running, and, of course, Star Wars.  This percolated through to an interest in documentary series such as BBC’s “The Sky at Night”, hosted by Sir Patrick Moore, and that of his American counterpart Sagan’s “Cosmos”.

In 1994, Sagan wrote a piece entitled “the pale blue dot”, based on a photograph of the Earth taken from the Voyager 1 probe on 14th February 1990 – about 6.2 billion kilometres from its home planet, as it passed Saturn and sped towards the edges of our solar system.  The photograph is reproduced here, as is the text from Sagan’s piece:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

For me, the power and majesty of Sagan’s message is such as to rival a Shakespearean soliloquy or The Gettysburg Address.  As such, to expand upon, critique, or unpick it here would only tarnish it.  However, I am brave enough to juxtapose it with another message.  Sagan’s message is a humbling and even sobering one, but it is in no means an advocation of futility.  It is a message that where we are matters.  What we do matters.  When we see large scale problems around us – climate change, social injustice – we can all play our part individually to make our “pale blue dot”, our one and only home, a better place.  But that starts with our own lives.  “People who don’t have their own houses in order should be very careful before they try to go about reorganising the world” was a comment made by a very forthright contributor to a televised panel debate I watched recently.  I agree. 

Within our Trust, we have amazing people – young and not so young – who care deeply about our world and its inhabitants, but understand that change starts with them: making the most of their talents and experience, being generous and compassionate to others, being prepared to speak and to listen, and taking personal responsibility for their growth and development.  It is their individual efforts that make us collectively what we are.  As we move toward the end of the academic year, those efforts have been as great as ever and have been a source of inspiration to all those around them, including me.  To those of them reading this, I am in your debt.

As always, thanks for reading – and have a good summer. 

Mike

CEO’s Blog: “Turn up. Work Hard. Be Nice.”

Many of you will be reading this having clicked on a link via Twitter.  I don’t have a personal Twitter account but follow many colleagues who do.  One such colleague tweeted recently about a large display-sized poster that we had constructed at John Taylor High School quite some years ago that’s still there, and that she really likes:

This poster was created with messages of support that were, in the main, derived from the students and their motivations for themselves and their peers.  I believe the sentiments expressed – every one of them – still stand the test of time years on. 

However, three of the phrases displayed here pre-date the design project.  About ten years ago, I gave an assembly with the theme based on a fridge magnet I’d seen in a small gift shop: “Turn up.  Work hard. Be nice.” For some reason, the phrase resonated with me.  It’s hardly Confucian in its profundity, but it is clear and, in my opinion, works for us all.

It was the universality of the phrases that I focussed upon in the assembly – and it was this, upon the advice of a Deputy Head, that led to the phrase becoming “sticky” in the school’s ethos and culture. 

To “turn up” isn’t merely about attendance and punctuality, it is about engagement.  Turning up to extra-curricular activities, volunteering to make a difference, participating as an active citizen.  “Turning up” is also about a frame of mind.  We know that sometimes individuals can be “mentally absent” despite their physical presence.  This was a call for active participation and focussed attention.

On “work hard”, I recalled a child psychologist advising parents to send their children off to school each day with a message to “work hard.”  This, they argued, was because all children knew what it felt like to exert and expend energy, and the value of growth and learning that comes with it. Instilling such an ethic, and showing parental support for it, was seen as of great benefit to the child.  In my assembly, this was translated into putting our best endeavours into all we do.  The outcomes of those endeavours, I emphasised, will differ for us all.  With seven billion individuals on the planet, there is every statistical probability that our efforts to play football, write a sonata or solve complex mathematical problems will still not see us achieve the absolute pinnacle of success.  But there is also the almost statistical certainty that hard work will see us improve, and markedly so, from where we were before.  Our competitor is our self, and our goal is to create a better version of ourselves. 

Finally, schools are communities which thrive or fail based on how the individuals within them interact.  “Being nice” is about respect, consideration, courtesy, support, compassion and honesty. 

The overarching message is that everyone knows what it means to “turn up, work hard and be nice.” Equally importantly, everyone knows they can “turn up, work hard and be nice.” These are not inaccessible or lofty ambitions.  They don’t require intelligence, wealth, physical ability, years of preparation or experience.  Very young children can excel in them, and mature adults can, and do, fail in them.  I still believe that living one’s life whilst striving to “turn up, work hard and be nice” will be hugely beneficial to the individual and those around them.

To conclude, Ernest Hemingway in “The New Way” re-visited the quotation that “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” The precise origins of this phrase remain unknown, but it is believed it may have emanated from Hindu teachings, where a phrase referring to “previous self” takes the place of “former self”.  Wherever it came from, those of us who believe in learning, growth, and development – of children and ourselves, individually and collectively – will subscribe wholeheartedly to the message, and the call to action that it implies.

As always, thanks for reading. 

Mike