29 Nov Divining real potential
“Oh look – she has her father’s nose!” I love listening to the comments people make when they see a new born baby for the first time. Perhaps you can remember some of the comments people made when you children were tiny. As humans we love to look for clues which might give us a peep into the future – what a child will grow up to look like, what they will be good at and what career they will one day succeed in.
“There is no simple ‘cause and effect’ link between early signs of ‘potential’ and full blown brilliance later in life.”
I often hear people talk about a child’s ‘potential’. We like to look for it in young people and we even base important decisions on being able to identify it. But history is awash with examples of how perilous this thinking can be – from the dyslexic Einstein who showed little scholastic ability to the ‘lackluster’ Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin who cared for nothing but ‘shooting, dogs, and rat catching’.
There is no simple ‘cause and effect’ link between early signs of ‘potential’ and full blown brilliance later in life. This is exactly what Malcolm Gladwell in his provocative book, Outliers, identified. Nowadays, I look for three key qualities in a young person – these are the three things I believe characterise real potential:
I want to see passion – it matters little what it flows towards or where it flows from – whether music, sport, art or physics. I want to hear young people speak passionately about things that really matter to them.
“We can never predict from which of the rich variety of experiences a young person may be inspired to find their grand passion in life.”
This is precisely why Woodstock’s innovative Enrichment Programme is so crucial. We can never predict from which of the rich variety of experiences a young person may be inspired to find their grand passion in life – and so our educational program is designed to be broad, challenging, engaging and experiential – requiring the learner to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for the results, through investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems and assuming responsibility. A young person might find their grand passion in a history class, they might find it in a biology lab, but might it not also happen in a hobby, sport or a musical passion that develops outside the classroom? This approach can enrich a student’s life profoundly – and all the more so when these experiences are given equal status to the more conventional forms of education.
I want to know that I am in the presence of someone who is authentic – someone who is being real, genuine, self-aware and transparent. Authenticity does not mean perfect, sophisticated or dynamic – for these qualities can be groomed. What I mean is I want to encounter the ‘real’ person.
“Authenticity does not mean perfect, sophisticated or dynamic… I want to encounter the ‘real’ person.”
Generations of students reflect positively on the quality of relationship between students and staff at Woodstock. It is a quality which exists through to this day and is something which enables young people to be themselves, to be comfortable in their own skin. And so, our ethos is very deliberately a dynamic blend of happy purposefulness, a determination to succeed, to enjoy life, to enjoy each other’s company – for it is from this that we discover there is far more in each of us than we think.
I am also looking for certain qualities of empathy – that is, a sensitivity or willingness to be at home in another’s universe. Empathy comes in many guises. I ask myself, “Does this young person show any signs of questioning the default settings of self-interest and ego?”
“It is only when we are among those who are different from us that we see ourselves for what we are and to develop that empathy which is so crucial to success.”
Woodstock enables young people from around the world to live and work together in the same place. This sounds like a statement of the obvious – but beneath the apparent simplicity lies a transforming truth. Our students have the opportunity to learn from others but also to see their own culture for what it is – for it is only when we are among those who are different from us that we see ourselves for what we are and to develop that empathy which is so crucial to success.
Passion, authenticity and empathy – these are the qualities which continue to define the Woodstock experience and this is the soil in which we best grow every capacity of our students – intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical. These are also the qualities which will not only allow our students to successfully make a living but, more importantly, to make a life.
Dr Jonathan Long, Principal