To start simply: learning is the quintessence of existence. Each passing day, week, and year, throughout the entirety of our lives, we are incessantly engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. Every new experience; every repeated joy that lands differently because this time round we are older and we respond in a new way; every challenge we overcome – we learn. At times, we uncover something new and delightful; at others, we learn what we don’t like, and shape our life more closely around the familiar things that matter. Nevertheless, this process unveils the profound essence of being alive.
Now some of this learning is pragmatic and utilitarian – and this is no vice. In dire circumstances, such as marooned on a desert island, we would need to acquire the skills necessary for survival such as learning to fish. Sometimes we learn for a numeracy assessment, a vocabulary test, or obtaining a driver’s licence. In such cases, the learning is narrow and focused, necessary, and efficient, serving the immediate purpose. We acquire the skills or knowledge we need and we move on.
Yet, we must also embrace a kind of learning that is open-eyed and open-ended, driven solely by the spirit of discovery. This type of learning enriches, inspires and motivates, seemingly serving no particular practical purpose but ultimately equipping us to live widely and wisely.
We acknowledge that school education is important, as it serves as a pragmatic gateway to future opportunities such as access to university and fulfilling careers. However, it is evident that over the decades, education has become increasingly narrow in focus. The prevailing culture of testing, learning objectives and exam results leaves no room for curiosity, unless that curiosity aligns with the prescribed lesson plan. There is simply not enough time for it in the eyes of many hard-pressed teachers.
That being said, many of us may remember fondly eccentric teachers who, with no apparent awareness or constraints of exam board requirement, meandered and rambled endlessly and delightfully about topics that were fascinating and gloriously silly, even if not immediately useful. But back then exams carried less weight, universities admitted students with mixed grades, and the level of competition was less fierce.
In our present, more purpose-driven and rigorously structured educational world, every school faces the challenge of nurturing curiosity. To do so, courage and being 10% braver is paramount. We must contend for space in the curriculum to explore beyond the pre-determined, prescribed content. We must champion digression, cross-references, red herrings and even occasional blind alleys. We should set aside lesson plans to address students’ questions that lead to topics unlikely to be assessed, allowing them the freedom to be curious, to embrace challenges, and to take calculated intellectual risks. This approach stretches their existing skills and abilities, potentially bringing lifelong benefits to them.
In short we must nurture curiosity: that great engine of learning that has nothing to do with the pursuit of top grades, yet paradoxically, it is the quality most likely to secure them. This is because curiosity taps into the essence of joy, where students apply intellectual, physical and creative effort to become self-motivated learners, thinking and learning for themselves. Ultimately, our aspiration is for our students to become fearless, lifelong learners – a vision that we seek and what we long for at Northampton High. There is no success like deep and sustaining joy in life where we strive to expand the limits of our learning and delight in the discovery of new possibilities.
Curiosity, however, demands courage from students as well. It is easy to be curious when nothing is at stake. Yet, when the pressure of assessment looms it is another matter. There is the temptation to say wait – just tell me what is in the test. What do I need to know? But as soon as we lift our eyes from the immediate horizon, that question becomes much larger and assumes a more profound dimension. What do you need to know for the test? Perhaps a list of formulae. For life? Well, perhaps a poem whose meaning is opaque, or a scientific experience that changed the world, or a philosophical debate we could spend our lives trying to answer.
This freedom to think, explore, and question must be at the heart of what Northampton High is all about. Because in the same way that curiosity is not concerned with top grades and yet helps to secure them, breadth of thought and interest is what achieves the two very different outcomes we all desire. It is pragmatic and utilitarian; it is what universities seek; it helps students tick the next box on their list. And at the same time it grounds us, gives us confidence and self-belief, makes us ready to ask questions and to be unafraid where there are no answers. It prepares us to live well.
We are committed to helping our brilliant students achieve the grades they deserve, but we are equally devoted to assisting them acquire a courageous curiosity. This is what allows us to make use of qualifications and talents for our own benefit and for the benefit of all around us. Congratulations – and thank you – to you all, pupils, staff and parents, for making the Northampton High community what it is.