Releasing geniuses from straight jackets

Can we really recognise greatness during the school years? Stephen Fry, a thoroughly renaissance man, spent a brief two years at Uppingham School in Rutland. At the end of his first year his headmaster commented on his school report: “He has glaring faults and they have certainly glared at us this term. I have nothing more to say”. The following year it was noted that in English he was “bottom, rightly”. Fry did not return to Uppingham.

This week the world celebrated the extraordinary achievement of Sir John Gurdon, of Cambridge University, who shares the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, for his work on how cells and organisms develop. Interestingly during his school days at Eton his Biology teacher noted in his report: “Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist. On his present showing this is quite ridiculous; he can’t learn simple biological facts, he would have no chance doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him”. The evidence for this scathing assessment of young Gurdon’s scientific ability? He scored the lowest mark for biology in his year at Eton.

Like Fry, Sir John’s career has flourished. Whilst the former is a household name, lauded actor and writer with millions of twitter followers keen to learn about his every thought and whim, Sir John Gurdon has pushed forward the frontiers of his area of science. His work with cells opens up the opportunity for exciting scientific research.

It is easy with hindsight to mock the humble school masters making such judgements when both men were young. Yet what strikes me is that both, in their respective ways, did not fit the mould of education deemed essential for their schooling. I use the term “mould” advisedly. Even today children are largely processed by the system. Date stamped by month and year of birth, the young are placed on the conveyor belt of education. Sir Ken Robinson, a feted thinker on education and adviser to governments, believes schools are failing their pupils. Clearly neither Fry’s nor Sir John Gurdon’s school came close to releasing their potential. In Sir Ken’s view young people with restless minds and bodies are ignored or even stigmatised in a system of education narrowly focused on assessment outcomes. “We are educating people out of their creativity,” Robinson says.

Yet it does not need to be this way. Today there is a growing sense in schools that the exam factory model is just not good enough for the turbulent world in which we live. Frankly to fine tune examination technique to the detriment of real thinking is bordering on intellectual abuse of students. Guy Claxton, professor of the learning sciences, at the University of Winchester, has worked with schools on developing a different type of curriculum where the emphasis is on building rather than merely measuring learning. In my school we have embraced this innovative outlook believing that a holistic approach to learning, where immeasurables are as important as “bench marking data”, will truly unlock potential.

I believe young people can be quite extraordinary. School should not be a straightjacket on their individuality; a good school should be unleashing the potential of the next generation of Gurdons and Frys.

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