Last Updated: 05/09/2018 14:11:23
Once upon a time, in a small island nation where rugby was the dominant religion and there were more sheep than people (and more jokes about that ratio than sheep), an unremarkable young boy grew up and went to school. It was the 1970’s, an embarrassing decade, now banished from the history books because nothing eventful happened during those drab years other than a number of appalling hairstyles which were a crime against humanity.
The young boy’s name was Peter and the school he went to is immaterial, other than to say that it was an average school. Which is much worse than being a bad school. At least bad schools are ultimately fixed or closed. Average schools just trudge along the well-worn paths of the status quo, fearful of any deviation that may plunge them into a dark and scary land called Tomorrow. Average schools are usually led by average Heads and staffed by average teachers. Well-intentioned souls who nevertheless shy away from taking a tilt at excellence, content enough with each new day bringing neither calamity nor risk.
To be fair, young Peter enjoyed his time in his average school. Nonetheless, he suffered there, although he did not realise it until years later. Not through ill-treatment; Peter was far from perfect and undoubtedly deserved the many punishments that were dished out. To this day, he regrets the incident with the Bunsen burner and the dissected rabbit, which drove his Biology teacher to abandon his profession. Nor did he suffer through undue pressure or unrealistic expectations pushing him to breaking point. Far from it. Fanciful notions of excellence were unheard of in the 1970’s. No, the nature of his abuse was mediocrity. Of the institutional variety. A prevailing ethos that ‘near enough was good enough’.
As a result, he was shielded from the crushing disappointments of failing to get A grades, losing tournament finals, or forgetting his lines on opening night. Not because such opportunities didn’t exist, but because nobody really expected him to partake. Our story takes place even before the era of cotton-wool parenting and the snowflake generation. This is simply a tale of colourless indifference, set in a time of low aspiration. Not that our young protagonist brought much rigour to the party himself. His Mathematics teacher once wrote in a school report “Peter will succeed in spite of himself.” Yet teenagers aren’t wired to make life hard for themselves, that’s the job of their parents and teachers. At that age, high standards work best when they are expected by others.
Don’t get the violins out just yet though, for there is a happy ending. In his final year of school, just as a life of unchallenging monotony was looming, an inspiring teacher tore up young Peter’s carefully handwritten application for a horribly mundane job in front of his eyes and replaced it with a university prospectus. So shocked was he at this show of faith, it didn’t occur to him that he might not be good enough to go there. He just dutifully left and did what was expected. That led to 34 years in a rich and fulfilling career, which sees him, today, proud to work in a school that is anything but average.
I may have missed out on an inspiring secondary education, but I did learn a lasting lesson in those distinctly average years. Namely, that expectations are self-fulfilling. Young people will, invariably, rise or fall to the expectations that are held of them. Show a child that you think they are likely to fail and they will happily oblige. Demonstrate that you genuinely think they will succeed and same is true. Most of us go into new situations alert for cues as to what might be expected of us. What might be considered the norm. Show young people that you genuinely anticipate they will be proficient, or engaged, or respectful, or any other admirable quality and, in my experience, they will be. Sadly, the same is true of signals, even subliminal ones, that you think they will struggle, rebel, misbehave, or aren’t good enough.
That’s why we don’t start the new year at Bromsgrove by lecturing young people about the things they can’t, shouldn’t and must not do. That speaks of an expectation that they will transgress. From Pre-Prep to the Sixth Form, the messages are of high expectation, not low. Spoken and subliminal. We try to show to every child that we automatically presume good intent on their part. That we expect extraordinary feats from them. That we are convinced they possess a unique flair. They rarely let us down.
As for the now-not-so-young Peter, he is eternally grateful for the power of aspiration, remains terrified of mediocrity, refuses to employ average teachers, and always encourages his Science Department to lock up their Bunsen burners.
Last Updated: 21/05/2018 10:03:08
Criminals come in all shapes and sizes, which is sometimes how they are caught. McArthur Wheeler was 5’6” but weighed 270 pounds when he set out to rob a Pittsburgh bank in early 1995. Yet he made no effort to conceal his body, as he was wearing the perfect disguise on his face. He strode calmly into the bank lobby, confidently ignoring security cameras, as he waved his gun at the tellers. Police quickly recovered clear footage of him and broadcast it on the evening news. The confidential tip line starting ringing minutes later. Within an hour, Mr Wheeler was in custody.
He was baffled at his arrest, but not half as confused as the Police, who didn’t understand why he kept repeating that he had “worn the juice”. It turned out that this master criminal had a cunning plan. Knowing that lemon juice worked as invisible ink, only becoming visible when held near to a heat source, Wheeler had a brainwave. He covered his face in lemon juice so that it wouldn’t be visible on security cameras. He was extremely confident of his plan, but just to be certain, he took a photo of himself beforehand on a Polaroid camera, which convinced him because it came out blank (possibly the world’s first selfie fail?). “But I wore the juice” he wailed as the cell door slammed.
McArthur Wheeler could simply have disappeared into the annals of dumb crooks, but for the work of two social psychologists from Cornell University, Justin Kruger and David Dunning. They were researching a curious phenomenon to do with self-awareness. What intrigued them about the robbery plot was why Wheeler believed with such certainty that he would be able to foil the security cameras with lemon juice on his face. He was clearly an incompetent robber, but not an unconfident one. Why was he so sure he would succeed?
It turns out; our brains are wired that way. The study ultimately demonstrated that the less competence an individual has in a specific task, the more inflated their perception of their own ability. Today, this phenomenon is known as the Dunning–Kruger effect.
It’s not absolute, you need some degree of knowledge to start with. If you never learn to drive a car, you will know that you can’t drive. However, those who do learn, but then drive badly, usually assess themselves as having much higher levels of ability than is actually the case. Conversely, research shows the very best drivers usually under-report and downplay their skill. The same is true for all aspects of human endeavour. Poor scholars think they will score higher than they do. Armchair critics believe they could coach their favourite team better than the professionals. People who consider themselves extremely funny often tell the worst jokes. Those who are supremely confident that they are the perfect spouse … you get the picture.
Actor John Cleese highlighted the Dunning-Kruger effect when he said: “If you’re very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you’re very, very stupid? You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are.”
I share this not as some veiled comment on the intelligence of our pupils, who are generally extremely capable and remarkably self-aware of their academic abilities. Nor is it a subtle dig at side-line supporters who willingly share their insights into how the game should be played. Neither am I commenting upon the quality of any parent’s driving, joke-making or prowess as the perfect partner.
I like the Dunning–Kruger effect simply because it reinforces my love of humility. It has been my experience that the more competent a person is, the less they need to tell others of their ability. The very able are often quite self-deprecating. Whereas, over-confidence and arrogance often walk hand in hand. There is nothing more unattractive than someone who pushes their own barrow, especially if that barrow is empty.
Unashamedly, to pupils of all ages, I preach the virtues of being humble. Which should not be confused with a lack of confidence. It is possible to be modest and still be self-assured. In fact, that is an extremely endearing combination. Our best scholars, athletes, creatives and leaders let their performance do the talking.
Bromsgrove is not in the business of breeding better bank robbers, but if our pupils leave us with quiet confidence in their abilities and the intelligence and humility to know what they don’t know, I will be happy. Hiding your light helps nobody, but neither does shining it perpetually on your own face. Unless your face is covered in lemon juice of course.
Last Updated: 07/12/2017 09:07:02
An update, for those who read an earlier musing in which I compared my daughter to a Russian matryoshka doll, with all past versions of herself still nested inside. Turns out there was one more version to come, this one literally contained within her. I am now a grandparent.
The little one came into the world a week before his mother’s birthday. She texted to say “For the first time in my life, my own birthday seems completely irrelevant.” Welcome to parenthood, kiddo. Into that same storage cupboard you can also stow away unbroken sleep, long indulgent dinners and the thought of ever travelling light anywhere again.
Of course, for every intrusion and future anxiety, she has ten times as many joys awaiting her. Being someone’s Mum or Dad is a rollercoaster of emotions that doesn’t stop. As new parents, we think the succession of “firsts” will end after the first word, first step, first tooth. But they just keep coming. First partner, job, house. Hallelujah - first loan that wasn’t from me. And now, first child.
That novelty has been different for us both though. I expected the same feelings I had when she was born. Elation. Terror. In the event though, being ‘Grandad’ brought entirely different emotions. When our own children arrive, we are consumed by the here-and-now. From nappies to missing sports kit to incomprehensible Maths homework, we bounce from one chapter of Parenting for Dummies to the next without a break.
One second they’re learning to crawl, the next they’re learning to drive. I blinked and we went from temperamental toddlers to teenage tantrums (pretty much the same thing, only with extra sarcasm). It is unrelenting. How are you supposed to contemplate university choices when you’re still reeling from the fact that your ability to name all of Thomas the Tank Engine’s friends no longer impresses?
Even today, I still can’t get a clear line of sight on where my children are headed. Yet my grandson is a different matter altogether. From the moment he arrived safely, my mind has been filled with what life holds in store for him. I see his future stretching out, the possibilities of his journey. Possibly that’s because my life’s work has been education. Or perhaps it is just because I don’t have to change the next nappy. Maybe though, after 27 years of parenting, I’m starting to see how this all pans out. That it’s not so easy to mess up, no matter how inept you feel at times. They turn out alright. Don’t sweat the small stuff etc etc.
So I shared this newfound sense of optimistic enthusiasm with my daughter. My enlightened insight into her baby’s journey through the world. She seemed surprisingly disinterested. A slight misalignment in priorities. While I was pondering how he would grow up, she was considering where he would next throw up. “I have a detailed life plan” I enthused. “That is less than helpful Father” she said, collapsing the stroller one-handed into the car boot whilst juggling the baby, two bags of groceries and an umbrella.
Not long after my daughter’s birthday text, another one arrived. “Christmas is so different when you have a child to make it special for - even though he has no clue about it at 2 months.” I think she is starting to get the hang of this parenting thing.
No better way for me to wish every Bromsgrove family a joyful Christmas break. For all my wistful reverie about the wondrous span of our children’s lives, each life is made up of moments. None more important than times like this. No matter how you traditionally spend this time of the year, may you spend it together as a family, making your children feel as treasured and precious as they undoubtedly are, whatever their age. Merry Christmas.
Last Updated: 15/09/2017 12:29:44
Given my upbringing, I am mildly surprised to still be alive. Not that I was unduly reckless or my parents neglectful. But society in the Seventies, my school in particular, did a pretty good job of convincing the young that we were all destined to perish in a nuclear holocaust. The prevailing expectation was that the Cold War was soon to become very hot and irradiated. The question was never whether it would happen, just when?
This gloomy outlook extended well beyond the media who, it may be argued, have a financial incentive to forecast impending disasters. Bad news sells papers. Unfortunately though, the certainty of being obliterated in an instant because Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon finally got fed-up with each other was also being promoted in the classrooms of our schools.
I can still remember Humanities lessons in which we were earnestly instructed on how to build nuclear fallout shelters in our backyards (no great hardship for 13 year old boys I might add). We were taught a shorthand vocabulary of atomic annihilation: MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), RAD (Radiation Absorption Dose).
In Science, we learned the difference between fallout and yield. In English, we were fed a diet of novels about the doomsday scenario and dystopian movies depicting life in a nuclear winter. I still have a cartoon given to me by a teacher which shows a sleepy President Reagan waking up in the White House. His finger hovers uncertainly over two buttons above the bedside table – one labelled LUNCH, the other, LAUNCH.
Mushroom clouds over Auckland all seems a little bit silly now. However, the fact remains that my generation grew up with a fair degree of fatalism that the end of the world really was nigh. I look back now and wonder how that affected our subsequent outlook on life? Are we more cautious, less committing, perhaps even cynical and blind to some of the joys of life as a result of being raised in a climate of such pessimism?
My introspection might not really matter, were it not for the fact that mine was not the only generation to have been educated against a backdrop of global fear. Throughout the past four decades, different generations of young people have grown up with a succession of fear-inducing global threats. We have taught them variously they were all going to die from either HIV/AIDS, SARs, Ebola, Mad Cow Disease, Zika, the Millennium Virus, ozone depletion, global financial crashes, climate change, or terrorism. Lately it seems we have come full circle, with Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un replacing Brezhnev and Nixon in rattling the nuclear sabres.
I do not mean to be flippant; each of these crises undoubtedly held the potential for disaster. But my concern is the effect of all this doom-saying has on impressionable young minds. Expectation is a powerful force and our children learn to expect what the adults in their lives expect. If we constantly portray the world as fragile, frightening and ultimately doomed, what impact does this have on their outlook and state of mental health?
Last Updated: 08/05/2017 11:36:42
Thirty years in this job and I have yet to meet the perfect parent. I mean no disrespect, for I place myself high on the list of the slightly bemused and mildly inept. Those of us who thought raising a child would be more like walking the dogs than herding the cats. Parenting is no easy task, which is why I usually resist any temptation to lecture others on how to do it right.
Advice abounds in other places of course. Pop psychology pieces in magazines. Self-help books, ironically positioned on the Mental Health shelves of the Library. Websites that pop up when the search words “child rearing” and “Oh my God what have we created?” are used. Most commit many column inches to describing the problems, far fewer to workable solutions.
Still, we are drawn in by desperate hope. That and alliteration, which seems to be important. “Taming Toddler Tantrums with Tickles” and “Top Tips To Train Turbulent Teens.”
Lists are quite seductive too. “Eight Things Not To Say to Your Teenage Daughter” or “Five Signs That Your Child Is Anxious.” In my experience, anything I said to my teenage daughter provoked anxiety, so perhaps they are the same list.
The problem with this generic advice is that it ignores the fact that the challenges of parenting are highly idiosyncratic. Being a parent is like living with your own personalised carnival sideshow. Children can be like a cross between the hall of mirrors, which distorts every good thing you thought about yourself and amplifies your failings, and the talking scales, which delight in broadcasting the aforementioned failings to all who will listen. All mounted on a rollercoaster that won’t stop, no matter how loud you scream.
All of which, quite naturally, makes us receptive to advice about how to do this parenting stuff right. Having grown up vowing that we would never parent as badly as our own completely unreasonable mother and embarrassing father, we now wish that we could do it half as well as they did. No wonder we are susceptible to the “Six Strategies to Save Sanity and Survive School-age Psychopaths.”
Hence, why I don’t proclaim to know about perfect parenting and don’t forward the banal articles or simplistic lists that flood my inbox. However, let me now bend my rule. I am moved to share the following short clip with you because it represents a growing reality for us as educators and as parents. It also proposes solutions that don’t need elaboration from me. The only thing I would say is that if, at the end, you think was is solely about your child’s behaviour, you should watch it again.
Click here for the Headmaster's Video Recommendation
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