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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

The Unnecessary Experience of School

One of my Sunday morning pleasures is to wake up and read The Marginalian, a weekly Essay by Maria Popova. I've mentioned her writing before and continue to enjoy her digression into the esoteric, poetic, and mystical viewpoints from which we can see the human condition in a whole new light.


This week, she reminded me of C.S. Lewis' work, The Four Loves, a book that I hadn't read since my undergraduate days as a young student of theology and philosophy. In particular, Lewis' idea that friendship is unnecessary.


"Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself [and] has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”


In the same vein, Popova references a passage from Watership Down by Richard Adams:


"Water is necessary to us, but a waterfall is not. Where it is to be found it is something extra, a beautiful ornament. We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms."


A butterfly on a flower

So it appears that the world can be divided into two groups: those things that are necessary (ie: essential for our existence) and those things that are unnecessary (but which give value to our existence).


Drafting these ideas into the less esoteric and far more practical world of schools, I cannot help but suggest that a similar dichotomy exists between those elements that are essential to the experience of school and those that are not essential but somehow add value and transform this experience into time well spent.


So the (metaphorical) question is, Where are the waterfalls in our school? 


Let me give you one of the most mundane and yet most powerful examples I can think of.


A few days ago I visited a school where I knew that security was tight. I remembered that I needed to have a piece of ID available, or I knew that I wasn't going to get in.


When I arrived, sure enough, the guards had a necessary job to do: to check my ID. And, true to form, they made sure that I was who I said I was. But they also smiled. They asked me how my day was going. They welcomed me to the school, and checked that I knew where I was going.


From a pure process point of view, they only had one job: to check my ID. But these guards made sure that this first interaction with the school was not only functional but also valuable. They took time to do what was unnecessary.  And, a few days later, I am still reflecting on the value that they brought to my experience of this school.


Another example comes from a school in Manhattan during the pandemic. Like so many other schools around the world, dots were placed on the ground to help young students keep their 1.5m distance as they queued to re-enter school. What was necessary was the distancing. What was unnecessary was the fact that this school decided to turn these cross marks on the ground into butterflies. So instead of finding an "X" that was going to protect them from the virus, these young children were busy "finding their butterflies". 


So Richard Adams was absolutely right. Moonlight is unnecessary. It is nothing more than a beautiful ornament. But maybe, just maybe, our best work as school leaders is when we discover those things that aren't necessary but add infinite value to the overall experience of school.


Together, let's find and celebrate the unnecessary but infinite value in our schools.







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