The annual educational cycle has begun once more with the ritual first assembly of the new academic year safely completed. The first assembly affords the Head Master the opportunity to extend a formal but genuinely warm welcome to the new and understandably nervous students whilst also seeking to establish an unassailable understanding in young minds of the school’s high expectations of their approach to learning and to behaviour within the school community. This is a difficult balance to strike and if achieved at all probably relies upon body language and tone of voice as much as content. I usually talk about learning as it seems the best way of setting the priorities for the coming year for a school community. (Perhaps next year I will do something completely different, thus unsettling the staff.)
Each year I learn a new skill over the summer holiday, publically committing myself to a few minutes of daily practice during the last assembly of the summer term, in an attempt to convince the community that learning is important for everyone whether student or Head Master. This year I have studied the ukulele and I was able to limp haltingly through ‘Greensleeves’ in my first assembly, receiving a gratifyingly full burst of applause, which perhaps justifies the regular and resonant twangings endured by my family on holiday. Previous summer holidays have been graced by the melancholy warblings of the blues harmonica and the throaty honking of the tenor saxophone. Hopefully I will be able to tackle skills that do not focus on musical instruments in the future although they have the advantage of offering a convenient assembly spectacle. (One helpful student recently suggested break-dancing; I fear that this may genuinely lie beyond the physical capabilities of middle aged man but perhaps I should criticise my own self-limiting attitude.)
I do genuinely enjoy learning new skills, relishing the moments when some minor achievement can first be demonstrated. At the start of a learning journey in some new discipline progress is rapid and therefore ‘success’ moments are relatively common; later on diminishing returns set in and one must be more patient. I am also reminded of how hard learning can be; several days of frustration as I was completely unable to force my fingers reliably to form the pattern necessary to play a G major chord nearly reduced me to despair during early August. Encouragingly, I found that I was suddenly able to achieve this minor miracle of dexterity although the euphoria quickly turned to a sense of unease at not being able to understand what had changed in the intervening night! The whole experience does certainly make me more patient with the student who struggles with a particular subject or topic, constrained by the school curriculum to continue the pursuit of understanding throughout the year and needing constant encouragement to apply themselves. I also become ever more convinced of the need for real determination in learning and of the importance of seeking and taking advice, both encouraging and technical in nature, to maximise progress; learning is a corporate business so that learning together proceeds at a much greater rate than learning alone.
As the excitement of the annual August festival of public examination results subsides I find it refreshing to remind the students that schools are about learning and not merely about passing examinations, important though they are. The new school year offers endless opportunities to identify and develop talents, grow in character and judgement, increase in knowledge and skill and to get better at the activity of learning. In a changeable world the latter seems ever more important; most jobs require not only a body of knowledge and skills but also the ability to acquire new knowledge and master new skills quickly and effectively. Viewed through this prism the point of school is to allow people to learn how to learn; the activity of learning a subject or a skill means that we can tackle the next subject with greater confidence and with the expectation that our learning will proceed more quickly than before. Accomplishment in this field is difficult to assess but, along with the ability to show leadership and to work effectively with others, seems important for success in life. Learning French means not only that we can speak to French to some level but in the event of some future posting, necessitating the mastery of say rudimentary Italian, we will able to learn the next language more quickly as a result of our experience with French. This is not to say that the knowledge gained along the way is not important; learning Newton’s Laws is useful and illuminating in its own right but it also hones our ability to grasp abstract theories and solve problems, skills which transcend the confines of GCSE Physics.
I conclude with a quote from Oscar Wilde which I sincerely hope is not true of me; ‘Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching’.