High on any list of the unhelpful things that people say about school must surely be the comment that the purpose of school is to prepare students for real life.
This gives a fatally false impression and misunderstands the way that human development works. School doesn’t prepare you for ‘real life’, school is real life.
Check your pulse, is your heart beating? Yes, I thought so – you’re living life already, every one of you, right now. This is it, there’s no dress rehearsal, no try-outs, no suck-it-and-see, no second-time-round, there’s just this: your daily experience and the lessons it brings and the learning that follows as a consequence. It all started the day you were born and will continue until your time here on planet Earth draws to a close. Every single day spent at school is already part of your real life. Real life doesn’t await you out there somewhere, on the horizon, it’s right here, right now, and every moment counts.
In a theme that I often return to – because it is so central to the way we humans approach and experience our lives life – it’s all about habit. Habit is perhaps the single most important factor in why people end up living the lives they do.
As the great American psychologist William James observed, “Habit is the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor.
It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein … It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again.”
Think of your development – from new-born to infant to child to adult – as the gradual bringing together of one of those sets of Russian dolls, which are designed to nest, one inside the other, like the rings of an onion. As you grow through the years and as your life expands, so your superficial appearance changes and your body takes up more physical space.
But, just as with the Russian doll, deep in the heart of you, the core of personality endures, the old habits of the former self remain, and continue to give shape to your present and future behaviour. Once formed, it will take an awful lot of effort and energy to break those old habits, so best to get them right the first time around.
School is real life, then, and, as I see it, secondary school is that phase of real life when, ideally, you are guided and encouraged by adults in thinking about some effective ways to ditch old habits that no longer work for you, while picking up some attractive new ones that do; habits that will support you in becoming the person who you are aiming to become.
And so, as an adult in your school, I offer now a habit that I was fortunate enough to pick up when I was a boy – specifically when I was a boy with a dog on the outskirts of London, half a century ago – a habit which I enjoyed at the time and which has served me well ever since. To be honest, if you have a decent sized dog – and if you respect its peace of mind – it’s a habit you are obliged to pick up, you have no choice: it’s the habit of walking. Long, long rambling walks.
Even as a boy I knew that walking did me good, but it so happens that, in recent years, as we have come to learn more and more about how the brain works – how it lays down memories that stick, how it arrives at innovative ideas and creative solutions, how it sets our overall mood and sense of wellbeing, how it can be energised and boosted into action – we have discovered evidence for the role that walking can play in all those processes, if we give it the chance.
Walking, science tells us, has all these positive effects:
1. Walking boosts your mood even when you’re not expecting it
2. Walking enhances creativity, especially when you’re seeking a solution
3. Walking sparks connections between brain cells
4. Walking improves working memory
5. Walking yields the right rhythm for thinking
6. Walking is a powerful way to experience nature
Now, that’s an impressive set of plus points for a habit that comes completely free of charge – and which, while it is perhaps best practised on a sunny day in the wilds of Plover Cove country park, is still capable of providing all of its benefits on a rainy day in downtown Kowloon. In the giving spirit of Christmas, I really cannot commend walking too highly to you as a life-bettering technology, as a force for good, and, what’s more, as a habit with the enhanced possibility of adding podcasts to the mix, which can take things in a whole new direction … but that’s another topic for another day.
For now, at the end of a long, challenging but really very rewarding term, I’ll end by wishing you all, teachers and learners alike and your families, a well-earned and truly enjoyable holiday. A holiday during which I strongly encourage you seize the opportunity either to continue or take up the very beneficial habit of walking.
“If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.”
You can read more about the benefits of walking via the links below: