Where’s the fun in that?

No Fun at All

I have a confession to make. A few years ago I banned fun in my school.

Let me give you a little context. I was speaking to all of our teachers, teaching assistants and support staff at the very start of the first INSET session of the new school year. My reasoning was straightforward: I wanted fun to be superseded by joy.

Please appreciate that, at least as far as the ban was concerned, my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek – I hope there will always be plenty of time set aside for fun in any school. I did want to make the point, though, that joy is something deeper and more meaningful.

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Like most of my best ideas this one was stolen: during the summer break I’d watched a fascinating interview between Sir Michael Barber and Sir Dave Brailsford. If you’re interested you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOLuMRya4OM

In the interview Sir Michael asks if, given the brutal training regime, the high stakes and the physical demands of racing, there could ever be any fun in competitive cycling. in reply Brailsford suggests that at the time of execution all endurance sports are painful but that there’s a feel-good factor in getting it right and that afterwards you can never quite re-live the pain. He then goes on to consider the difference between fun, which he sees as something fleeting and shallow, and joy – something much more lasting and profound, something earned and richly deserved.

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You don’t have to be an Olympic medallist or to have worn the maillot jaune to understand what Brailsford is getting at here. We have all found ourselves in situations where we have had to work hard to achieve a challenging goal. Think of the young pianist practising alone for all those hours before stepping out into the spotlight to perform a difficult piece in front of an audience, or the swimmer who completes length after painful length in early morning training before representing the school in a must-win race.

And the same applies in the classroom. The things that come easy to us tend not to be the things that give us the greatest pleasure or the greatest sense of achievement.

I said that this was a few years ago. At the start of this academic year one of my teachers introduced me to an intriguing twist to the concept. He is a keen climber and when he’s not teaching Chemistry he can usually be found hanging on by his finger-tips or dangling from the end of a rope on some impossible cliff-face. He is also an avid fan of those who have pushed the boundaries of his sport. During the holidays, probably in some mountainside bivouac, he had watched a short National Geographic film about the adventures of two extreme climbers in Antarctica, Mike Libecki and Cory Richards. Again, if you want to see the clip – and you really should – you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EULc7RgnM4c

In the film Libecki and Richards describe their attempt to complete a ridiculously challenging climb in the most remote and inhospitable region on the planet. As you can imagine, just getting to the starting point is no easy feat and as for reaching the summit…

They come up with a great expression for all that effort and pain and fear – they call it pre-joy.

It’s an expression I’m going to use a lot this year, admittedly in much less trying circumstances. All that violin practice? Pre-joy. Fitness training every morning? Pre-joy. Hours of exam revision? Pre-joy.

I’m looking forward to all the joy to come here at school this year!

The Moriumius Project: Rekindling Happiness from Devastation

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I am always pleased when I can persuade one of our students to contribute to this blog, and I am delighted that Kyoka Hadano has taken up the challenge with this reflection on the Y12 trip to Ogatsu at the end of last term to work with the wonderful Moriumius Project…

The lunch table abuzz with anticipation, thirty-odd hungry seventeen-year-olds stare greedily at the plates that lie before them – fresh sea pineapples barely hours old, homemade sausages and bowls of rice they cooked themselves in hand-cut bamboo over a wood fire.

However, the elderly Japanese locals amidst them gently advise them to refrain from immediately tucking in. “We must thank nature for the ingredients of our meal,” they say. “We must thank the people who grow and harvest these vegetables, this fish, this rice. Our meals are made with love. And for that, we say itadakimasuwe humbly receive.” Everyone gently bows over their dish and repeats this Japanese grace.

“Now, let’s eat!” Laughter and lively chatter ensue.

This scene takes place by Kuwahama Elementary School, built almost a century ago using traditional Japanese construction techniques and local Ogatsu inkstone. It is difficult to believe that until just recently, this school had lain abandoned at the top of a hill for nearly a decade, having closed in 2002.

The school overlooks a valley largely dominated by a vast construction area, where the occasional piece of debris – a broken plate, a saucepan lid – is the only evidence that this had been populated in the past. Scarcely six years ago, this had been part of Ogatsu, a bustling coastal town where fishermen rose before dawn to bring catches of sea urchins and oysters, and children sat pencil in hand before blackboards in classrooms. Then one March afternoon, the town was obliterated in just a few hours by a 19 metre tall black wave that also dragged away livelihoods, homes and 236 lives. This region of coastal north-eastern Japan was one of the worst affected under the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Gentaro Yui, founder of the educational theme park KidZania in 2004, came upon Kuwahama Elementary School as a volunteer following the natural disasters, helping to deliver food and emergency supplies to those in need. Discovering how valuable the school had once been to the local community, he saw an opportunity to restore it to its former glory.

Two tough years of renovations ensued, involving the hard work and energy of up to five thousand volunteers from all over Japan. The restored facility, named the Moriumius Project, retains key aspects of its former identity as a rural primary school – with its original clock above the entrance and blackboards down the corridors. But looking closely, one observes subtle changes: the school canteen converted into a stylish dining area, with sliding glass panels opening onto a terrace; tastefully designed dormitories that had once been classrooms.

The Moriumius Project is designed to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. Drainage water is recycled and baths are heated by a traditional wood stove, with biodegradable soap and toothpaste. Ingredients for meals are sourced locally, with fresh seafood, rice grown in nearby paddy fields with livestock such as pigs, goats and chickens also situated in the facility.

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In late June, thirty one Year 12 students from the British School in Tokyo came to stay at the facility. Our mornings would start by a routine clean, with everyone picking up traditional dusters and brooms to tidy up yesterday’s mess. We collected eggs, walked the goats and cooked our own rice and miso soup in traditional iron kama pots over an outdoor stove. Every meal would begin with itadakimasu – a humble thanks to nature and the people who helped to get the food on our plates.

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It was a wonderful opportunity for us to help the local people of Ogatsu. We cleaned barnacles off buoys and nets, removed weeds and helped at the community rose garden, created to memorialise those who passed away in the 2011 tsunami. The kindness of the local people was heart-warming: seeing that we were sweaty, they would drop by to give us cold tea, ice cream and plates of amayaki cakes. Some of us also created an art piece alongside the guidance of Sky, the artist-in-residence at the time: a painting of the Ogatsu pier, made with our very own handmade recycled paper over traditional ink stone slates from the area.

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In the space of five days, we came to appreciate the importance of helping others, and how simply one can adopt a sustainable means of life. But most importantly, staying at Moriumius put into perspective the terrible disaster of 2011, and how we can all work to make a difference. In Japan there are many sad stories of nature and its power to destroy, but the story of Moriumius is a happy one.

Kyoka Hadano (Year 12)

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To learn more about the amazing work of Gentaro’s team and the Moriumius Project, please visit their website: http://moriumius.jp/en/ 

…or take a look at the Project’s YouTube channel:



Working towards those moments in the spotlight…

Do our schools offer an environment where students learn to perform better or just a stage for them to show-case what they already know?

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Last week I was held spellbound by the virtuoso performance of a fourteen year-old pianist at our Summer Concert. Accompanied by the school orchestra and playing entirely from memory, his interpretation of the first movement of a Saint-Saens Piano Concerto was remarkable for its maturity and its passion. It earned a rapturous and richly deserved ovation from an enthralled audience.

Musicians know all about hard work. For every moment in the spotlight, every second of appreciative applause, there will have been hours of repetitive, often solitary practice. Even for the most naturally gifted there are few short-cuts. When the world-renowned Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti visited the school a little time ago, she had this to say about starting out:

My elder sister and I began playing at the same time – just five minutes a day for the first month or two – which made things easier because we could practise together. As a child getting started was always the hardest thing for me about practising, but once I got going you could shut me up in a room for two hours and I would be happy to keep playing. I never really took part in any other activities because my Mum encouraged me to focus on the one thing I really loved. Having been brought up in difficult times herself, she was quite strict and determined that I should always give 100%.

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Reflecting on the inspirational performance of that young pianist, I am persuaded that there are some important lessons for us to learn from his successful approach to mastering the techniques that made it possible. When you are centre-stage working so closely with an accomplished orchestra and its conductor there is no margin for error. If you are to play with intensity and sensitivity your focus must be complete. How can you lose yourself to the music if in your head you are desperately scrambling to remember the next sequence of notes? You have just one opportunity to take this audience with you. You have to get it right on the night, this night. That’s a lot of pressure on a fourteen year-old.

That he succeeded and did so with such aplomb bears eloquent testimony to both his talent and his temperament, but it also tells us a great deal about his work ethic and the approach of his teachers. I can easily imagine that each minute on the stage represented many hours of dedicated practice; frustrating hours in which he made mistake after mistake; experimental hours in which he tried out – and discarded – a thousand variations; perhaps the occasional dark, daunting hour in which the thought arose that he might never master this piece. And exhilarating, exciting hours when he could feel the music in his fingertips and he knew it was all coming together at last.

How often in our schools do we give our students the licence to make mistakes and learn from them, the opportunity to try out and discard a range of ideas and approaches, the time to overcome the fear that this is something that might be beyond them?

Writing in the Guardian newspaper recently, Eduardo Briceño suggests that schools are too often seen by students and their teachers as performance zones rather than learning zones. He argues that, because they are under pressure to cover content broadly rather than deeply, teachers are often in  too much of a hurry to arrive at the correct answers in order that the class can move on to the next bit of the syllabus. As a consequence there is rarely time to expose mistakes, let alone to examine and learn from them, and students quickly come to understand that they are expected to speak out only when they know the right answer.

They also sense that peers, teachers, and parents will think highly of them only when they do something correctly, leading them to fear and avoid challenging themselves to learn new skills.

In other words, our students are too frequently finding themselves up on stage under the glare of the spotlight and, as is only natural, they are turning to what they already know in order to please their audience.

If students see school as a place to show what they already know and minimise mistakes, rather than as a place to focus on what they don’t know, how are they going to substantially learn and improve?

We can find an equally apt analogy in the world of sport. If we don’t give children the opportunity to sharpen their basic skills in repetitive drills and exercises, if we don’t allow them to try out tricks and flicks and fall flat on their face occasionally, if we criticise them for over-ambition rather than applaud them for having a go, how can they hope to develop as players? Good coaches understand this and seek to cultivate a nurturing environment in which young sportsmen and women can build the confidence to take risks and make mistakes – and derive enough satisfaction and pleasure from their progression to make the time spent getting there worthwhile.

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There will come a time when performance really counts – in the concert hall, on the pitch and in our schools.  Faced with examinations or other high-stakes applications of learning, students will need to eliminate mistakes, hit the sweet spot and show just what they can do. But for the rest of the time, we should encourage them to focus on the skills they have yet to master and on the subject areas in which they feel least secure. They have to know that they can over-reach and we will catch them when they fall. If we can do this for them our students will learn how to learn and when the time comes they will step up with all the confidence and assurance that comes with mastery.