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.

Schools for Interesting Times

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Just over fifty years ago Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech that included this now familiar allusion, ‘There is a Chinese curse which says may he live in interesting times.’ He went on to elaborate his point:

‘Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.’

The curse he is referring to is almost certainly an apocryphal one but the thinking behind it is probably even more relevant today than it was just twenty years after Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play. The political climate is turbulent and unpredictable, the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is wider than it has ever been, rapid technological development is bringing about drastic changes in the way we lead our lives, and the effects of global warming mean that our planet is under threat as never before. Interesting times indeed.

What does this mean for those of us who work in the sphere of education?

Tomorrow’s world depends on the young people of today and their ability to meet the challenges of a future that’s equally inspiring and unsettling. We find ourselves on the point of a daunting coming together of social and geographical upheaval and unprecedented technological revolution, and we need to ensure that the next generation is adequately prepared to take us forward. There is no doubt that our young people – our future – have the energy, empathy and intellectual capacity to reimagine the way our world works, but how do we give them the access to the competencies and connections that will empower them to make the future and their place in it all that it should be?

Last week, beneath the headline ‘Why I should run our schools,’ the Times journalist Caitlin Moran set out the basics of her revolutionary education strategy:

My plan is very straightforward, and rests on two facts: (1) the 21st-century job market requires basically nothing of what is taught in 21st-century schools, and (2) everyone has a smartphone.

She goes on to argue that the old pathway – learn a skill, use it for 40 years, then retire – is over… and that most of our children will do jobs that haven’t been invented yet before declaring that my education policy would be to stop bothering kids with anything you can access on a smartphone.

Fortunately, I don’t have to spend time debunking her simplistic pseudo-policy here because Carl Hendrick has already done a much better job of that than I ever could in his excellent chronotope blog:

Of course we should prepare students for an uncertain future, but if we adopt the techno-evangelist disruptive model and view education as merely a utilitarian enterprise for 21st century workplace then we truly will enact a ‘factory model’ of schooling and furthermore, we will diminish the gift of knowledge for its own sake. 

The whole piece is certainly worth taking a few minutes to read and can be found here:

It seems to me that good teachers in good schools – and today there are more of both than there have ever been – have always understood that while, of course, it has to be a significant aspect of their remit, there is much more to education than training for the workplace. Just think for a moment about some of those much vaunted so-called 21st Century Competencies (critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration, et al) so dearly beloved of c-c-c-critics and c-c-c-commentators all over the world. Does anyone seriously imagine that these aren’t already closely associated with the acquisition of knowledge in our classrooms? After all, it’s not as if any of them are needs new to the modern jobs market-place.

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It is entirely fair to argue that employers should expect that school-leavers should be ready for the world of work. My point is that surely we have an equal or higher obligation to give our students the start they need to lead meaningful, fulfilled and happy lives. They are not mutually exclusive goals; they go hand-in-hand. Young people who have the self-knowledge to recognise that there is always more to learn, who can engage with a diverse range of ideas and interests, who can talk with eloquence and passion about the books they’re reading or the music they’re listening to – these are the interested, interesting citizens of tomorrow who will rise to meet the challenges of our wonderfully creative, dangerously uncertain times.


The worst moment of my life… & the most important

An interview with Andy Barrow –GB Paralympic Rugby Captain

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Three BST would-be journalists interview the remarkable Paralympian and GB Wheelchair Rugby Captain, Andy Barrow during his recent very well-received visit to the school.

Andy Barrow is a true inspiration to those who would like to succeed in life. His experiences have helped him grow into a wise individual who delivers advice fantastically. He spoke about his own inspirations and how he pushed through the hardest times of his life to make himself a successful sportsman.

From a young age, Andy Barrow was a very sporty person with the motivation to want to get better but he never intended to play sport professionally. Rugby was a very large part of his childhood, but he never thought he would have the privilege of representing his country.  Andy was injured aged 17, whilst playing in a rugby match, where a scrum left him paralysed from the chest down. The loss of all control of his legs and weakened muscles in his arms and hands put him in a wheelchair.

It was the worst moment of my life but also the most important. It made me realise you cannot change the past and if you take too much time worrying about the future you take your eye off what is happening in the present.

It was during his recovery time in hospital that Andy became aware of the sport wheelchair rugby also ominously known as Murderball.

He started off playing little by little and the stronger he became, the stronger his passion for the sport grew. He ended up finding a wheelchair rugby team in London not far away and it was here that his wheelchair rugby career kick-started.

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Andy overcame his injury and applied his belief that with A LOT of hard work anything can be achieved to play wheelchair rugby professionally. Andy’s ambition and determination led him to become Captain of the British team and led his team to three world championships, five European championships and three paralympic games. Andy’s team won 3 consecutive gold medals at the European championships. Andy commented that he enjoyed being Captain and learnt a lot from the experience. We asked Andy what he thinks it takes to be such a good captain and he said: You do not have to be the best player on the team to be the best leader of a team. You need to be able to recognise people’s strengths and weaknesses and bring the team together to work together effectively. You win together, you lose together. This was one of many of Andy’s great pieces of advice to those who would like to be leaders in the future.

Representing my country was a real honour but leading Great Britain was huge. Singing the national anthem in front of 12,000 people every time we played… And then to parade around London after the games in front of half a million people…

We asked Andy several questions based around the idea of inspiration. He said that no matter what obstacles come your way, push past them. Keep working hard and stay motivated, you never know who you might be inspiring. And finally, Andy said that he believes that life is a series of opportunities and you must take any opportunity that comes your way; you’ll only grow as a sportsman /woman or any other successful occupation, if you take what you can and use it.

Your life is a series of opportunities or chances, strung together by the choices and decisions you make. You are ultimately in charge of your own destiny. It is possible to triumph over adversity, and take positives from everything in life.

We certainly learnt a lot from our interview with Andy Barrow and hope to be as successful as he became one day.

Saori (Year 8), Harvey Hymas (Year 9) Riko Otsuka (Year 9)

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