CEO’s Blog: September 2021: The “thief of joy”?

It was wonderful to see colleagues and children returning to our schools at the start of the month.  I have felt a palpable sense of resolve to meet the challenges of the term ahead, and an excitement at the re-engagement with friends and acquaintances after a summer break which, for many within our school communities, included a significant amount of work as preparation for the onset of the new academic year.

Looking back at my blog for September 2020, I concluded with the following: “But let us all hope for calmer waters and more favourable tides than those we’ve encountered most recently.”  This time last year many of us, or arguably most of us, looked forward to 2020-21 as the time when schools would return to a “new normal” and examinations and tests would determine the final outcomes for the children of Years 6, 11 and 13.  This wasn’t mere wishful thinking, but a reasoned series of assumptions based on the information that was forthcoming at the time. 

Today, we also look forward to “calmer waters and more favourable tides” and with greater confidence than this time last year.  It is our innate optimism as educators that drives us to look at the future positively.  Within John Taylor MAT, our statement of intent is that “we believe in the power of education to improve lives – and the world.” That is an inherently optimistic view of both education and the future, and I continue to subscribe to it unashamedly.

Whilst on a lengthy run a couple of weeks ago (more of running in a supplemental blog in a fortnight’s time!) I was struck by a quotation from American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer (pictured below) that featured in the audiobook I was “reading” at the time (by another American social philosopher, Thomas Sowell).  I bookmarked the section, and have found the quotation subsequently and transcribed it here:

“There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day; we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life.”

Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind: And Other Aphorisms [1954]

One doesn’t have to have worked in a school to recognise the above as being a succinct but highly accurate attitude to life that some individuals will exhibit and seek to exploit.  It is in no small part the work of the “rest of us” – young and old – in school and beyond to challenge the alibis and settle for nothing less than achievement.  And having sought achievement, recognise and celebrate it when it is evident – and then insist on greater accomplishment still. 

In our school communities we want everyone to become the best version of themselves they can.  This means comparison between their past self and their present, and the comparison between their present self and their future.  “Comparison is the thief of joy”, as the ancient Sufis claimed.  But in that context the comparison is with others – their wealth, their status, their achievements, and even their happiness.  In our schools, we avoid comparison with others when it comes to an individual and their progress.  To do otherwise, opens the door to the “good alibi” that Hoffer seeks to guard us against.

So, let today be your best day – except for tomorrow, which will be better still!

Thanks for reading. 

Mike

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