Whatever happened to Goldilocks?

Perseverance, NASA’s Mars Rover, successfully landed on the Red Planet this week to search for signs of ancient microbial life, and to advance the quest to explore the past habitability of Mars. Wow.

I know this because my children asked to stay up well past their bedtime to watch the landing happening live on YouTube. As a life-long science fan, I was secretly elated with this show of interest, but I was also curious to see if they were just trying it on to stay up late. So I started to probe…and sometime later we found ourselves orbiting the subtle geopolitics of the latest Space Race and the science of the ‘Goldilocks Zone’. It was a great discussion, and possibly the first time that I have had the certain feeling that my own children will far exceed my own understanding of the world we live in – an existential moment I will remember.

I acquiesced. They watched Percy’s (the Rover nickname, apparently) landing and then sloped off to bed perhaps a tad underwhelmed. I guess we peaked in the conversations earlier.

For my part, thoughts drifted from Percy to Goldilocks. For those who don’t know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, let me try and abridge:

Goldilocks is feeling rather hungry. On the kitchen table (not her own mind) there were three bowls of porridge. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl. “This porridge is too hot,” she spluttered. Next, she tastes the porridge from the second bowl. “This porridge is too cold,” she shivered. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. “Yum, this porridge is just right,” she smiled as she ate it all up.If we wish, we could therefore refer to a Goldilocks Principle, whereby for something to be ‘just right’ it must fall within certain beneficial parameters. And we could say that when the effects of the principle are observed, it is the Goldilocks effect. Easy.

The Earth can sustain life because it is not too close to the Sun and not too far. Unlike the other planets in the Solar System, it is just in the right place for life to be able to exist. Mars is apparently on the cusp of the Goldilocks Zone and so there’s a chance we might find some evidence of life if we look in the right places. You don’t know if you don’t try I guess.

We often see the Goldilocks effect in schools. Learning something new can be satisfying but hard. In fact, it’s not hard enough, students won’t do a very good job of learning because they get bored. And if the learning is too hard students also don’t learn – they get disheartened.

Stepping outside of the classroom, schools might also apply the Goldilocks Principle to their learning programme to ensure that students can thrive – is it too narrow or too broad? Enough choice? Enough focus on the mission? Enough focus on skills for life? Enough homework? Enough opportunities? Enough social and emotional support….and so on. Indeed, schools spend inordinate amounts of time trying to get things perfect, and I have yet to hear of a school that thinks that they have got it ‘just right’. Is it even possible? I am not sure, but I imagine I will need to channel my inner NASA Rover (Perseverance).

The thing is, it all depends on what sits at the centre of the system. In the Three Bears, it was all about Goldilocks being satisfied. She was the centre of the story. In the same way, brilliant teachers put each child at the centre of their own learning, and as a result, they help each student thrive in their own optimal Goldilocks Zone. Schools, however, find themselves orbiting a number of competing systems, each with their own Goldilocks Zones: The “child-centered” sun has a different gravitational pull to the “budget’ sun”, which is different again from the “university admissions” sun, different from the ‘parents-expect this’ sun, and different from the “government says do this” sun.

Is it any wonder why some schools sometimes feel like they are lost in space?

So where were we? We started with a sense of wonder and awe at the search for extraterrestrial life, whilst at the same time questioning the underlying motives and cost-benefits. I have a fairly optimistic mindset, but I have zero expectation that we will find life on Mars. But I don’t think it matters. As my children found on the slow way up to bed, sometimes we can learn more by making the journey rather than being consumed about what we might, or might not, find when we get there.

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