Retreats and rain


Outside my office a cool drizzle is falling, even though on the horizon under the gray sky  a band of sunnier cloud is visible to the south near the Olympic mountains. Soft rain, the hint of sunshine. A good day to pause and think a bit.

Helmuth von Moltke, a Prussian general and disciple of the great theorist on war, Carl von Clausewitz, said about strategy: “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Sometimes that quotation is spoken portentously by those who would rather not spend too much time planning the future. To misuse the quotation this way is hardly in the spirit of the phrase, since it was originally used to make the opposite point: that planning is essential, that it has to be complex and rich, that it has to be guided by unassailable first principles, and that it has to be executed by people who are perceptive and responsive to unforeseeable situations – anything the enemy throws at them. In our case, the unassailable first principles are the Mission and the Vision, laid out at the bottom of this little article.

One of the elements in our planning and implementation is the “retreat” – not a retreat in the military sense, of course, but in the sense of an opportunity to step back from daily demands to a more reflective place to ponder the School’s present in the broader context of both where we have come from and where we want to go. Last weekend a small collection of about sixty alumni, parents, governors, staff and students did precisely this. We gathered to discuss the ramifications of what is known as “Twenty-first Century Schools”. This concept of Twenty-first Century Schools encompasses many ideas, but those that tend to surface repeatedly are as follows. First, the learning environment is going to be a collaborative one, where everyone will have to develop not only individual skills but also the skills implicit in the notion that both individual and group purposes can be achieved better by working together. Secondly, technology, which till now has had a more or less experimental and only modestly positive influence on learning, will come into its own as an educational tool. Next,  learning will become more personalized, so that students will advance more according to their strengths and learning styles, a process that will be guided by the cascade of legitimate brain research of the last twenty years and which will be facilitated significantly by technology. Similarly, creative thinking will become more important, as students will be expected not just to analyse and think critically about information they receive, but they will also be expected to re-assemble that information in ways that make a contribution to the world. In addition, character education will become more important in schools, because schools increasingly are becoming the only place where different backgrounds and cultures (even though they may all share similar values) intersect and find a common ground against the glamourized toxic culture of many celebrities, sports figures, politicians and financial villains, as portrayed in popular media. Finally, at the core of any future success will be excellent teachers, who embrace and understand how the best learning will take place.

Our retreat put these issues out on the table, and allowed us to check in with an engaged spectrum of people who care about the school and where it should go. We heard from staff, from students, from parents and from alumni who had thoughtful reflections on these topics. This afternoon I am heading to a retreat of Junior School staff that over the next two days is going to consider many of the related topics. At the end of all this work, in a few months’ time, we believe we will have good starting principles, good focus, and the right people, so that we can manage all the balls that are in the air in this bursting school of ours. As I said at the close of proceedings last week, offering a metaphor for how our ideas move through the present and future: quite a juggling act.

SMUS Mission – Our School seeks the excellent in all of us, with passion and compassion. We are a community shaped by the pursuit of truth and goodness, providing outstanding preparation for higher learning and for life.

SMUS Vision – To learn, to lead, to serve; discovering the promise in our selves and the world.


  1. I wonder what von Moltke and von Clausewitz would say about the steps taken to defend our oil supply chain ranging from military intervention to being chums with some very very nasty dictators appears to me not to be very strategic at all. Reducing our addiction as opposed to protecting the supply chain is more strategic.


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