Mating tunes

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

The last week has been a combination of much getting to know new students, quite a bit of talking, signpost work outside the Orchard Building and listening to some stimulating talks – most of which have been in school.

Last Saturday’s Philosophy Of…  conference is led by students (6.1s when they started planning it a year ago, 6.2s now) and is designed to get us to think – a handy prompt for sixth formers especially at the start of an academic year.

Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Imperial College, London, showed how areas traditionally dominated by humanities graduates are now being taken over by scientists and how scientific methods of data analysis are being used to identify musical and literary trends and the ingredients that make a hit song or a best seller.

Tunes can mate, he posits:  the Darwinian process of natural selection, speeded up by computers and aided by human beings eliminating the hopeless tunes and allowing the better ones through, causes random sounds to be created initially and then, through this process of continuous adaptation gives us some passable tunes at the end of the process.   OK, it is like a melodic ringtone but a computer has done it.   Watch out for Google’s Deep Minds project which has enabled a robot generated piano sonata.  Artificial intelligence can make a similar formula for a best seller.  The process that precedes it is the distant reading (meaning a computer doing the reading) of the five thousand best selling works of fiction of recent years  in order to identify particular types of plot and recurring ideas  (by spotting key words).  The model thriller/science fiction/Greek billionaire seduction (by rather than of) novel can then be constructed.  Yes, the latter is a popular genre.

Out with the English graduate, in with the data scientist, he says.  This writer, an English graduate, then goes over to the theatre to hear James Harding, History graduate, Head of BBC News and former editor of The Times: like Leroi he is another speaker with a gift for making us think.  Asked the question, “what will the world will look like in 2026?” he answers “I don’t know.”   Sensible, he argues, because the world is particularly unpredictable at the moment.  Four reasons why:

  • Inequality and interest rates: massive shift in wealth inequality as the rich can borrow what they want; asset prices rise, the poor get relatively poorer: the politics of anger prevail.
  • Islamic extremism competing with secularism.
  • The pace of technological change and the impact of everything from driverless cars and dating apps on human wellbeing and behaviour.
  • Identity politics: individuals are more likely to be influenced by what seems true to them and what they feel than by tribal loyalties to, say, political parties, which only 30% of us support.

But, he is upbeat when asked questions by students about whether they should be fearful of the future; and he is the first person for a while I have heard saying it’s a great time to start out as a journalist.

Lots to take on board and it’s only Saturday lunchtime.  Monday brings a conference run by the House of Commons Education Committee on The Purpose and quality of education in England, a consultation to which Bedales has made a submission.

Again, much food for thought, but it is Mary Beard, whose promotion of Classics and interesting thinking makes me a big fan, who has the last word.  Don’t think passionate disagreement about what people should learn is anything new: Socrates met his death through choosing the wrong curriculum – “corrupting the youth”.  Read Aristophanes The Clouds for a satire on a new curriculum and just remember if the twin drivers of education are ever increasing measurement (via exams) and regulation (because no one can be trusted) then it will all eventually collapse.  Abandon a good number of GCSEs as a starter, she suggests.  Well, yes, Mary…

 

Lucky ducks and big thinks

This headline, a Lancastrian exclamation, certainly doesn’t refer to actual ducks (who are incidentally happy with plenty of water to splash around in after mid-September downpours), neither does it refer to the nine piglets I saw sleeping cosily alongside their proud mum on my walk with my canine friends earlier this morning, nor does it refer to said two dogs, one of whom managed to steal a French loaf from my kitchen table last night and escape detection through subterfuge; but it refers to students who are encouraged to think for themselves and have the stimuli to do so. They are the lucky ducks.

At the start of the last two academic years we have had a potent symbol of this through the “Philosophy Of…” conference. The brainchild of Oscar B-W when he was in 6.1, it aims to explore the thinking that lies behind different human activities.
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This year’s conference, organised by Becky G and Patrick N gave us six speakers who ran across the spectrum: conversation/writing; religion, feminism/the media, journalism in war zones, campaigning for climate justice and literary biography.DSC_0013

Here is a sample of the big thinks we were encouraged to have, drawn from the three talks I attended: when we want to be kind do we want to do so because we have been brought up to be so or because we are intuiting kindness? Would you rather save Venice for posterity or save 3000 people who might die in an earthquake in another part of Italy? What makes for a really good conversation? (Olivia Fane). What pressure can we put on our governments to ensure that the climate change talks in Paris this December are successful? How can we de-carbonize our economies? (Farhana Yamin). What are the most dangerous countries on earth? Why do we know so little about the most dangerous (the Democratic Republic of Congo)? To what degree is our view of what is happening in the world dependent on whether journalists are able to report from that country? What drives the John Simpsons and (this speaker) Oggy Botchev to take the risks they take?

We will run this conference again next year – indeed next year’s student organisers have already stepped forward. Big thinks are good at any point, but especially before the more routine business of A Level courses start to predominate.

New beginnings starting up

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Schools are refreshed each year by at least a quarter of their students being new.  The process of moving those (135 in Bedales’ case) students from being new to feeling part of the community takes a bit of thought and requires different kinds of (for want of a better word) induction.  This has been the case over the past 12 days with our new Block 3s and 6.1s, who comprise the great majority of those 135.

What are we wanting to accomplish through these inductions?  Three things: familiarity with places and systems; understanding what our values are, in particular the emphasis on close collaboration between teachers and students; and opportunities to get to know the others in their cohort.

So here is how it happens.  Three days before term begins, when teachers are still enmeshed in their in service training, in come the (95) Block 3s – just over half from our prep school, Dunhurst, just under half from about 35 different schools. I talk in the theatre to their parents about what they might expect of the next stage of their children’s education and what we expect of them.

The students then spend just under two days at Bedales when we are able to focus entirely on them and where they have the freedom of the school, enjoying for example a few skittish moments in our sunlit orchard, without any of the big people who can seem very big when you are a smallish 13 year old.  Then, strange though it seems, we whisk them away in two large buses to Ullswater in the Lake District, where, as has now happened for almost 25 years, they have a 6 day course which is specially tailored to the things we most want them to develop in their early time at Bedales – resilience, self-reflection and the ability to work in a team.  Each tutor group has its Badley tutor – the teacher who will work most closely with them – accompanying them, along with the Outward Bound leader.  It is a great 6 days and highly influential, both for them as a group and as individuals.  I (and my two wayward dogs) spend two nights there, one accompanying students on an overnight camp.

For the 6.1s, the journey is very different.  Although the majority of the cohort are students who are continuing through from Block 3 and have therefore been here for three years already, the assimilation of the new 27 students and the fact that the sixth form is a new start for everyone means that you need to give everyone an induction.

Their induction is more cerebral than the Block 3s’ and shorter, with a return a mere 30 hours before the rest of the school and the induction course focussed on the need for increased independent working and leadership.  Whilst the Block 3 induction is mainly focussed on doing, the 6.1s are reminded that good sixth formers are thinkers, readers and questioners.

In many ways the finale of the 6.1 induction is the student-led “Philosophy Of…” conference which, thanks to the good leadership of Becky G and Patrick N, came off splendidly on Saturday morning. More on this next time.