Time to run our own race

Time to run our own race

August 24, 2018

Last Friday, the entire faculty and student body of the ISF Secondary School gathered in the C Block Auditorium to celebrate the commencement of the 2018-19 Academic Year. At the Commencement Ceremony, our 2017 Valedictorian, Ms. Cynthia Ng, who is currently studying at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, shared a particularly striking idea about time: regardless of our status, wealth, culture, or beliefs, we each share exactly the same amount of time every day – no one is short-changed.

Reflecting on Cynthia‘s message, it is clear that time is a gift to be treasured, a resource to be marshalled wisely, an asset in which to invest. Logically, we cannot be 'time-poor' or 'time-rich': each of us has precisely the same amount of time each day. Of course, subjectively, we find it hard to accept this self-evident truth. Time races past, or crawls by, depending on our mood, task, temperament, even the time of day.

One of the social phenomena that is driven by this subjective perception of time is the notion of the 'human race' – not the genetic one – but the competitive, win at all costs, take no prisoners head-long lunge to the 'finish line' in any human activity. Our competitive urge is driven by the imperative that if we finish earlier or quicker, we have somehow bested our opposition and bought back some time. We think we can win in a race against time.

Applying this idea to education and schooling, it is hard to escape the conclusion that time is the ultimate test and judge in schools. A school year in the 21st century is much the same as it was at the time of the Industrial Revolution. We just expect more from it. We also expect more from our students.

A series of articles written in recent years in our hyper-competitive home city noted the phenomenon of parents gaming the system with young children by seeking to win at the starting line (贏在起跑線); getting ahead of the opposition by training for something earlier than others, using time to pre-qualify for a later contest. We cram as much as possible into young minds as early as possible in the belief that this will provide a competitive edge in school and in life, regardless of potential, talent, opportunity, or predisposition.

In a sense, we perhaps assume we know best. We prepare our children to run in the same race as we did, in the same direction, towards the same destination. By anticipating the academic challenges ahead, we pre-load 'known' skills and content so that our children will 'win' by besting others who have been 'left behind'.

Each year, as our youngest learners enter ISF classrooms for the first time, I am always struck by the diversity plainly evident in our student body: different levels of skill, different talents, characteristics, personalities. With the passage of time, these learners master widely differing skillsets and knowledge as they undertake their separate learning journeys. They will go to different parts of world, develop different skills, see the accumulation of different bodies of knowledge, but each with the same number of hours, days, weeks, and months in an academic year. If they are engaged in a race, it is quite likely a race with just one competitor, in a competitive event that is strikingly different to one experienced by their parents, through a different landscape, with different rules, and with different challenges.

It is hard to win at the starting line, when we don‘t truly understand the contest, what it demands of us, and where it ends. It is perhaps wiser to spend our time to learn through discovery, curiosity, imagination, creativity, and experimentation, things that are messy, inefficient, and demanding of time. Counter-intuitively, they are also the things that help us understand the rules and course of our own race.

At the start of another year learning and living together, please remember this: childhood is relatively short and is marked by the passage of days that have the same number of hours and minutes for each child. Each is precious and will not come again. An hour spent striving to reach the finish-line of another‘s race cannot be recovered.

Dr. Malcolm Pritchard
Head of School

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