The Head, Bart Wielenga in the school garden

HEAD'S BLOG

This blog is intended to give an insight into daily life at Blundell's as seen through the eyes of its Head.

With fortnightly updates on new initiatives, themed days and general observations, it will give current and prospective parents some idea as to what goes on behind the scenes at this thriving co-educational school. 

 

Summer 2020

18th June 2020

Recently, I was pleased to receive letters from recent Old Blundellian’s challenging the school on matters around racism and tolerance of the LGBTQ+ community. Both were written in a very positive spirit and were signed by Blundellians past and present. I am proud of the fact that our pupils care about matters of social justice.

It has afforded me to think a bit more about this topic in the context of our school. It seems to me that we can separate the issue into two categories: one category about the things we do that we should not do, and another, a category for how we can do things better.

What we do that we should not do
  1. Overt prejudice. Prejudice has to do with stereotypes, and it involves discrimination against people based on stereotypes that we hold of them. Such discrimination can be very painful. It can be about race, but it could also be about faith or about gender or sexual orientation. Any time we make assumptions about people based on certain characteristics we are in danger of acting on prejudice. Examples of this might be when people assume that Muslims support terrorism, that girls can’t do sciences or when a black man, like George Floyd, is assumed to be a criminal because he is black.
  2. Unconscious bias. This is when we subconsciously hold inaccurate beliefs about people. It influences the way you act or think about people without you being aware that you are doing it. It has been said that independent school pupils have historically been more successful at Oxbridge interviews because of the unconscious bias of dons who associate a public-school accent with greater academic ability.
  3. Lazy thinking or lazy speaking. A boy who left here a few years ago told me that he had received very positive support from his friends when he told them that he was gay. However, he said that what he found especially hurtful was in the lazy use of language. Those same friends would say things like ‘don’t be so gay’ when someone did something stupid. He knew they didn’t say it to hurt him, but the message came through loud and clear what they thought of being gay.
On the other side of the equation, the foundation to any possible progress must be built on trust. Building trust takes time and effort but these are the key components:
  1. Be well informed. Nothing screams out prejudice than ill-informed opinions that are not based on fact but which are based on hearsay and rumour. If your reason and logic are wrong people won’t trust you. Be informed, and it you don’t know then don’t pretend you do. If you don’t understand why Christians believe what they believe or how it feels to be Black, don’t make assumptions about what you don’t know. Rather try to understand and to learn more.
  2. Be authentic. People will trust you if they see the real you and if you are consistent in that. People will find it hard to trust you if you are different when you are with different people or from one day to another. People will also trust you more if you show your humanity. That involves being honest and open with people.
  3. Show empathy. Empathy means identifying with someone else’s emotions or feelings AND responding appropriately to them. Empathy does not mean knowing how someone else feels but it is making an attempt to understand what they are feeling and experiencing. It is about going out of your way to understand better what it is like being in someone else’s place.
At Blundell’s we are so fortunate to have a pupil body that is so diverse in so many ways and we have the perfect opportunity to build a community based on trust rather than on prejudice. It is our individual and collective responsibility to promote understanding and to resist and condemn discrimination of any kind.
 

1st June 2020

Half Term certainly came at a good time. Staff and pupils have put in a tremendous shift of work over the first 5 weeks of term and a change of routine was very welcome indeed. That is coincided with the most extraordinary spell of good weather was an additional bonus. One cannot help but think that it was very fine cricket weather!

There are so many things that have happened in the last 3 months over which we have had very little control. Rules and restrictions have been imposed on us and certain liberties that we always took for granted have been removed. It is nor surprising that this loss of control is one of the greatest sources of disorientation and anxiety.

It reminded me of another one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits. He explains that there a great many things that concern us – things that affect us and that we care about. In our context we may think of the rules surrounding our lockdown, our ability to go to school or to socialise with our friends. For those of who were due to write public exams the grades you will now get will be of great concern to you. In Covey’s language these are all things that are in our Circle of Concern. What goes in that circle is big and varied.

Many of the things that concern us are however not within our control. Covey advises us to be discerning in distinguishing between what we can and cannot control because within our very big Circle of Concern is a much smaller Circle of Influence. Those are the things we can do something about and he suggests that when we focus on those things then our influence grows; it escalates exponentially. Expending energy on the things that fall within our Concern but outside of our Influence is just a waste and it will undermine what influence we have. It is a simple but powerful message and complements nicely the message from my last blog about the need to take responsibility for ourselves.

There is a lovely story in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that tells of a battleship out on manoeuvres in heavy weather:

The visibility was poor with patchy fog, so the captain remained on the bridge keeping an eye on all activities. Shortly after dark, the lookout on the wing of the bridge reported, “light, bearing on the starboard bow.”

“Is it steady or moving astern?” the Captain called out.

Lookout replied, “Steady, Captain,” which meant we were on a dangerous collision course with that ship. The captain then called to the signalman, “Signal that ship: We are on a collision course, advise you change course by 20 degrees.”

Back came a signal, “Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees.”

The Captain said, “Send, I’m a captain, change course 20 degrees.”

“I’m a Seaman Second Class,” came the reply. “You had better change course 20 degrees.”

By that time, the Captain was furious. He spat out, “Send, I’m a battleship. Change course 20 degrees.”

Back came the flashing light, “I’m a lighthouse.”

We changed course.

Sometimes there are these immovable obstructions in our way – and we are not able to control them, and that is okay because we can focus on what we can control and we know that we have the ability to choose our response.

 

18th May 2020

Taking Responsibility

One of the characteristics I have been most impressed with in our pupils over this period has been their willingness and ability to take responsibility for their learning. At times teachers will moan that pupils are too passive but working remotely has shown tremendous levels of motivation and personal responsibility.

In Latin Prayer on Monday I challenged pupils to show a similar level of personal responsibility in taking care of their physical and mental health as they have in their academic studies. It reminded me of a chapter in Stephen Covey’s seminal book ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ which was first published in 1989.

He tells the story of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychologist who, after surviving the horrors of a Second World War concentration camp, went on to write an influential book called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’ Frankl lost his siblings, his parents and his wife at Auschwitz and he himself experienced harrowing depravation and torture. Yet in the midst of such an environment he nurtured a belief that there was one freedom that his captors could never deny him: that whilst there were many circumstances he could not control he was always free to choose how he would respond.

Frankl described the pause between the stimulus and our reaction as the moment when we are able to respond – or to be ‘response-able’. Frankl describes four qualities with which we are blessed which we can draw on in the pause between the stimulus and the response.

Conscience – we have a deep inbuilt instinct that helps us to know the difference between right and wrong. That conscience rewards us when we do things that are good and will nag at us when we do something wrong. If we ignore our conscience it becomes weaker. Becoming sensitive to our conscience is the first step to choosing a good response.

Creativity – as human beings we are creative. That means that we can imagine outcomes that have not yet happened. We can use our imagination to work out what the consequences of our response will be and so we can exercise our creativity to come up with responses with good outcomes.

Will Power – will power is simply our determination to see things through. Once we have decided, we need to have the self-discipline to see it through. Will power is the force we apply to our response and as we exercise it we grow in confidence in its use.

Self-Awareness – this is, according to Frankl, what separates us from other animals. We can reflect on ourselves and our emotions, our strengths, and weaknesses – and how those affect our responses to things. If we understand ourselves, we can use that to help us choose better responses.

In this period of lockdown, it is sometimes hard to remain cheerful and I know that many of our pupils are really missing their friends. It would be easy to allow our frustration to get the better of us but I hope that we will take responsibility for our emotions and our actions and in that way exercise the one freedom no-one can ever take away from us.

 

11th May 2020

Good morning and welcome to Latin Prayer at the start of the 4th week of the summer term. We are here in chapel today. Even when the chapel is completely empty there is still a sense of warmth and comfort here and it remains one of my favourite places in the school.

One of the Second Master’s key roles is to support the chaplain in the running of chapel. Once a week the chaplain goes down to the Prep School and the Second Master arranges chapel on those days. It is normal for the Second Master to ask members of common room to speak occasionally as an alternative to Hymn Practice and I was always a little bit anxious that through some miscommunication the person who I had asked to speak would forget or simply get cold feet. So, I always kept a card in my jacket pocket with three words on it. Those three words were my prompts in case I was suddenly called on to deliver a talk in chapel. In my six years it only happened once: I was sitting quietly in my seat, the organ was playing, the monitors had processed in, and the organ just kept on playing and no-one appearing in the pulpit. After hoping desperately that someone might show up, I made the long walk up to the front of chapel, had just enough time to pull out the card with the three words and I gave my talk.

It was one of the first things I suggested to Mr Radley when he took over as Second Master and I know he keeps a card in his pocket too, just in case he is unexpectedly called on to speak in chapel.

I don’t remember what those three words on my card were, but I remember very clearly what they were about. I spoke about why we come to chapel every day – and as I sit here in an empty chapel I desperately long to have it full again. I love watching you walking in sometimes jostling each other, sometimes still dazed and confused from having been hauled out of bed 3 minutes earlier – but there is always the murmur of you talking to each other and Mr Menheneott making sure everyone has a seat, especially on those rather chaotic days when School House fill the nooks and crannies between the senior houses.

But in our separation, it is worth thinking for a moment why chapel is so central to our Blundell’s life.

  1. Tradition - it ties the present to the past. Every living Blundellian will be able to tell you where they sat, what hymns they sang and the quirks and customs of the chaplain of the day.
  2. Community – this is where we all come together. We sing together, we pray together, we remember together, we keep still together.
  3. Explore our faith – we are challenged by the big questions in life. We have space to think and to pay attention to an aspect of our lives that is easily squeezed out in the business of our days.

Whilst we are in chapel I will set you your challenge for the week. The first pupils who can tell me the opening two lines of the school hymn will win this week’s vouchers. Answers as always to head@blundells.org.

It is a useful entry to remind you that this is a period in your life where you have certain opportunities that you may never have again in the same way.

  1. To think
  2. To be still and to learn to be comfortable in your own presence
  3. To learn about mindfulness and being present
  4. To explore aspects of faith – to talk to your parents about the things that matter to them, to read the thoughts and inspirations of others, and perhaps for you to experiment with things like prayer and to explore ancient books of wisdom, like the Bible, which Christians believe to be the Word of God.

It is also a time to nudge you to reflect on your own well-being and your mental health. I would like to recommend a few things to you from our enrichment and engagement programme:

  1. Choir
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Yoga and Pilates

This is an incredibly difficult time for many people. We know that the coronavirus has brought devastation to families, to communities and to entire economies. There is likely to be more hardship ahead, but putting aside the tragedy of the current crisis, we can be grateful for the many blessings we do enjoy as members of this community.

The discussion has turned to schools reopening and there are some considerable challenges in that regard for us, but I can understand the urgency as there is a sense that many pupils are falling behind in their education. In some instances that may be true but let us look at it in a different way. I think you are ahead – ahead in so many different and unexpected ways. Academically you are acquiring skills that your predecessors would never have had the opportunity to master. To take real responsibility for your learning, to organise your days and to be self-motivated. So many of you in the survey spoke of even enjoying having the autonomy to choose what to work on and when, that you were gaining in confidence in managing your tasks and gaining in efficiency in using technology and in simply getting through your work.

But let us look beyond the academic curriculum too. You are the blessed generation who may well be the ones who have greater empathy and compassion. You may be the generation who understands more about moderation and sacrifice. You will understand more about what it means to be a family; to eat meals together, to share the household chores and to have movie nights. You are the generation who have the opportunity to find the pleasure in games that you have created, to read in the middle of the day or to just sit by the window and to stare into space lost in your own thoughts. You may be the generation who grow to love quietness and who are good at being still in your own company. You could be the generation who learn skills like cooking and growing your own food.

You could be the generation who has the right sense of perspective and the right balance. Who recognise that life is not about the material things that you acquire but that it is about the quality of the relationships you enjoy. Yours may well be the generation who through this tragedy set the agenda right on sustainability – environmentally, economically and in our relationships. you may be the generation that understands the value of community and that there is greater joy in giving than there is in receiving. Yours will be the generation who reconnect with nature in a way that we have forgotten how to do.

If those are the things you learn then you are not behind – you are miles ahead – and yours will be a blessed generation with so much to look forward to. Don’t you dare waste this opportunity!

Before you go I thought I should tell you that my potatoes have emerged. That is quite a relief but it just goes to show that although I couldn’t see it, there was plenty of growing happening. I hope that you are seeing the early benefits of the habits and routines that you have been cultivating. I expect that if you persist now you will begin to notice the benefits more and more.

Have a great week and I will see you again next week.

 

4th May 2020

This week I delivered Latin Prayer from the cricket pavilion. Behind me lay the immaculate outfield of the 1st XI cricket ground and beyond that the Beale Centre, Westlake and then the lovely vista of the rolling Devon hills. For those of us who are resident on campus it is our privilege to enjoy these views every day.

I want to continue my theme of habits and routines using cricket as my analogy. For those of us who follow the game and who continue to be amazed the skills and outrageous shot-making on display in the modern game, there are some lessons to be learned.

I would like to reflect on the ‘why’ question today rather than the ‘how’. Why do good habits and routines matter so much?

The concept behind cricket is pretty simple: the bowler bowls a ball at the wickets and the batsman tries to hit the ball to score runs. The team with the most runs is the winner. Whilst the game is simple enough, mastery of the individual disciplines is a different story.

The coaching manual will tell you that the way you hold the bat is really important and that the back-lift, foot movement and weight transfer is essential. Your head needs to remain still and, critically, your eyes should remain open. It is a side on sport and your top hand should lead and too much bottom hand is not good because you will hit across the line. If you don’t know much about cricket, I expect that I will have lost you some time ago. Considering that the bowler can bowl as fast as they can, your brain simply does not have the time to think about all the things your body has to do to play the perfect cover drive or pull shot. It is only through hours and hours of repetition that your body instinctively reacts to what the brain sees without the brain having to specifically instruct your feet to move towards the ball, the elbow to stay up, the weight to transfer towards the ball and for your head to stay still. It all just happens, which allows your brain to focus on hitting the ball in the right place with the perfect timing.

In education we talk about cognitive load and working memory. Working memory is in essence your conscious and deliberate thought. When our working memory is at full capacity, we cannot think of any more things without forgetting to do something else. It is only through repetition – through the force of routine and habit – that we commit processes and activities to long term memory and our working memory is freed up to attend to higher order skills. When Ben Stokes or Steve Smith or AB De Villiers play outrageous shots it is not just talent that allows them to do that; it is also because the basics are so deeply embedded that they have more time to commit to the most difficult shot-making in the game.

Another example like that is something that may be much closer to home for us. In the first week of online learning we may have been frustrated in learning how to use all the technology. We probably used much energy on getting the computer to work that our spare capacity to actually do the work was limited. Hopefully, in week three, we are much more efficient. Through repetition and by using the technology we have become more fluent and we have more working memory available for our studies.

Habits are exactly like that: things that become habits do not use any of your working memory, they just happen, almost by themselves. It means that your cognitive load is reduced and that you have more capacity to do other things. Developing good habits creates time and energy for you to focus on better and more important things and makes your life infinitely simpler and more efficient. But getting to that point takes commitment and persistence.

 

27th April 2020

After watching Mr Olive’s ‘Grow Your Own’ video last Monday, I was inspired to get down to the School’s garden to do some planting myself. The school garden is a hidden gem tucked away in a corner of the school behind the Biology department. It is a tranquil sanctuary that numerous pupils have contributed to and that during this period of lockdown, continues to be maintained by Mr Olive and Mr Flower, our Head Gardener. On a sunny spring evening it is a wonderful place to be.

I am quite pleased with my efforts and I have been diligent in watering and keeping the bed weed free. Of course, a week down the line, the bed still appears completely barren. It remains a very neat bed but there is no superficial sign of anything growing beneath the surface.

In Latin Prayer a week ago – which I described in last week’s blog – I encouraged pupils to develop good routines and habits. I described that progress in anything is often not linear but that persistent and consistent application leads to exponential growth. We worked out that 1% progress on a daily basis would result in becoming 50% better at something in just under 6 weeks.

This week in Latin Prayer I spoke of how we could apply the lessons learned from growing potatoes to our habit-forming intentions.

The first and obvious lesson is that just because we cannot see evidence of the potatoes emerging from the soil, does not mean that the potatoes are not growing. In fact, the growth that is invisible to the eye is essential to the long-term success of the harvest, but I shouldn’t become disheartened just because I can’t see anything at the end of the first week.

I am sure that one of the reasons it is so difficult to develop truly excellent habits is because we become discouraged when we don’t see evidence of progress in the early stages. We look for the easy wins, the signs that the effort is worthwhile, and when that doesn’t happen, we give up. We must persist. We’ve got to keep faith that the growth is happening even if we can’t see it or feel it.

The second lesson is that we need to focus on the process rather than the outcome. The outcome – or goal – is really important in that is helps us to get started and it is critical in setting us off on the right course but, beyond that, the goal can become a bit of a distraction and we need to focus on the process more. We can only affect the outcome by executing the process well. In terms of the garden, a roast dinner with my home-grown potatoes is a good outcome that may well have got me started but right now that is not where my focus ought to lie. I need to keep paying attention to watering the patch, being diligent in my weeding and doing whatever else I can to keep my potatoes healthy! If the goal is to be calmer, then having quite times in which we focus our energy on being calm is likely to have the opposite effect. However, if we focus on our breathing, being attentive to the air entering and exiting our lungs, that is far more likely to lead to us feeling calmer. Being attentive to the process is far more effective than focusing on the outcome. The outcome tends to take care of itself.

 

20th April 2020

For this coming term it is my intention to write a weekly blog as a summary of Latin Prayer. Under normal circumstances, Latin Prayer, our traditional assembly on a Monday morning, would be published on the school website, so that a wider audience can share in what is happening at school. In the coming weeks Latin Prayer will be filmed and pupils and parents can view it but, in my weekly blog, I will distil the message for those members of the community who are interested.

At this time whilst our school community is dispersed across the globe and whilst most of us are experiencing life in lockdown, I would like to express my thanks to all Blundell’s families for their support and engagement. These are unique times and for some this has merely been a pause; an inconvenience, perhaps even a welcome relief from our normal frenetic lives, but for many the coronavirus has been devastating and terrifying. I fervently hope that you and your families are keeping well, and our thoughts are especially with those of you who have family members and loved ones working in frontline services or whose health has been affected. You remain in our thoughts and prayers.

Many people will know that I enjoy watching live sport on television and I had been looking forward to a bumper season of sport this summer. The Twenty20 Cricket World Cup, the European Football Championships, Wimbledon, The Open, and of course, the Tokyo Olympics. I have resigned myself to flicking through channels hoping to catch a glimpse of a rerun of the recent World Cup Rugby finals but funnily enough that is not being shown on English television at the moment.

I did however catch a glimpse of a highlights package of a recent Tour de France and it reminded me of the extraordinary success of TEAM SKY. I love the grand cycling tours as each one is a story that unfolds over 21-stages, over three weeks. TEAM SKY (now INEOS) remain the only British Cycling team to have won the Tour de France – and they have now won 7 since 2012, 6 of those by British riders – after not having won the race at all for the first 109 years. Sir Bradley Wiggans won the first of those, then Chris Froome won 4 in 5 years and, most recently, a Welsh cyclist, Geraint Thomas won the event. Last year another team rider (under the INEOS name) won with Thomas coming second. Following over 100 years without success this kind of dominance is hard to comprehend.

The philosophy that has been credited as underlying their success was called the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’. In layman’s terms that refers to the accumulation of doing everything a little bit better than before. Their persistent aim was to improve everything by 1%, again and again and again.

1% may not feel like a great deal – in fact, it isn’t a big deal. But if you keep on increasing by 1% every day you quickly start to make a big difference to your performance. I asked pupils how many days it would take to get 50% better at something if they made a 1% improvement per day. As it turns out, it is 41 days, or, to be safe, 6 weeks. There is a good reason why it is said that it takes 6 weeks for a habit to become embedded and for it to make a really positive difference.

I bore pupils to tears talking about good habits, but I make no apologies for returning to the theme at the start of another term. Learning at home can be hard. Without the company of friends and without the other props of the regular school day to assist with motivation, getting into a good routine becomes more important than ever before. My advice to pupils has been as follows:

“Start as you mean to go on. Get your area of the house sorted out so that it is a good place to work. Get on top of your work, collaborate with your friends, submit your work promptly and engage with your teachers’ feedback. Exercise. Eat properly. Don’t spend more time on screens than you need to. Sleep well. Try new things. Help out around the home. Make the most of the opportunity to do things differently. Pay attention to your values. What do you care about most? Do not waste your days waiting for this to be over, make the most of it.”

Amidst the anxiety and the hardship that many are experiencing, this is an opportunity we will make the most of. We will return to school wiser and more self-aware than when this all began – and the lessons we will learn in the weeks ahead will stand us in good stead way beyond the end of this current crisis.

 

NEWS & EVENTS


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