Who says that you can’t teach an old cat new tricks?

The man whose shoes I attempt to fill every day, my old teacher and the founder of the School of Communication Arts used to call his students cats. I love dogs and have a mild liking for cats, perhaps because dogs are loyal and cats are unpredictable. But John Gillard called us all cats.

On my second day as a student at John’s school, he introduced me to a book called Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, which rocked my world and opened my mind to concepts that have served me well ever since. This was the first proper book that I ever read, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that I became a bit obsessed with Toffler as a result.

He wrote Future Shock in the 1960s and predicted things like the Internet with clarity, but there was one thought that stands tallest amongst the hundreds of mindblowing ideas in the book.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

This was such a visionary thing to write, not least because it was written at a chapter in history when people were expected to only have one career, working for one employer, which meant that there was little need to reskill, relearn or reimagine how we might live our lives.

None of our students know how to skate. I recently promised to put £500 behind the bar for our students’ Christmas party, so long as ten of them learned how to do tricks on a skateboard. This is a health and safety nightmare, so if you embrace the general thinking behind what I’ve done, then feel free to find a safer way to execute it.  

The brother of one of our students knows a few skateboarding tricks. We discovered this fact moments after the cohort learned their task. There is a yiddish word maven which refers to someone who is an expert in something, and I believe that we all have maven radars.  In other words, we all know someone in our network who can help us solve most challenges. This is even more true when a team faces the same challenge.

The first lesson I wanted our students to learn from the skateboarding challenge is that there are usually people within their network who show them how to acquire new skills, to overcome obstacles. Simply scan the network for mavens, and then ask them for help.

Not all students will learn from the brother. Some will learn from YouTube clips. Some might even venture down to the local skate-park and try to make new friends.

I hope that some students will teach others the tricks that they’ve learned, and if that happens then I will know that we’re going to have a very special year in the school, because it demonstrates a culture of generosity, reciprocity and togetherness.  

I found a student thinking about practicing an Ollie this morning, with her feet frozen and glued to the floor in fear.  She wasn’t ready to jump. She was scared of it all going wrong and falling on her bum. I was a bit scared too, because nobody wants a lawsuit, but I gave her some sounds of encouragement and she jumped. One moment she was frightened, not knowing what she was capable of; seconds later she was rightly proud of her new ability; minutes later she was thinking about the next trick to learn.

We had a skateboard made a couple of years ago, with the logos of every SCA cohort printed on it. It serves as a reminder of what it takes to be successful. We need the courage to try new things, and both the curiosity to discover what to do next and how.

“Ah!”, you might be thinking, “But curiosity killed the cat.”  

The original idiom, oddly, was actually that care killed the cat but this was changed to curiosity. But that’s only half the story.

The full saying goes as follows; Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.

This is probably where we get the idea of cats having nine lives. Cats are living Alvin Toffler’s best life, learning and unlearning and relearning.  

The oldest cat in our cohort this year is in his 40s, but comes to school with fresher ideas and more energy than people half his age. I’m predicting that he’s either going to win plenty of advertising awards, or prizes for skateboarding, such is his hunger to learn.

There’s no such thing as a cat that can’t learn. Only ones that are unwilling.

What sort of cat are you?


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