On Friday we had our first Headmaster’s assembly of the year.
It’s a real privilege to be able to address the whole school and an important opportunity to set the tone and nurture our school culture. Today I spoke about balance, quoting from a recent article by Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist and regular columnist for the Financial Times, that resonated with me.
Over the summer I read a piece he wrote in the FT about a research study on the impact of medical students who had taken a short course in art appreciation. Alongside their medical studies, these students learnt to study, describe and criticise works of visual art. The research findings were that the students trained in art were substantially better than the control group against whom they were tested, when it came to observing, describing, and diagnosing images of diseases of the eye. Medical trainees became better eye doctors if they spent time studying art.
Harford observes that if we want to get better at what we do (in this example, training to be a doctor) then perhaps we would benefit from taking a break and doing something different. It’s a kind of cross training for the mind. Harford went on to refer to other studies by psychologists looking at the working habits of highly creative artists and scientists. These studies conclude that those artists and scientists who enjoyed the longest most productive careers tended to work on several problems at once, switching from one project to another and back again.
There are several reasons why this might be so; firstly because different fields cross-fertilise each other. In this example, learning to critique art helps doctors at diagnosing eye disease. Secondly, because the human brain processes ideas unconsciously, once we’ve stopped thinking about them. Have you ever wrestled with a problem that you couldn’t solve, no matter how hard you tried? You take a break, take the dog for a walk, and all of a sudden you figure it out, you get the insight which helps to solve the problem.
My mother used to say to me when I was growing up, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I spoke to our boys and girls about the importance of balance in their lives.
Of course, one of the important objectives at school is that our students get great academic qualifications. The lesson from this article is that if you want to get the best possible grades then you need to make sure you do other things at the same time. You’ve got to be a good multi tasker. Ours is a high performing school and I observe that our students put themselves under a lot of pressure regarding exams. A bit of academic pressure is fine, but not when it turns to stress. The way to cope with exam pressure is not to stress about it and allow academic study to crowd out everything else.
It’s the opposite – to cope effectively with academic pressure you need to build other things into your life in a balanced way, to relieve the pressure, to make the most of your talents and ultimately to get better grades.