Chance words in the classroom shape the future

9th January 1998 at 00:00
David Hopkins of Nottingham University told me that someone somewhere did a study of Nobel Prize winners. The aim was to find out whether among Nobel Laureates, in every field from physics to literature, from biology to peace, there were any characteristics which they all shared.

There were. They had IQs that were above average, but not much. They were totally dedicated to the field in which their success had come, usually to the point of working harder than was good for them. Most strikingly of all, each of them could point to a teacher who at some point in their past had inspired them to pursue the subject in which they had become world-renowned experts.

This came back to me as I took the opportunity over the Christmas break to read some books about something other than education. In the latest PD James thriller an instance of brutality in a school had devastating consequences many years later. In Kenneth Morgan's magisterial new autobiography of James Callaghan, the future prime minister's education is described. Apparently, young Jim found much of the teaching dull. He was uninspired by the headmaster's assemblies which apparently included homilies on such themes as "Make sure you don't marry beneath yourselves". But Percy Roberts, the geography teacher recognised something special in the boy and gave him "the run of his bookshelves". He was one of many teachers who, through commitment far beyond the call of duty, opened up new horizons for their pupils.

I then reread that AJP Taylor classic War by Timetable. In it the author shows how each of the European powers prior to the First World War had developed a plan for mobilisation which depended above all on the railway timetable. "Whichever Power completed mobilisation first ... might even win the war before the other side was ready. Hence the timetables became ever more ingenious I" None of the powers actually wanted war, Taylor argues, but if one was threatened and mobilisation became necessary, the railway timetables took over and war became inevitable.

What provoked the war, of course, was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Everyone knows that the assassin was Gavrilo Princip, but Taylor reveals the series of remarkable accidents which led to the moment. For example, the Austrians had been warned by a Serbian representative in Vienna that they should expect trouble, but the minister who was given this intelligence was responsible for finance, not security, and simply forgot to pass it on. Meanwhile, on the fateful day, Princip's comrade threw a bomb and missed. Princip gave up and went for a coffee. Then Franz Ferdinand took a wrong turning. Amazingly, the driver realised his mistake and stopped outside the cafe where Princip was sitting. The student, amazed to find the Archduke in front of him, stood up and fired his infamous shot.

As Taylor says, it was fashionable when he was writing to seek profound causes for great events. In fact, he argues, small mistakes like taking that wrong turning, can have huge consequences, Fashion since Taylor wrote has moved in his direction. Chaos theory - the most important development in science in the past 30 years - reveals how a minor variation in inputs can have a catastrophic impact on outputs, the famous Butterfly Effect. The study of history shows the same trend. Historians of the 1990s such as Simon Schama describe events such as the French Revolution as haphazard and chaotic "much more the product of human agency than structural conditioning".

When we look back on the past we see what did happen and assume subconsciously that it had to be that way. Actually what happened was one of a range of possibilities, any one of which might have happened.

So what has all this holiday reading got to do with education? Simply this. If the chaos theory of life and history is even roughly right, then teachers are daily shaping the course of the future whether they like it or not. Some teacher somewhere this term will no doubt say or do something which inspires a future prime minister, a great author, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, the striker in England's third successive World Cup triumph in 2006 I but it will be many years before they realise it, if they ever do.

At a more mundane level, teachers will inspire countless pupils to greater things. A teacher described to me recently how a pupil had come to him saying she wanted to be an estate agent. He said he would help her, but that with her potential and qualifications why didn't she think about surveying, a job which had far better prospects? She said, "What's a surveyor?" Now, several years later she is one.

High expectations - that crucial ingredient of successful education - are conveyed in each of these daily interactions with pupils. This year's New Year's Honour List for the first time highlighted education. The list provided recognition for some exceptional heads and teachers who through their daily work have inspired many pupils and perhaps without knowing it shaped our future. As Tony Blair said, in honouring these individuals he was honouring the whole profession and the inspiration it provides for the future generations.

Which leads to a thought for 1998, a quotation from Vaclav Havel who, at the time he wrote it, was in a prison cell in Stalinist Czechoslovakia. "For we never know when some inconspicuous spark of knowledge may light up the road for the whole society without society ever realising perhaps how it came to see the road. But that is far from being the whole story. Even those other innumerable flashes of knowledge which never illuminate the path ahead I help to make and maintain the climate of civilisation without which none of the more effective flashes could ever occur."

It is teachers, more than any other group within a society, who do most to maintain the climate of civilisation and generate those inconspicuous sparks of knowledge on which all our futures depend.

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