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In praise of ordinary magic

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Blog - In praise of ordinary magic

Thursday 4 June 2020

Growing up in the 1970s there was not the wide range of children’s literature which fills shelves today. Independent reading started with things like Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and moved on to books like JRR Tolkein’s ‘The Hobbit’. Now I appreciate that Tolkein’s fantasy world of Middle Earth is like Marmite for most people, (for the record I enjoy it on toast) but I avidly devoured the story of Bilbo’s quest to the Lonely Mountain.

For readers unfamiliar with the story, Bilbo, who is a respectable hobbit, a short human like creature with furry feet (surely emblematic of a certain kind of Englishness) sets out on a quest to a far-flung mountain with a group of dwarves. Their plan is to steal the treasure from dragon’s lair beneath the mountain. Along the way they are beset by a series of dangerous adventures through which Bilbo is forced to confront his fears and overcome them. Critical to his success and survival is his discovery of a magic ring which renders the wearer invisible.

Curiously, for a fantasy novel that features wizards and elves aplenty, there is very little mention of magic. Certainly, there are few spells cast by the protagonists. This is just one of a number of ways that the book differs from that contemporary example of the fantasy genre, JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’. Instead, the text appears to focus instead upon Bilbo’s personal growth and development. Slowly but surely the Hobbit Bilbo begins to take on leadership of the group of adventurers, particularly once the paternal figure of Gandalf the wizard leaves them. Eventually this gives him the courage to venture into the dragon Smaug’s lair beneath the mountain and so to see the critical vulnerability in the dragon’s armour.

As the Hobbit enters Smaug’s lair he makes use of his magic ring to render himself invisible, but Tolkein makes it clear that the dragon can still sense his presence. In the end it appears that it is Bilbo’s courage and indeed the very unexpectedness of a creature of his stature undertaking the task which renders his venture a success. There is an ‘ordinariness’ to this magic. It is in plain sight.

In thinking about how a school like Bennett can respond effectively to the impact of the coronavirus on our society and on education in particular, I have found the work of psychologist Ann Mastin particularly helpful. I am hugely grateful to Leora Cruddas, the CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts for referring to Mastin’s work in one of her COVID-19 briefings for school leaders.

Mastin’s work entitled ‘Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development’ examines how children facing adversity do develop resilience and that this resilience emerges not from extraordinary or heroic interventions, but rather from normal human adaptational systems. Mastin concludes that, “the great threats to human development are those that jeopardize the systems underlying these adaptive processes, including brain development and cognition, caregiver-child relationships, regulation of emotion and behavior, and the motivation for learning and engaging in the environment”.

This has led us as a school to focusing hard on trying to reproduce all of our normal systems and approaches to communication with students and their families in the new virtual environment that we are being asked to work in, or where that is not possible to find alternatives. Our intent has been to make our remote school mean the same things to our students as the physical one. Things like having a routine to a school day seem terribly important. We have worked hard, and with some success, to establish our virtual assemblies as a fixed point in the day for attendance.

In what are the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus lockdown one might wonder whether efforts to stage a virtual concert, or to get students to work on the skills section of their Duke of Edinburgh Award are really important to a school’s efforts? It seems to me that Mastin’s work suggests that they are. These are all part of the basic systems of our school, expressions of what we are all about educationally speaking.

Mastin concludes, “if major threats to children are those adversities that undermine basic protective systems for development, it follows that efforts to promote competence and resilience in children at risk should focus on strategies that protect or restore the efficacy of these basic systems”. One strand of this ‘ordinary magic’ that we have been trying to sustain at Bennett involves avoiding the distraction of the ‘how’ of remote teaching, whether that is live Teams lessons, or a narrated powerpoint. Instead we remain focused on the ‘what’, of well planned and sequenced teaching. In doing this we have followed the EEF evidence about remote schooling, which resonated strongly https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/eef-publishes-new-review-of-evidence-on-remote-learning/.

Covid 19 means that some of the ‘magic’ of the final term of the school year will inevitably be denied to us this year. The very real human drama of exams and their outcomes, the celebration of achievements as we close the school year. In this context, it is probably right for us to focus our attention as a school on the means to those ends. By this I mean the way in which as a corporate body, and as individuals working within a school, we provide the ‘magic’ which enables achievement and forms resilience in young people, seeing this as part of our Christian mission, doing work that has been specially trusted to us as professionals.