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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Is Any School Experience Truly Original?

So, what makes your school stand out in the crowd and be seen as original?

It’s a question we ask a lot these days. But finding a convincing answer is sometimes more difficult than one might think. If our websites are anything to go by, we all too easily fall back into generic statements that, when all is said and done, sound just like the next school down the road… and the next one after that.

So, no wonder families are left confused. It’s like walking into a new car showroom and listening to the company representative proudly describing how their vehicles have four wheels, an engine, and even a set of headlights. Providing information alone, even if it is based on truth, is rarely enough to convey the experience that is uniquely yours.

It was while reflecting on this issue recently that I found myself turning to Murakami's latest book, Novelist As A Vocation. Now, if you are a writer, of any description, this really is an inspiring and thought-provoking read. In one particular section of the book, however, Murakami turns his attention to the question: what is originality? Or, more concretely, what was it about hearing the music of the Beatles or the Beach Boys for the first time that made them such extraordinary, unforgettable moments?

A photograph of a guitar with a plectrum

Looking back, it was the originality of these groups that enthralled. Their sound was new, their music was different than what anyone else was doing, and its quality was far and away the best. They had something special.

We can probably all remember similar experiences: extraordinary moments in time that lift us away from the ordinary, shatter our established frames of reference, and give us a first glimpse of something altogether new and different. Professionally speaking, we can perhaps even call to mind moments in time when our schools have stood out in just the same way… something new, something that no one else is doing, and of an altogether different quality.

So why do we find it so difficult to articulate this difference?

What is interesting is that even someone with the word-mastery of Murakami admits that “nothing could be more difficult” than actually describing what made the Beatles or the Beach Boys different. “There’s no way I could have done it back then,” he says, “and even now, as a professional wordsmith, it taxes my linguistic abilities.”

So is the task beyond us? Should we resign ourselves to the realm of entirely unoriginal educational cliches?

Later in the same chapter, Murakami provides a definition of “originality” that, for me at least, provides an intriguing framework for thinking ourselves out of this dilemma. To summarize, he says that to be deemed truly “original” an artist (let’s read “school”) must:

  1. Possess a clearly unique and individual style… that should be immediately perceivable on first sight.

  2. That style must have the power to update itself. It should grow with time, never resting in the same place for long.

  3. Over time, that characteristic style should become integrated within the psyche of its audience, to become a part of their basic standard of evaluation.

While the richness of Murakami’s reflections cannot be reflected here in a few simple lines, I cannot help but wonder whether this definition of “originality” provides a clue as to how we can start to better articulate what really makes our schools different.

What is that signature that is uniquely ours, that “specialness” you sense as soon as you walk onto Campus? In what ways are we continually learning and adapting over time, demonstrating our capacity for (in Murakami’s words) “self-reinvention”? And in what way has our school set new standards that have now become the benchmark for others to follow?

If we can answer these questions, then perhaps we can rightly start to claim some kind of originality that distinguishes us from those around us.

And perhaps a final word of advise from Murakami himself:

This to me is how “originality” should feel: pure and simple… Fresh, energetic, and unmistakable your own.



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