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I was interviewing a young man yesterday for a place in Year 5 via video conferencing. It is one of the great privileges of the role that I get to interview the children making an application to Embley. He explained that he liked reading and we discussed some examples of the material he enjoys. I asked him to what extent the Alex Rider stories he was reading were true? A bit perplexed he suggested that this was unlikely, MI6 probably don’t use 14 year olds. He declared he was no expert and could be wrong, but it was probably unlikely. We could have delved down the rabbit hole of questioning certainty and how we verify facts, but I choose a different approach. I asked him if it were possible that there could be truths in the story that didn’t need to have foundation in experience; could the book be communicating truths that went beyond fiction? Could something unreal be true?

I wonder what you might be thinking reader? Are there truths in the material you are reading that transcend fiction or indeed truths available to us more immediately because they come in fiction? Remember my interrogator is applying for a place in Year 5. Our conversation developed and sought common ground in fairy tales. My knowledge of Alex Rider is limited beyond credibility and I sought more sure ground for examples. We determined that yes indeed there may be moral truths available to the reader of Little Red Riding Hood or the like. We concluded that one reason these stories persist and survive the test of time is that they are devices for teaching children how to behave. In some way they are a covert method of educating the minds of the young without the need of more formal instruction, they develop codes of conduct imbued from the earliest ages and so shaping our minds.

At this point my interviewee admitted he felt confused, I’m not surprised. But this is no bad thing. I am happy to sing the praises of confusion but not as a persistent state. To my way of thinking, some degree of confusion is an imperative if understanding is to be developed. Confusion is akin to mixing the ingredients prior to baking; cakes need to be mixed and the fruit of that process is knowledge, or it is the best answer we have to date as Karl Popper would have said. I was never worried when children said they were confused or that they didn’t understand because it was not an ‘end’ or a ‘problem’ though they often thought it to be. It is a moment to reset our thinking, take stock of the assumptions we are making or to clarify what we are trying to sort in our minds. It is a key foundation of all understanding.

The kind of thinking my young colleague and I were engaged in was open ended, reasoned and probing. It called for no facts on my part; I don’t know the Rider books (beyond reputation) but the extent of mental stretch and challenge was profound. Children are predisposed to this kind of stuff, our challenge in school is to keep the requirements of curricula from driving it away in favour of what the exam wants and what fits in the marking scheme. The tyranny of targets and league tables can lead some schools to confine this thinking to the bottom drawer, to be indulged and considered only when the course is covered. This seems to me like going for a walk with a map and not looking at the view; racing ahead to complete the course because it is there rather than dwelling on the landscape and enjoying the beauty of the vista. For what it’s worth, my interviewee and I also got to the subject of the extent and degree of beauty evident in music.

OK, there is a very strong degree of motivated self interest in all of this. As a student I chafed against the rote learning of material where I didn’t have the chance to think about it and to develop connections. I was a nightmare for my poor teachers, to whom I am deeply indebted and whose only sin was trying to get through a syllabus. The discussion I was engaged in with my applicant was structured around some challenging questions but allowed freedom of movement, direction and response. It was open ended and probing, but I had no sense of where we would end up. But did that matter? We left with more questions than answers, with ideas and challenges, we set aside the road map and spent the most valuable half an hour enjoying the view.

Have a lovely half-term, enjoying the view with your children.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)

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