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Small Beginnings

How many bricks make a wall? One hundred? One thousand? Ten? Could one brick ever constitute a wall?

I don’t know if you have come across the concept of a thunk before? A thunk is a sort of philosophical question that makes your head hurt, “thunk” being the imagined sound as your brain tries to work it out. When I interviewed 11-year-old prospective pupils at my last school, I would usually ask them a thunk, to see if they could think, and if so, how they would go about answering it.

Take the example above. In order to answer it, you have to go back to first principles. You have to think about what a wall is for. Is it to keep things out or to keep things in, or both? And if so, what is being kept out or in? Could one brick therefore function as a wall, say for an ant?

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a bit about walls recently, strange as that may seem. You may have noticed that the wall on the Eaton Rise side of the school is being rebuilt. It’s been quite satisfying to glance out of my window in between meetings – never during them – and see the progress that the builders are making, even in the terrible weather we’ve been having. They really are superb craftspeople. It seemed to start really slowly, but has picked up this week and every time I look it seems bigger and closer to completion.

School Wall Rebuild on Eaton Rise 

It must be a really daunting thing to build a wall. You have one brick in your hand and a huge space to fill; it must feel as if you’ll never achieve your goal of building the whole wall. So, what do you do? Well, you place the brick you have in your hand, add some mortar, pick up another brick, place that one and so on and so on until the wall is completed (I simplify the process in the interests of brevity, you understand). You break down the seemingly impossible and insurmountable task ahead of you into very small, bite-sized chunks. This process is what psychologists term “chunking”.

Last week I met one of the most interesting people I have ever met, who happens to be an Old Priorian. Dr Kevin Dutton is a professor of psychology who, amongst other things, works with elite athletes and special forces soldiers. His speciality is in the study of psychopaths, and he certainly had a few stories to tell about notorious criminals he has met and whose minds he has studied. Hopefully some of you will be meeting Kevin soon: we’re trying to set up a return visit for him. Talking about the concept of chunking, Kevin gave the example of a study in which elite distance athletes were asked to run what he called a boring half-marathon on a treadmill (he is an extreme runner himself, so a mere half-marathon is boring to him). Those athletes who were explicitly instructed beforehand to divide the run up into its 13 component miles ran significantly faster than their counterparts who WEREN’T given that instruction and who ran the distance ‘whole’.

Surely there’s a lesson here for our endeavours at school, whether it be a project, essay or another large piece of academic work, or maybe a target you have set yourself in terms of your sport, your music or your ambitions for the future, such as your dream university course or career. Think about how this goal can be broken down into its smallest constituent parts and then just look down and focus on achieving and completing each of them in turn. Don’t think about the finish line until you reach it.

Our school motto is “a minimus incipe” – from the smallest beginnings - and this fits brilliantly with this concept of “chunking”. Even in our spiritual lives, we can make a difference to others and to ourselves not by performing grand gestures but by doing small things with great love, as one saint famously said.

I warn you now, I’m afraid I have another assembly about walls up my sleeve…