One of the highlights of the academic year in the Senior School is always ‘Curiosity Week’, which took place earlier this year. Amongst a number of other activities, and in a context in which no homework is set in Upper III to Upper IV to allow students to spend time thinking curiously for themselves, the week always involves a large number of five-minute mini lectures by students and staff on topics that interest them. Some of our youngest students gave particularly memorable and impressive talks this year.

These lectures are always diverse and never more so than this term, with topics including subjects as varied as: ‘self-similarity: snowflakes and seashores’; ‘would you have noticed Icarus?’; ‘looking after Atlantic salmon in Scotland’; ‘how to become younger than your younger sister’ and ‘the history of the turnip’. I cannot think of any other situation in which we would ever be made to think so deeply and so broadly in such a short window of time.

As a History teacher, I generally make my curiosity talks History-related and this year I spoke on the theme of ‘What if Hitler had got into art school…?’ It was fun to reflect on ‘what if’ counterfactual history. This requires us to look at what happened and then to imagine that one particular ingredient in the story of the past didn’t happen. And then to think about what impact that might have had on the rest of history.

I ended my mini lecture by launching an informal competition for students and staff to send me their own best and most interesting ‘what if’ questions. Having launched my competition in such a casual fashion, the truth is I did not really think I would receive any entries. However, I was absolutely delighted to be deluged in thoughtful and incisive suggestions from students, teachers and Business & Operations staff. Just last week, a student stopped me in the corridor to share an idea which she had been thinking about recently. 

Some of my favourite ‘what ifs’ included:

  • What if the asteroid had never hit the dinosaurs?
  • What if Tim Berners-Lee didn’t take the job at CERN? Would we still have the internet as it is today?
  • What if women had never been allowed to have the same rights as men?
  • What if the Library of Alexandria had never been destroyed? What would we learn about the ancient world?
  • What if Wat Tyler had not been injured by a blow from the Mayor of London in 1381 when leading the – to that juncture quite successful – Peasants’ Revolt?
  • If we could, what if we went (and should we go?) back in time to stop bad things happening? Would we murder baby Hitler? 
  • What if Jesus had been teetotal?
  • What if Lenin hadn’t been mistaken by the police for a harmless drunk and had been arrested on the night of the October Revolution of 1917? Would the whole twentieth century have been different?
  • What if the Argentinians had never invaded the Falklands? Would Thatcher have won the 1983 election?
  • What if there were no homework?

I love what this range of questions, and the thinking they represent, says about The Abbey. I also love the way that students and staff have spontaneously stopped me in the corridor since my talk to share their ideas and that this has continued over some time. We are a school in which discussion and critical thinking are alive and well across our whole community. What a special place in which to study/work. 

What if our students take this thinking into the wider world? They will be able to achieve so much.

Sarah Tullis, Senior Deputy Head