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Headmaster's Newsletter Friday 15th January 2021

At the start of last week, while the boys were still at home tidying up the wrapping paper and putting tinsel on the cat, my colleagues and I assembled for our termly INSET sessions. Much of this time was spent pre-empting last-minute changes to the government’s plans for schools. But that wasn’t all we did. Following the pretty safe theory that the best schools, and the best teachers, are those that keep engaged with developments in educational theory and research, a couple of our sessions were based around a series of book reviews. Seven of us took some recent educational publications, weighed up their virtues and vices, and distilled some clear ‘takeaways’ for how we can improve our NCS provision even further.

It may not surprise you to hear that I was particularly taken by a new book by Scott Newstok called How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education. The title is a little misleading, as many of Newstok’s arguments come from a centuries-wide survey of ‘how to think’, while it is not his intention to create new generations of pupils declaiming in iambic pentameter. Rather, Newstok takes aim at a number of false dichotomies which, he argues (especially in the American context) have become educational orthodoxies. ‘We act’, Newstok argues, ‘as if work precludes play; imitation impedes creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constraint limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engaging with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native’. His solution? ‘Play emerges through work, creativity through imitation, autonomy through tradition, innovation through constraints, freedom through discipline’.

Remote learning and Zoom live lessons; Making shields and swords in Year 3 DT

Zoom lessons

Newstok fights back against the creep in current pedagogical trends towards pure skills acquisition, the accumulation of endless data, and the rejection of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Instead of sneering at the rigour and regimentation of Shakespeare’s Stratford grammar school, Newstok suggests that it was this very approach that enabled Shakespeare and his notable contemporaries to develop their creativity. (Though presumably we shouldn’t admire the lack of central heating.) Instead of standardising education and testing and measuring everything that moved, Shakespeare’s education focused not on test passing but on individual and collective flourishing. It was not a utilitarian exercise in assessment fixation and data collection, but a system in which work was a pleasure and, while tests were present, the teaching and learning went beyond them. Better education came from not obsessing over tests, in the same way that (Newstok suggests; I can neither confirm nor deny) better archery comes from not fixating on the target. Humanity’s great developments have come from those, he says, who were being curious, not simply useful and myopically focused on one simple goal.

In an educational world where there is a constant pressure to ‘teach to the test’, narrow the curriculum to just what is ‘going to come up on the paper’, and to prioritise individual success (often narrowly defined) over collective flourishing, there is a lot to be said for nodding vigorously at Newstok’s arguments. As ever, yes, there is a need for balance: pupils do need to be able to pass exams, to get answers right. But they also need to learn how to think, and to do so in a much broader and creative context. Put simply: I don’t think Shakespeare wrote Hamlet because he spent his formative years doing endless verbal reasoning tests. As Newstok points out, Shakespeare was perfecting his ‘craft’ through creative imitation of the giants on whose shoulders he stood; he found his own ‘voice’ initially through ventriloquising and adapting the voices of those who had come before him; and he accumulated a ‘stock’ of knowledge through which he could think and on which he could build. Of course, there was a lot more to it than that, but even a genius like Shakespeare had to start somewhere and there are some timeless educational truths that we should continue to identify and implement, no matter what the external pressures may be.

Have a good weekend,

Matt Jenkinson

Congratulations to the following boys:

Year 3

Ollie for his silver certificate for achieving 200 house points

Year 6

Zachary for his superb design folder for a marble run in DT

Finn for his committed work in French on Memrise

Year 7

Nahum for his excellent effort in learning a Bach piece on the piano

Year 8

Enoch for his committed work in French on Memrise

Congratulations to Tom and Catherine Neal on the birth of their daughter, Beatrice, on Christmas Eve. We are very much looking forward to meeting her in person as soon as it is safe to do so. She has already been a fixture of a few Zoom lessons and meetings!

Well done to Thomas (Year 5) for achieving his Black Feather Archery Badge, a rare achievement for someone so young; the badges are usually awarded to those 12 and older.

Over the weekend we have a good number of Year 6 boys taking the MCS pre-test for Year 9 entry. I wish them the very best of luck, and I am looking forward to our mock Zoom interviews next week.

I am looking forward to the NCSPA Zoom meeting on Monday. As ever, I am very grateful for the support of the NCSPA, both in terms of helping to finance improvements for the boys in various areas of the school, but also in providing such an effective sounding board and source of wise counsel and feedback.

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