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More Than the Sum of Our Parts

Since I became The Head at St John’s – over two years ago now – I have been giving a lot of thought to what it is that defines us.  What sort of community are we?  What does it mean to be part of St John’s as a young person who will learn and grow here, as a colleague who will work and develop their career here, or as a parent or friend of the School who will be involved in any number of different ways?

During the last academic year, we established a Kindness Working Group.  I’ve spoken before about how fundamental I believe kindness to be.  It is all too often overlooked as a gentle emotion but kindness is actually an extraordinarily powerful concept. Knowing that we wanted kindness at the centre of how we operate, the Kindness Working Group went away to look at every aspect of school life and began to define what it means to be part of St John’s.

Led by Nick Johnston-Jones, a Teacher of English whose insight and creativity is appreciated equally in the classroom and staffroom, this exciting piece of work is helping us to articulate what we believe and how we want our community to be. Talking to our pupils earlier this term, Mr Johnston-Jones described how he feels that he is a better teacher thanks to the colleagues around him, the pupils he works with, the shared thoughts and ideas. In essence, he feels that being part of this community enhances him and makes him more than he would be on his own. And, from this, a concept emerged to describe this idea of being more by being part of the community: MeWe

Let’s hold that thought there. It is safe to assume that most people are familiar with the story of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book so I won’t set the scene but there is a poem in the book which describes “The Law of the Wolves” and it begins as follows:

Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

The idea that the “strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack” is an interesting parallel to our MeWe concept but also encourages us to extend our thinking. When I was talking about this with our Chaplain, Revd. Charlie Moloney, he questioned whether MeWe was a bit egocentric and he turned the idea on its head: would WeMe be a better way of expressing how the community is made more by the individuals within it?

I’ve reflected on this and my conclusion is that one expression is not better than the other.  In fact, both are valid and equally important descriptors of the character of St John’s. There are many examples in school life where the contribution or the experience of the individual is magnified by the contribution of the many. Equally, the many benefit from the efforts of the individual in countless ways from our sports teams and musical groups to houses engaged in competition.

I have long believed that a supportive community enables everyone to have the greatest chance of achieving their goals, as well as allowing characteristics such as creativity to thrive, but I wanted to look beyond school to see where else we might find evidence of this idea. I grew up in a family of scientists, with both of my parents working in scientific research. I remember it seemed quite a lonely and competitive field of work but, in recent times, there has been a significant change in the way that scientists work. Collaborative research between groups - sometimes even among institutions from different countries - is becoming more common. Nature reported in 2012 that, on average, its current Letters (short articles) have at least four times more authors than they did 60 years ago. The first scientific paper with 1,000 authors was published in 2004; a paper with 3,000 authors came in 2008. By last year, a total of 120 physics papers had more than 1,000 authors and 44 had more than 3,000. Many of these are from collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Europe's particle-physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland. It seems to me that the work of the individual scientists is enhanced by the many – MeWe - and that the work of the many is enhanced by the contribution of the individual – WeMe.

The rapid rate of knowledge acquisition by humans in recent times may well be as a result of collaboration, with the knowledge of the individual supporting further acquisition by teams working in research related tasks. But it may also be that scientists have to work together because there is now so much knowledge to grapple with that no one person could handle enough to make meaningful advancement.  Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve” in which he noted that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II, knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today, things are not as simple because different types of knowledge have different rates of growth but, for example, medical knowledge has been expanding exponentially with a doubling time of seven years in 1980, three and a half years in 2010, and a projected 73 days by 2020.

Whatever the driving force, in science we see MeWe WeMe at play: individuals and teams performing better due to the interaction between the two. So, as we continue to explore what it means to be part of the community at St John’s, I have asked everyone to reflect on the ways that being part of St John’s enhances their potential and experience, as well as considering how their place here, their potential, their attitudes and their approach to life can enhance it. We want every individual and the whole community to be strengthened by the interaction.  Inherent in this relationship is a responsibility for us all to behave according to the values that sit at the heart of our school: optimism, ambition, moral muscle and, of course, kindness. 

 

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey