Headmaster's Blog

How to become a Nobel Prize winner…

posted 28 Apr 2017, 00:54 by Eunice Rivero

by Headmaster, Jeremy Lees. 28th April 2017

“Sir, why….  are you….. doing this?”  I was asked this question earlier this week whilst running alongside a student who was struggling for breath.  He was participating in a mini triathlon event that the school had organized for the first time and I was taking part as well.  Having finished my race I had decided to run alongside to give him support having realized he was struggling. 

My initial reply was “Because… I believe… it’s important for students…. to experience…. different things… that take them… out of… their comfort zone.”  Not only was I myself gasping for air and out of my comfort zone, I was also clearly conscious that this was physically demanding and difficult and initially felt I needed to justify why I was forcing him and others to do something ‘different’, something out of their modern day, narrow and information rich comfort zone.

But the answer wasn’t what he was looking for.  “No sir…. why are…. YOU…. doing this!”  And then I realized the profound nature of the question.  He wasn’t asking why the school had organized this event but why I was taking part?  It was actually a very insightful question because I am no longer a spring chicken and my body was certainly aching at the time.  Also there had been no call for the Headmaster to even consider taking part, yet my instinct had been to do so, but why? 

My answer was (in between deep gasps for air) “Well, I have been brought up to believe that any leader who asks someone to do something should always be prepared to do it themselves, so here I am demonstrating that.”  I then went on a bit about how I had learnt that lesson in the Army and how I had subsequently learnt that it was true everywhere in life and that I hoped he would follow that mantra over time.  I hope it registered with him, who knows. 

Now this thought process was obvious to me, but clearly not to that student.  And that got me thinking this week because I realized how easy it is to assume others think the same way when actually they don’t.   And it was that thought process that was going through my mind in a recent meeting to discuss next years’ events, activities, drama productions, house singing competitions, music recitals, sports events, poetry competitions, art competitions, music lessons, adventure camp excursions, camping trips, cooking classes and so on.

Why, I was thinking, do we British Ethos teachers and school leaders instinctively continue to go that extra mile and organize so many ‘extra-curricular’ activities and hence go through the trials and tribulations of coordinating them all, when it would be a lot easier to keep the children in the classroom all day.  As British Ethos teachers we know why, but it is intangible at times, there is no ‘examination’ at the end to prove any tangible benefit, we rely on parents believing and trusting in us that it has worth.  Then I had one of those wonderful ‘flashes of insight’, or a ‘coup d’oeil’ that William Duggan explains so well in his book ‘Strategic Intuition’.  I suddenly realized there was tangible evidence. 

I’m currently reading Adam Grants’ book ‘Originals’ which is a wonderful book and highlights how many different factors are critical for creativity.  Here’s an excerpt from his book that I suddenly remembered offered that tangible evidence I was looking for:

In a recent study comparing every Nobel Prize-winning scientist from 1901 to 2005 with typical scientists of the same era, both groups attained deep expertise in their respective fields of study.  But the Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished scientists.  Here’s what a team of fifteen researchers at Michigan State University found about engagement in the arts among Nobel Prize winners relative to ordinary scientists:

Artistic hobby

Odds for Nobel Prize winners relative to typical scientists

Music: playing an instrument, composing, conducting

2x greater

Arts: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpting

7x greater

Crafts: woodworking, mechanics, electronics, glassblowing

7.5x greater

Writing: poetry, plays, novels, short stories, essays, popular books

12x greater

Performing: amateur actor, dancer, magician

22x greater

If you were a scientist and involved in the arts as an amateur actor, dancer or magician, you were 22 times more likely to achieve a Nobel Prize than a fellow scientist last Century.  More generally put, scientists who enjoyed pursuing extracurricular activities were more likely to earn a Nobel Prize for their scientific work than those who didn’t.

Ask any teacher firmly immersed in the philosophy behind the British Independent school Ethos to react to the findings of this research and you’ll probably get a shrug of the shoulders, because they won’t be surprised, in fact they’ll say “It’s obvious!”

But like the student who didn’t understand why I was doing the mini triathlon when I didn’t have to, for many parents who understandably wonder about the value and benefits behind the British Ethos way of doing things, I hope this table goes some way to offering an insight into why we do what we do.

So maybe I should have replied to the student’s question as follows: “I’m doing the mini triathlon because it gives me more chance of achieving a Nobel Prize in Science!”  But of course I couldn’t have could I?  Why not?  Because for those eagle eyed of you, this research didn’t look at the sporting attributes of the scientists, just their artistic attributes, but if the research had also looked at sport, I have a sneaky feeling they would have found a similar correlation.  So there you are, the secret to achieving a Nobel Prize, do more extracurricular activities.

British Ethos

posted 27 Feb 2017, 05:15 by ISS Headmaster   [ updated 6 Mar 2017, 23:18 by Eunice Rivero ]

Eton.  What picture does that conjure up for you?  I am guessing a picturesque idyll of the quintessential British school, with centuries of tradition and prestige to match.  It does sound rather nice doesn’t it, safe and nostalgic, no need for change.  Now here is another word.  Neurobiology.  What does that conjure up for you?  Old fashioned, traditional?  No I think not, probably exactly the opposite.  So have a think if you could connect these two words into meaning, ‘Eton and Neurobiology’, almost an oxymoron if you like, similar to the concept of Military Intelligence.  Well it so happens there is a very close link if Tony Little, the previous Headmaster of Eton, and esteemed educator, is anything to go by.  In his highly recommendable book – ‘An intelligent persons guide to Education’ he quotes quite passionately – 

“The challenge for educators is to embrace neurobiological research and enter into a new contract with the young.”  

Pretty strong words from someone steeped around centuries of tradition.  But how does one go about trying to action such a mighty call?  Changing traditional thought and practices is very difficult, especially in schools, and anything difficult creates challenges and challenges are well, you know, ‘challenging’!  It reminds me of the 8 year old boy who gives his younger brother some advice before he goes to school for the first time.  "Don't learn how to spell 'car', because if you do, after that the words just keep getting harder and harder.”

The elder brother is right, it does get harder!  But why do some children like the challenge of things getting harder and others feel like the elder brother, they don’t like the challenge?  Well Tony Little may be on to something as it turns out as neurobiology is opening up many insights as to why some children cope with challenges better than others.  Some examples can be found in Paul Tough’s wonderfully written “How children succeed – Grit curiosity and the hidden power of character”.  Here’s just one:

Scientific studies have found that baby rats who were licked and groomed by their Mothers on a daily basis from birth grow up to be healthier, more social, more curious, less aggressive, more self controlled and live longer than baby rats who weren’t similarly groomed at birth.  What’s more interesting is scientific studies now link this same finding with humans.  Mothers who responded sensitively to their own infants cues, akin to licking and grooming in rats seem to have a powerful and long lasting effect on their child’s outcomes in a variety of similar ways: the human babies who receive the extra dose of early care are, later on, more curious, more self-reliant, calmer, and better able to deal with obstacles.  In essence they are better equipped to cope with difficulty, including words harder than car!   

There are schools taking on this neurobiological approach and having incredible results.  Just look up the KIPP schools in the USA for an insight into what is being achieved.   The great news is they are developing tools and techniques to build on early childhood experiences with incredible life changing effect.  It is very heartening to hear but does that mean we need to replicate the KIPP schools way of doing things or develop neurobiological departments within each school?  

Actually I don’t think such a radical step is needed just yet, so long as those well respected and well renowned school movements such as the IB, British, or Montessori schools (and the many others) can hold onto the unique ethos they each espouse to and cherish so much.  I modestly like to think I run such a school, its only 10 years old but I hope it has been built on foundations that are made up of that intangible and in many ways esoteric ‘British Ethos’.  The conundrum we face though is how to ensure we keep such an Ethos alive in this modern brand orientated, results driven and grades valued culture, as no one as of yet has managed to explicitly formulate what exactly a British Ethos is (Tony Little’s book gets very close), and that can appear at times rather foolish.  It’s a bit like the British Constitution, it is not actually written down, it exists by spirit and convention and can appear extremely confusing to many, as can the British for that matter:  

“The English take everything with an exquisite sense of humour – they are only offended if you tell them that they have no sense of humour”.  - George Mikes observation of the British in - “How to be a Brit”

Trying to decipher this type of cultural idiosyncrasy, feels similar to trying to decipher the British Ethos.  But its very elusiveness may prove to be its very salvation.  If you think about it we have a ‘British curriculum’, but that’s the easy bit, it’s easily written down and so it has been branded with the ‘Cambridge Logo’ and has been sold to the corporate world for vast profits; its been copied and passed around so much now its getting a bit embarrassing, but the British Ethos is still elusive.  In fact one gets the feeling that's the point, its very elusiveness ensures we, as British Ethos teachers, never experience 'mission creep', that we never lose sight of what really matters, our fundamental role of ‘in loco parentis’ - in place of the parent - because there is no greater calling, and it would appear neurobiological research is now scientifically backing us up.

Quantum Education Theory (Just an idea)

posted 30 Jan 2017, 02:01 by ISS Headmaster   [ updated 8 Feb 2017, 23:26 by Jeremy Lees ]

I recently finished reading Carlo Rovelli's incredibly illuminating book "Reality is not what it seems - The Journey to Quantum Gravity" and whilst completely blowing my mind it also reminded me of the following anecdote.  The story is about a Headmaster who at the start of every new academic year would stand in front of the whole school and try something new,  like trying to play the bagpipes for the first time or speak a new language.  In doing so he would embarrass himself by 'failing' in front of everyone.  He would then commit to learn the instrument or language over the course of the academic year as in his words, "We expect you students to learn new things, and I know how hard that can be at times, so I will join you on that journey and try to learn something new myself".  At the end of the year he would come back on stage and demonstrate to the whole school what he had learnt and how well he could play the musical instrument or speak the new language he had learnt.

I have always liked this anecdote because I feel it epitomises in a nutshell how, if we are not careful, as adults we forget not only that we can (and should) learn new things but even more importantly how hard it is for children at times to learn.  Learning new things can be especially difficult and frustrating when faced with having to consider a different or new perspective or a different way of looking at things.  Carlo Rovelli's book highlights this point very well.  Trying to get your head around Quantum Gravity is clearly not easy, but by guiding the reader through the obstacles that scientists have met and how they have overcome them by re-evaluating their perspective of the problem was not only refreshing but made the process of learning a great deal 'easier' for me.  I felt like the Headmaster in the above anecdote, I really did learn something new (whether I understood it or not is another matter!).

Physics isn't the only discipline asking us to continually look at new ways of perceiving things.  There are plenty of other examples.  One only has to read Jo Marchants' "Cure - A journey into the science of Mind and Body" to be mesmerised by the recent scientific findings about the power of harnessing the placebo effect and its healing properties, or Giula Enders' "Gut" which opens up the wonders of our 'second brain', our gut and explores how we really are what we eat in that by changing the bacterial makeup of our gut we can change our character, or even our will to live... 'food for thought'...  or Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" which identifies so succinctly that the simplest of things, your birth date, can define how successful you are in school and then on into future life and how character traits can stay with us generation after generation irrespective of parental upbringing or not.  

It is lovely reading these books, but I do also get frustrated at times.  As a Headmaster I want the best for my students and I want the best life chances for them but I can't help but admit to a sense of powerlessness at times.  Why?  Because as much as I would like to take the ideas and findings from these wonderfully illuminating books and incorporate them into school life, not only would it be deemed controversial, but change is difficult, especially change that demands a new perspective.  Honestly how many parents would countenance a school program to alter the bacterial makeup of its students guts in order to develop their character traits and motivation, or a school program to use the placebo effect for healing a child when it hurts itself (both emotionally and physically)?   Pragmatically I respect and understand that, but I do still dream.   

Maybe there is hope for my dreams though, maybe Carlo Rovelli will wake up one day and decide to write a new book, not one about Quantum Loop Theory but one about 'Quantum Education Theory'.  I thought I would try to start things off, you are most welcome to have a read, it is attached to this.  Don't expect much though, not only is my Maths and Physics from University days very rusty, but I'm not sure I've interpreted the Theory of Quantum Mechanics as succinctly as I should have.  My University Lecturers may be very disappointed!  But maybe that's the point?  At least I'm trying to understand it, and like the Headmaster in my anecdote, if I'm trying to understand something, then maybe this will inspire my students to keep trying to understand things themselves.  After all they only have to try!

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