Headmaster's Newsletter Friday 19 January 2024

Dear Parents,

As part of our INSET sessions, each year my colleagues and I engage in some in-house book reviews of recent and/or important pedagogical literature. This is a very powerful and efficient way for us to keep up to date with educational research, while sharing the reading between ourselves. After a short presentation on each book, we then discus the pros and cons of the approaches promoted in the literature and then – most importantly – we talk through how any developments could effectively apply to our own particular setting at NCS. I’m a big believer in not unthinkingly ‘copying and pasting’ ideas from elsewhere; each school is different, and it is one of the joys of being a relatively small institution that we get to tailor broader educational trends to our particular setting. In short, we ditch the stuff that won’t work, and we’re inspired by the stuff that we think will help our specific pupils. The texts in question this year were: Gillian Parekh’s Ableism in Education reviewed by Jan Alden; Sarah Jayne Blakemore’s Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain reviewed by Brett Morrison; and John Bowlby’s Attachment discussed by Susie Galbraith. I talked about a book that was not directly relevant to schools, but which was concerned with education, learning things, in a broader sense: Adam Gopnik’s The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery. This newsletter is part one of two (always leave them wanting more!) as I think it’s worth sharing Gopnik’s ideas with you, and for the sake of your Friday evenings, it’s probably best to do this over two weeks ...

Whether or not we are formal educators we are all concerned with how we learn to do things. At a basic level, how we learn to walk and talk. At a more advanced level, how we learn to solve sophisticated mathematical problems or play virtuoso cello. Somewhere in the middle are the not-basic and not-advanced things that go into learning how to navigate our everyday lives: how we learn to drive a car, or cook a decent meal, or be passably good at tennis. While each of these tasks or skills might look and feel distinct, there will be some underlying common factors in how we go about learning them. Just as, in schools, we value the transferable skills that might leap from a history lesson to a geography one to a science one, so in everyday life we look for the common techniques and habits that we might be able to apply to seemingly disparate activities.

Measuring air resistance in Year 3; Installing a flowerbed irrigation system at playtime; Composing fanfares in Year 5; Pre-Prep orchestra

Gopnik’s The Real Work is an elegant piece of observational philosophy which references Rumi and Descartes (almost) in the same breath as the author’s driving instructor or boxing coach. Indeed, it is by looking at how we learn everyday, day-to-day, activities that Gopnik ventures to identify the above pedagogical commonalities that reside beneath the sometimes mundane surface. In short: what does learning to bake bread have in common with learning to drive? In turn what does that have in common with learning to box, to dance, to draw, to perform magic tricks, even to cope with painful medical conditions?

The first thing to do is to define ‘master’ in the context of Gopnik’s title. He is clear that he wants to address ‘accomplishments’ rather than ‘achievements’. The latter he considers to be the rather short-term CV-fodder tick-box activities that people, especially young people, are encouraged to pursue to get into the right school, the right university, get the right job, the right promotion, and so on. Gopnik observes this wittily in the context of his own daughter applying to university and having to list achievements that might ‘crack the code’ of admissions offices: ‘bringing about peace in the Middle East by speaking fluent medieval Arabic to both sides while playing saxophone in a suitably diverse bisexual band while maintaining an A average and still doing stand-up on Saturday nights in Brooklyn’. ‘Accomplishments’, on the other hand, Gopnik rightly sees as those worthwhile things that have been mastered when their difficulty slips away and we enter into a sort of ‘flow’ while taking part in them. Mastering bread-baking or driving a car won’t get you into a top university, but they can (and should) have joyful value in and of themselves. True mastery, true accomplishment, gets our juices flowing whether or not there is someone external telling us if they think the activity doing the juice-flowing is worthwhile or CV-building. To be human is to take great joy in mastering, say, knitting — as much as, perhaps more, than in leaping for joy at the next ‘A’.

How, then, do we achieve that mastery? How do we earn accomplishments rather than mere achievements? To return to the concept of ‘flow’, Gopnik writes that this is achieved by building up small, separate fragments or steps, which then themselves become a sequence. Then over time (and practice) that sequence becomes an almost unthinking and effortless process. So long as, we might add, the person learning the mastery has the right attitude, which Gopnik summarises as cautiousness, care, exactitude, precision, naturalism and ‘an ironic understanding of what you’re doing’. When learning to draw, Gopnik notes that the breakthrough comes when he sees his life models as being made up of other, smaller, unrelated shapes or fragments which he then draws and forms together, instead of trying to just draw a body from the get-go. When learning to box, likewise, Gopnik breaks the skill down into small composite pieces — ‘left jab, right cross ... short left hook ... two uppercuts, left and right ... jab, jab, cross, hook! Jab, jab, cross, hook!’ — which seems as much of a scheme or ‘series of tricks’ as would be employed by a magician. Similarly, learning the foxtrot is not a world away from boxing, resembling (though hopefully not too closely) ‘the sequence of jabs and crosses and hooks’.

The seemingly difficult is made manageable because the apparently insurmountable ‘big’ is made up of a series of doable ‘smalls’. Allowing oneself to surrender to this mode of thought, argues Gopnik, is the way to master, to accomplish — it is an almost hypnotic letting go, an enjoyment of the repetitive pattern or sequence, rather than a resentment of its repetitiveness. The master magician can enthusiastically perform sleight-of-hand tricks because they have practised and practised each subtle step or fragment over and over and over again; they don’t think consciously about each step every time they are performing the trick as a whole. A good driver won’t be conscious of every indication, right turn, or lane change as they get from A to B. The key to mastery, of course, is that no one else notices these fragmentary steps — they eventually become part of a wondrous whole, the effortless flow.

It is worth noting that Gopnik does not necessarily subscribe to the ten-thousand-hours school of mastery: that practising something for that long will necessarily lead you to be excellent at it. Repeating the same mistakes for thousands of hours just entrenches those mistakes. Rather mischievously, Gopnik uses the example of Bob Dylan who ‘started off as a bad musician, and then spent 10,000 hours practising. But he did not become a better musician’. (We might be more charitable in our assessment that Dylan’s contribution to musical history might reside somewhere other than whether he can strum a guitar as well as Jimi Hendrix or sing as well as Joan Baez.)

While not (ironically) wanting to break the flow, this is probably a good time to stop for the moment. Next week, I’ll tell you about what Gopnik learnt from learning to drive, and I’ll introduce you to his wonderful driving instructor, Arturo. Before then, have a great weekend!

Matt Jenkinson

We very much enjoyed our music scholars’ masterclass last Monday evening, when Michael Stinton (former Director of Music at Abingdon) worked with our Year 8s who are applying for a music award at their senior schools this term. We will be able to hear the fruits of their labours at next Wednesday’s music scholars’ concert in the Holywell Music Room. Well done to all of the boys involved!

As we continue through the pre-test and scholarship season, I would like to extend our best wishes to all those boys (and their families) who are involved. There is a lot of steady preparation being done, I know, to ensure that the boys feel comfortable and can give their cheerful best. We can’t ask any more from them than that. Further information about our pre-test preparation can be found at https://www.newcollegeschool.org/page/?title=Future+Schools&pid=104.

Music Scholars' masterclass; Break time play; Investigating burning in Science

From Elizabeth Hess: Many thanks to all those families who took part in the Library Christmas Quiz. It was an extremely close competition, especially between the top two teams, and between them they answered all the questions correctly – even the more obscure ones! The winning team was YoonKi (Rec) and family, so a chocolate Santa is waiting for them in the library. Jai (Year 8) and family were very close runners-up and they will also receive a chocolate-based prize.

Services in New College have already begun (there was a very short gap between the start of school and university terms) and we wish the choristers well for their endeavours this term. These include a special short concert of Britten’s ‘Ceremony of Carols’ in the chapel on Sunday at 15.00. As ever, NCS families are always very warmly welcome to New College chapel. The full schedule of services is available at https://www.new.ox.ac.uk/chapel.

Upcoming Events

Monday, 22 January 2024

19.00 NCSPA Meeting (CLC)

Tuesday, 23 January 2024

14.15 U9 A-C Hockey v MCS, Away

Wednesday, 24 January 2024

8.15 Eco Committee Meeting (CLC)

9.00 Chapel. Speaker: Professor Zoe Waxman, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

13.00 Rehearsals for Scholars' Concert (Holywell Music Room)

14.00 U13 A-D Hockey v Summer Fields, St Edward's

14.15 U11 A-D Football v Hatherop Castle, Home

18.00 Music Scholars' Concert (Holywell Music Room)

Friday, 26 January 2024

9.00 Reception Vision Screening

19.00 NCSPA Quiz and Curry Night -- sign-up only (Sports Hall; rounds begin at 19.30)

Monday, 29 January 2024

15.30 U12 A Hockey Oxon County Cup, Tilsley Park

Tuesday, 30 January 2024

14.15 U8 & 9 Hockey House Matches, Iffley Rd

Wednesday, 31 January 2024

9.00 Chapel. Speaker: Mr Nick Haines, Head of Years 7-11 at D'Overbroeck's

14.00 U11 A-D Hockey v Cranford House, Away

14.15 U13 A & B Hockey v Hatherop Castle, St Edward's

18.00 Year 4 parents' evening

Friday, 2 February 2024

7.30 U13 A IAPS Hockey, Cheltenham College, return 16.00