A very good morning to you all – and welcome to this final assembly of Term 1, on the last school day of 2020.
What a year it has been.
How could I possibly bring the term to a close and speak to you about anything other than the virus-shaped elephant in the room: our unbidden houseguest, COVID19, always a gatecrasher, which has long, long since outstayed its welcome.
It’s been almost twelve months of disruption and frustration now, experienced at so many different levels, but all of them combining to make 2020 a very different year from any other in living memory. That’s an extraordinary thing to be able to say, and if, occasionally, you find yourself challenged by the times, you should remind yourself quite how unprecedented they are and the extent to which we are the ill-starred guinea pigs of history.
Reflecting on this fact, part of what concerns educators working in schools with young students is that, by virtue of their age, children are not so well equipped to understand just how unusual the current circumstances are. Young people, generally, are remarkably flexible and resilient. They usually adjust rapidly to changing conditions. Their expectations can be swiftly regrouped to take account of novelty. And their outlook soon adjusts to any “new normal” with which they are presented. ICHK students have provided a perfect, a peerless example of this amazing capacity to adapt and thrive, even in the most trying of circumstances. From Year 7 to Year 13, you have truly been a credit to yourselves and to the school. We could not have asked more from you.
However, despite your amazing ability to cope as learners, for us as a community, it’s important that we do remember the “old normal”, because, in leaving it behind, many of the steps taken to guard against the pandemic’s effects on health have not been at all helpful for school’s focus on learning.
However, despite the handicaps we have faced, I would insist it’s vital to recognise that learning has not stopped nor, in fact, even diminished over the last year. You just can’t stop humans learning – it’s the essential feature of our species, our unique survival strategy.
What has happened is that its focus has partly shifted, as have its sources, and as have the lessons we are absorbing.
In his book on early years learning, American educator John Holt wrote, “It is true, in a way, and misleading, in a way, to say that children want to learn. Yes, they do, but in the way that they want to breathe. Learning, no more than breathing, is not an act of volition for young children. They do not think, “Now I am going to learn this or that.” It is in their nature to look about them, to take the world in with their senses, and to make sense of it …
One of the greatest mistakes we make with children is to make them self-conscious about their learning, so that they begin to ask themselves, “Am I learning or not?” The truth is that anyone who is truly living, exposing him or herself to life and meeting it with energy and enthusiasm, is at the same time learning.”
Holt’s assertion is true, in my experience, not only of young children, not even only of all children, but in fact of every human being, child and adult alike, who continues, as Holt has it, “to expose him or herself to life and meet it with energy and enthusiasm.” For so long as we live openly and receptively, we never stop learning.
So what lessons are we learning now – as “together we fight the virus”, month after month?
I am put in mind of one of contemporary psychology’s most celebrated experiments: what has come to be known as the Marshmallow Test. In this test, a young child, usually somewhere between three and seven years of age, was left alone by an adult researcher in a room with a single treat, sometimes a marshmallow, sometimes a cookie or candy, in any case, something that the child wanted badly to snack on, right there and then. The child was told that, though they were welcome to eat the marshmallow, if they could resist the temptation, they would receive two marshmallows when the researcher returned in a short while. They would receive double the reward, if only they could wait.
Then the child was left to sweat it out in the sole company of the object of her or his desire.
Some lasted no more than a few seconds before popping the marshmallow or candy into their mouths. Others held out for a few minutes, wriggling and humming and pulling anguished faces, and then surrendered. And others, still, sat on their hands, wrestled with their instincts, and refused to give in. They toughed it out and the Shangri La of two marshmallows was duly earned.
The results of this oft-repeated experiment are now well established. They provide fascinating insight to the way in which human character develops. Because, over the years, as the life careers of those who have taken the Marshmallow Test have been charted into their adolescent and adult phases, what has become clear is that those children who “passed the test”, who refused to give into temptation, went on to show greater self-regulation not just in childhood, but also as adults. And, further research suggests, of all the many attributes one can master in childhood, self-regulation – the ability to manage and control one’s own conduct – is perhaps the best predictor of long-term satisfaction and fulfillment in life.
This ability to defy immediate temptation and wait for a more distant reward is known as deferred gratification. To defer gratification is to put off the enticement of instant pleasure, in order to gain a more substantial prize in the future. We recognise the syndrome – in too many ways to count that is what we have all been called upon to do for the past eleven months. Endless deferred gratification, as we have been required to dig into our reserves of patience and restraint, in order to cope and manage today, with the promise of better tomorrows to come.
So, under the auspices of COVID, life has become one vast, extended Marshmallow Test – all of us sitting on our hands, gritting our teeth, focusing on the future, and refusing immediate temptations or distractions, which while they might bring temporary pleasure, get in the way of longer term success.
It’s that which we have been learning over this past term: self-regulation, self-motivation, patience, perseverance, forbearance, endurance. Which, taken together, might well be the ingredients of Wisdom.
Provided we can consolidate these qualities in our routine approaches to learning – which is to say, our approaches to life – then the last twelve months and perhaps the next several months to come, will serve a purpose that given the right frame of mind, will yet make us all, individually and collectively, significantly stronger as a result.
That is the message I would like to send with you into the New Year. We are stronger for what we have undergone, are wiser, and more robust – and, in the fullness of time, with COVID behind us, we will come to draw on these strengths as we continue the journey of school, learning, and life. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!