The Headteacher: Breaking down the barriers with one small bite at a time

Gareth Hughes is the head of Pocklington Lower School
Gareth Hughes is the head of Pocklington Lower School

On Independence Day, 4 July, 2001, a 5ft 8in, slightly built, previously unknown Japanese competitor entered the legendary New York Nathan’s Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. This was Takeru Kobayashi, the soon to be new world record holder.

The amazing thing about Kobayashi’s performance was not his rookie victory but the margin by which he obliterated the previous record of 25 1/8 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Kobayashi devoured 50.

He would go on to win the competition on six consecutive occasions, beating his own record three times. His current personal best is 69.

What on earth has a Japanese competitive eater got to do with education? As the economists Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner point out in ‘Think Like a Freak’, Kobayashi instinctively understood something crucial: many of the barriers that human beings come up against are simply artificial and are often placed there by people less creative, imaginative and driven than you.

Let me explain.

Kobayashi did what all good teachers do, he made sure he was asking the very best question in order to gain the very best outcome. Kobayashi did not think to himself ‘hmm, how do I eat more hot dogs?’ He asked “how do I make hot dogs easier to eat?”

It strikes me that this skill (deep questioning, not hot dog eating!) is now of fundamental importance for the world in which our pupils live. If I ask a pupil “how many people died in the Great War?” and give them ten seconds then, with a little help from Google, they have the answer. Job done.

If I ask them “why did 15 million people die in the Great War?” then Google will lead them to inevitable frustration and confusion: “I can’t find the answer, Sir!”

Yet, do not bemoan the age of Google, it has helped educators to focus on what is truly important: the need for those we teach to be fluid and deep thinkers with a complex and varied skill-set. Sure, harnessing digital devices will be a crucial part of their work, but developing the traits of grit, resilience and flexibility of mind are clearly more crucial.

Encouraging youngsters to ‘deep think’ and adopt a more exacting approach to problem solving, whether in terms of rewriting a paragraph or finding extra evidence to support something that’s said, nurtures an invaluable skill. Which brings me to another vital mantra… marginal gain. In other words, “Be specific, act on feedback and engage fully in your learning and each day you will improve.” It does work.

Back to hot dogs, for those of you wondering, Takeru Kobayashi’s success was based on eating them unlike all the other competitors.

His technique was to remove the sausage from the bun, split the sausage in half and slurp it down. He would then dip the bun in water laced with vegetable oil and stuff it into his mouth before performing the Kobayashi Shake – a wiggling dance that made more room in his stomach. He practised for months on end, monitoring his performance whilst getting into excellent physical shape.

When children go up to senior school, usually aged 11, they’re faced with a new, bigger and apparently scary world. The older children seem huge, they may get lost navigating the school, the timetable has unfamiliar subjects, the technology’s new. The chances are they’ll find the experience exhausting.

Gradually, though, the barriers melt away as, piece by piece, everything becomes familiar. It wasn’t that scary after all, just lots of small things happening at the same time. Back to hot dogs and those component parts.

When we’re faced with a child who’s overwhelmed by starting ‘big school’, or any other apparently insurmountable challenge, we instinctively help by encouraging them to address one issue at a time, so the whole becomes more manageable.

We use this same approach in our teaching to develop independent thought, so rather than an impenetrable barrier, pupils see a series of questions they can come at in different ways in order to make the answer their own.

It’s important youngsters learn this skill set at 11+ because fast forward five or six years to sixth form and independent thinking is essential to success. University and the workplace demand this skillset even more.

At Pocklington School, events such as inter-house music and drama competitions, which are student led, allow pupils from each house to work together across the years to come up with their own ideas and interpretations.

The older pupils have a responsibility to include and encourage the younger ones in these challenges, working together to achieve a common goal. These competitions show our younger pupils different ways of achieving success, and that the skill of being able to think independently but work together is the best springboard to success in life, no matter what the future holds.

Why did Takeru Kobayashi enter competitive eating competitions in the first place? He didn’t.

His girlfriend Kumi signed him up because she thought he could win the prize money, which they desperately needed to pay the rent.

We all need a push from time to time and we definitely don’t make it on our own.

A refusal to accept barriers. Resilience and determination. Creativity of thought. I may not encourage our pupils to follow Kobayashi’s chosen career path, but we can all learn a lot from his approach to life.