Travelling from Perth railway station to a Boarding Schools’ Association meeting at Strathallan School just outside the city of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Fair Maid’, I struck up a conversation with the taxi driver. Born in the 1950’s, and a denizen of these parts, he had inevitably seen much change over the past few decades, and our discussion ranged over politics past and present, the evolution of Scottish cities, and (you will not be surprised to hear) what young people in the region think and feel about their lives.
His take on young people was that they can now see, and want to be part of, a ‘greater panorama of choice’, and this phrase stuck with me. Exposed to the wider world through the digital medium, schools and travel, young people’s curiosity and interest is being stimulated, and they are looking up and beyond. Their choices are multiplying, although arguably a choice is only a choice if they have other alternatives, which puts an onus on their home city to provide attractive opportunities for them too – not to persuade or force them to remain, but to enable them genuinely to choose … a choice to stay is as much of a choice as a choice to move, as long as it is made with genuine and informed consideration for the alternatives. It was fascinating listening to this man’s considered, measured, informed take on the world, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this hitherto stranger.
And this, of course, is worth reflecting on … he was indeed a stranger when I met him, and would have remained a stranger, had I not taken the step of asking him, quite simply, as we were underway, about whether he had had a busy day so far. It is one of the questions I have learned to ask over the years of taxi drivers – sufficiently neutral so as not to probe, but sufficiently personal as to build a connection. If I didn’t talk to people I met on my travels, my life would be so much less rich. I could easily have enjoyed 20 minutes in peace as we drove through the beautiful countryside, and on another occasion I might have done exactly that, but by not being afraid to reach out and connect, I gained insights and heard perspectives that I found genuinely interesting, and that helped me to walk in his shoes.
Learning how to connect with people is a skill. In schools and at home, we rightly instil a note of caution in our children in their dealings with strangers, but we also need to teach them how to engage with them, and how to listen to and value their understandings, because this will enrich their own. Global competence does not have to start in some exotic location; it can start just round the corner from home. And yet through it, our worlds expand.
Dr Helen Wright is the author of The Globally Competent School: a manual