The Power of Innovation 14.10.16

On Monday, I accompanied 4 LGS boys to Buckingham Palace for the National TeenTech Awards which reward innovation in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). I must admit to sharing the boys’ excitement as we scattered tourists and drove the LGS minibus into the Palace compound before the boys were awarded their certificates by HRH Prince Andrew, Duke of York.

As you may have read previously on the school website, in the June Finals at the Royal Society in London, two of our six TeenTech teams were victorious. (Loughborough High School also had a winning team, meaning that the Loughborough Endowed Schools won 3 of the 17 categories.) The concept for the award is that an individual or small team must find a unique, innovative way to solve a problem.

Sai Kotecha (13DK) won the award for Best Research project for ‘Biosense’. Having researched the detection of glucose in the urine of type 1 diabetes sufferers, he developed the idea of a toilet block which causes a colour change in the toilet bowl indicating a positive test result for the disease. Our winning Year 11 project was also medical with David Bernstein (11RJL), and Sankha Kahagala-Gamage and Hari Jethwa (both 11 MID) victorious in the Healthcare category. They designed ‘Medivest’ – an example of wearable technology – which is a garment worn by epilepsy sufferers that detects the chemical changes in the body that are precursors of an attack.

I am sure the boys themselves would wish to join me in thanking Mrs Daljit Kaur for her support with the TeenTech awards. It strikes me that such initiatives are just as important as the boys’ ‘day job’ of working towards excellent GCSE and A Level results. I have written before that exam results, although the most important outcome of a top-class education, must not be considered the only thing that matters at the Grammar School as our boys require a much broader set of skills to thrive in modern society.

Thinking about entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation at the awards ceremony at Buckingham Palace made me reflect upon the sometimes contradictory messages that we give boys about their education. A criticism of GCSE is that it prevents ‘thinking outside the box’. In all subjects, there is a strict markscheme, and the legions of markers are given very little flexibility in how they assess candidates’ responses. Of course, to some extent, this is positive. When many of us took A Levels, we had no idea whether our papers had been assessed fairly, as the concept of accountability in the form of accessing your script, or requesting a remark had not yet been formed. However, there is the real possibility these days of an able boy writing an answer that is ‘too clever’ for GCSE and I regret that my staff sometimes have to rein our pupils in telling them to ‘stick to the script’ in order to get the marks that will contribute to an A*. The same is true, to a lesser extent, at A Level.

Therefore, we need to consider how we develop a creative (perhaps even rebellious) streak in our children. I use the word ‘rebellious’ because the most successful innovators in history have refused to accept the world as it is, instead believing that the human race can do better. I can start off by reassuring you that, in the classroom, teachers are already fully aware of the risks posed by public examinations in stifling creative thinking and a great deal of our routine teaching encourages boys to speculate and take risks. I would also like to encourage boys to challenge their teachers. Of course, I expect them to do so whilst remaining respectful, but asking questions is an excellent way of deepening one’s understanding of a subject. Where I would like further development at the Grammar School is in how we promote an entrepreneurial spirit. The TeenTech initiative is excellent and we have several other examples largely through the academic clubs and extension activities we offer. Our challenge is, as ever, to get more and more boys to benefit from them.

I think that those of us who have gone through a traditional educational path into one of the professions can be a bit intimidated by the idea of entrepreneurship. Because we hold in our heads the examples of Bill Gates, Richard Branson or Elon Musk, there is a sense that entrepreneurs are truly exceptional people that we can only admire from a distance. As a linguist, I hope that you will forgive me if I go back into the etymology of the term.  Although George W Bush (in)famously once commented, “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”, most of us are probably aware that the term comes from across the Channel. ‘Entrepreneur’ sounds like a really glamourous word in English, but its roots are rather more modest. The French verb ‘entreprendre’ means ‘to undertake’ – ‘to do something … on one’s own initiative’.

The French therefore use the word a lot more broadly than we do. The noun ‘enterprise’ is interesting. We use the word ‘enterprise’ to mean a project – especially one that is challenging. However, the French means a ‘business’ or ‘company’ – a much more routine idea. This knowledge of the word’s roots helps to demystify entrepreneurship for me. There is nothing magic about being an entrepreneur. S/he is just someone who decides that something needs to be done. More important are the attitudes that he or she brings to the table: determination and confidence certainly, but also the refusal to be scared of the chance of failure. And these are the attitudes that school and parents must work together to develop in our young people. Self-confidence and interpersonal skills are notably developed through the co-curricular as I have stressed previously, but the response to failure is one that parents and teachers need to be very wary of. I particularly like the phrase that “failure is feedback for learning”, and I will explore what is meant by this.

Naturally, we cannot afford to let boys fail when examinations are upon them and the school’s pastoral safety net must catch them. However, we must not be afraid to let our children try and fail in their general lives. I spoke about failure to boys last term in assembly; I cited my own failure with grade 8 piano as a key moment in my life, when I realised that I could no longer blame others for things that went wrong. My second example was a failed expedition which I could not complete because I was not fit enough and was poorly prepared. I could think of countless other formative failures, that were often deeply uncomfortable at the time, but have helped me in the long-term … and I’m sure that you could say the same.

I am in touch with one of my past pupils, who is now 24 and trying to be an entrepreneur in the United States. His first three business ideas have failed, but I know he will ultimately be successful because in no way does he let these experiences define him. He understands the reasons for failure and immediately looks forward as to how he will do things differently the next time. The Grammar School can help to provide formative experiences and I look forward to identifying ways in which our boys can learn from the experiences of alumni and parents who have been successful entrepreneurs in their own right. However, something simple that we can model to our boys on a daily basis is to show a ‘can do’ attitude in responding to the inevitable reversals of fortune that we suffer during our lives. If we can look for the positives even when our sons fall short of our aspirations, we will help them on the road towards success and happiness.