Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Numbers and memory

This time last year I talked a lot about numbers. I talked about the number of small prizes won and commendations awarded. There were over 2000 academic awards made last year; the number this year is similar.

Our lives are dominated by numbers.  Sometimes we are bombarded with so many numbers, they become tangled and lose meaning.  Understanding the meaning of numbers can help us to understand the progress we make at School, but in order to understand progress, we need to understand the numbers – is 65% good, or disappointing? It can be both, seen through the eyes of two different people.  Here’s an example, and I’d like you all to have a go: how long is a million seconds?  I haven’t given you very long, but if you said 11 and a half days, well done.  Now have a go at a billion seconds?  If you said 32 years, well done.  That’s how long it would take you to count to a billion, one number per second.  Translating those initial numbers into a more understandable format helped to give them meaning.

What are the numbers that are relevant to you this year?  Commendations gained, runs scored and wickets taken, exam percentages, netball results, A* grades predicted, Twitter followers, Facebook friends.  These are all numbers. Some matter, some are meaningless.  Make sure you concentrate on the ones that matter.  The number of A and A* grades achieved matters, number of Facebook friends doesn't. I am not suggesting that your number of actual friends doesn't matter, merely the number of Facebook acquaintances, which is hardly necessarily a measure of real friendship.

You need to make sure that certain numbers are going up - exam scores for example, and others go down - pink cards. Human lives can't be measured purely in numerical terms, but they give you a good idea of how that life is going.  Of course this relies on your being able to remember your numbers from last Quarter, or last year.  If you don’t remember anything from the past, it’s difficult to gauge how you are performing in the present.  I am always amazed by what pupils do and don’t remember.  We can't always control what we take away with us from days, but days are where we live.  Some advice that I give and I really want to stick gets forgotten immediately (it will happen during this assembly), and other throwaway comments are remembered for years.  Sometimes pupils ask me years later if I remember saying this or that to them, and even if someone did say it to them once, I'm pretty sure it wasn't me.

R S Thomas, in his poem Abersoch, touches on the nature of memory:

There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

I wonder how many of you will remember this poem, its sentiment, its name and the name of the poet?

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