Friday, 28th September 2018
This week I spent an interesting couple of days at the IAPS (Independent Association of Prep Schools) conference, held in a vast conference centre just over the Severn in Wales. The building, more impressive in its size than subtlety, lours over the M4 like some grand piece of Stalinist architecture, the last outpost of a beleaguered dictator. Inside there are vast chambers indistinguishable from one another which stretch in all directions, giving a sense of labyrinthine confusion. Vast escalators head up into the heavens while others plunge into murky depths, allowing people to travel in either direction rather like a mediaeval depiction of Heaven and Hell in slow motion. Through the windows though, the view is exquisite; on one side the glittering Severn Estuary, England green and pleasant; on the other and to the west and north, the verdant turf of several golf courses, glorious in the sunlight. These gatherings are always very productive. There are lectures from leading figures in education which both inform and inspire, and smaller seminar groups which focus on aspects of education or school life which are useful. I attended one led by the new Head of the Common Entrance Board, Durrell Barnes, an inspiring and avuncular figure who has expressed his desire to ensure that the Board for which he is now responsible should be as positive a force in the shaping of the Prep School curriculum as it can be. His arrival heralds an opportunity for the Heads of schools such as ours to help reshape the sorts of curricula and exams which our pupils pursue. All these questions are ones which we should answer by thinking carefully about the sorts of skills and approaches that we wish our children to have when they leave education. What sort of world, in other words, are we preparing them for?
Well, I suspect I’m not going to be able to answer that question properly in a few lines of a newsletter but an interesting talk at this conference might provide some of the answer. Dr Ruth Graham’s work has been in transforming the experience of undergraduates in Engineering courses at University. Her research shows that, if lectured to, undergraduates retain 10 per cent of the knowledge conveyed in the course of the lecture. The gain in understanding following such a teaching style is 25 per cent. By contrast, those engineers who are taught through example and the setting of problems which they have to solve, retain 90 per cent of the knowledge conveyed and their understanding increases by between 50 and 70 per cent. Furthermore, those engineers who are treated as the recipients of knowledge are far less impressive to employers than those engineers who have been convinced that they are discoverers and who are enabled to take some ownership of their education through a process of discovery. The effectiveness of those people as engineers who have been taught in this way has been, by all accounts, extremely impressive. I am certain that at its heart, teaching is about enabling people to learn actively and independently. Only this morning Mrs Merriman was taking just such an approach as she familiarised Form 1 boys with numeracy through role play. The children were absorbed in problem solving as they recognised coins and their value in their shop game.
I’m always on the lookout for quotations which amuse. My favourite from this conference is one attributed to the early 20th Century American writer, H.L. Mencken who wrote: “For every complex problem there is an answer which is clear, simple and wrong.” The truth behind that aphorism is one of the reasons why my job is such a stimulating one!