From the Head Master

Last night at about 9pm I found myself kneeling on the ground in a local shopping centre changing a tyre. There are lots of things I would rather have been doing; earlier that evening I had cooked and enjoyed a meal with my family, we had made more progress through the TV series we are binging, and I had been beginning to think about an early night. However, events intervened and here I was, wrestling with the items that normally live under the floor of the car’s boot.

Initially, my frustration was palpable. However, as I got on with the task, I began to reflect on how it was that I knew how to do this task.

It was my father who taught me how to change a tyre at some point in my early teens. I can’t particularly remember the occasion; it may have been on the side of a road in the context of a real need, or it may have been in the carport as a deliberate lesson. I don’t imagine for a second that I welcomed learning this particular skill. My interests as a young teenager lay more with books and sport than practical skills. However, as it turns out, I learned how to do it and in the thirty-plus years since, I have had to use the skill only half-a-dozen times. However, last night, when I needed to, it all came back to me.

The point of my reverie was not to marvel at my ability, as though this is some sort of super-power. Changing a tyre is hardly rocket-science! Rather, I was prompted to think about the things that we don’t learn in school.

As a professional educator, I am hardly going to downplay the value of learning that comes through school. The knowledge and skills learned in the classroom, the social and emotional skills gained through participating in a community, and the character formation that takes place through the school years are all essential. However, so much of what we learn during our childhood and adolescence comes from outside the School.

I am pretty confident that the mainstream curriculum does not teach skills such as changing tyres or lightbulbs, or how to clean a toilet, scrub a shower or do the dishes. Bed-making, clothes-ironing and lawn-mowing are all outside the scope of school, as they should be. Some young people learn some cooking skills at school, but it is not part of the compulsory curriculum. These life-skills are usually picked up either in the context of normal family life, through the modelling or instruction of parents, or later on when a young person has to fend for themselves. My recollection of some of the group-houses I lived in during the university years and afterwards suggest that a fair number of us only learn these things when there is no alternative.

Over the years, schools have found themselves teaching life-skills that would have been in the domain of the family in previous years. For example, each Field Studies Programme at our Woollamia campus, a number of Year 9 boys learn how to ride a bike. This hasn’t been part of their life experience up until that point. Likewise, many of them haven’t engaged at all with gardening or horticulture until that point. One of the reasons that we are piloting the ‘Green Patch’ initiative in the Junior School is to teach the boys some foundational skills in gardening, because that opportunity will not otherwise be part of their learning.

I recognise that some of the skills listed above may become obsolete. In fact, some of them may already be. Bike-riding is less viable in our urban environment than it used to be. Gardening gets squeezed out, either through smaller living arrangements or lack of time. Cooking at home is increasingly outsourced, one way or the other. Many families are able to hire cleaners to take care of toilets and showers. These skills may go the way of other practical skills that have become redundant through technology, labour-saving devices, or lifestyle changes. I don’t want to suggest that there is anything wrong with that! No-one wants to go back to doing laundry in a copper and using a washboard. There are also economic arguments for outsourcing some of these things, including the efficiencies that come from specialisation, and the opportunity-cost of spending one’s time doing things that someone else could be engaged to do. 

However, I do wonder whether we might do well to consider whether we are adequately equipping our children with enough in the way of basic life-skills, or are we teaching them to look for someone else to fix problems that are well within their reach? Apart from anything else, as I know from my experience last night, there can be a tremendous sense of satisfaction from knowing oneself to be capable. Resilience and self-esteem are bolstered by a sense of competence and self-efficacy. On the other hand, learned helplessness is in no-one’s interests. What are the basic skills, learned at home, that you think your son should have acquired before his school years come to an end?

Detur Gloria Soli Deo.

Tim Bowden | Head Master


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