The two lessons I remember most


I was thinking the other day about the things I learned at school that were really worth learning. Not the history dates, nor the chemistry formulae. Not even the mysteries of iron ore mining at Kiruna. (Gratuitous reason to use the photo above – I finally got to visit it this summer.)

No, the useful things that really made a difference to me were conveyed very simply, and stuck.

Step forward Mr Smith, woodwork and metalwork class, 1980. We have to draw up a specification for a table. I do an enthusiastic job of describing the perfect table, giving measurements, appearance, functionality etc. etc. I’ve got some brilliant ideas about tables, me.

Mr Smith likes the thoroughness, but meticulously adds his pencilled notes to each one of my design points. Although he gives a bit of acknowledgement to some of my thoughts on materials and so on, he’s basically tweaked every answer in exactly the same way. “…will be finalised by surveying what users of the table want (or need)”. I’m a bit downcast, as I thought I’d done it perfectly, but what he’s done is to open my mind to user perspective and iterative design. Just like that.

And then, in 1986, Mr Atherton did something extraordinary in A level Economics class. We’re doing interest rates, exchange rates, balance of payments and all that macro stuff. He poses a small question – what if X changes? And then leads me, absolutely brilliantly, through a massive series of “and then what will happen..?” questions. Eventually, as I find I’ve managed to loop together pretty every construct of an economic model in a logical sequence that actually makes sense, I’m unable ever again to think of a Big Change Thing without digging through all the “so what else changes as a result?” consequences.

So, Mr Smith & Mr Atherton. User-centricity and the fundamental interconnectedness of all the big things. In two quick lessons. Thanks. Profound, life-long, world-view-altering thanks. (I’d love to find a way for them to read this.)

If you had moments like this, what were they? And what would a curriculum that distilled all these and delivered them in concentrated form be able to achieve?

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Greenwich 21 Jan

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