How to think like Pooh

As I was walking through an excellent kindergarten in Hong Kong today, it struck me just how much time these very young students have to explore – to play – to think. I watched one 3-year-old boy become completely immersed in a wooden puzzle for an extended period, uninterrupted. In a way, these students are afforded far more autonomy (and trust?!) than many schools give to older students in primary and, in particular, secondary settings.

One of the most common complaints I hear from high-school teachers is how little time they feel they have to ‘get through the curriculum’. Why the rush? Do we really feel, still, as a profession, that this is the best approach to schooling? Why can’t school be about offering students as much time as they would like to solve complex, interesting problems. Why can’t high-school be more like kindergarten?

Even Winnie-The-Pooh with his “very little brain” knows that when we are learning something new we need to “Think it over, think it under.”. We must provide time and space for deep, critical, creative thinking and learning. 

Thinking over and thinking under is such a pivotal, future-oriented skill for students to develop – and far more important than ‘getting through the curriculum’.

Vuja de – the spark of innovation

It’s a weird feeling isn’t it, déjà vu. I vividly remember, at the age of about 9, visiting my Nan’s new house for the first time and having an overwhelming sense that I had been there before. Whilst a number of studies are trying to unravel the psychological and neurological mechanism of déjà vu, there is also growing interest in the exact opposite concept.

Stanford University’s Robert Sutton and others refer to ‘vuja de’ as a key to unlocking innovation and creativity. When we engage vuja de, we are able to walk into a very familiar situation and ‘see’ it for the first time. Because we are experiencing an old situation anew, vuja de decouples us from the status quo and therefore wills us to ask, ‘why is it done this way?’.

And this question of ‘why?’ matters because innovation and creativity begin with curiosity. When we idly accept the status quo, we have no desire to challenge established norms, approaches, and behaviours. But when we seek understanding through ‘fresh eyes’, we have no alternative but to be curious.

School systems, social systems, communities, teams, families all have ways of doing things. It’s when we bring an optimistic, hopeful curiosity – a sense of vuja de– that we foster the preconditions necessary to spark innovation. And then, who knows, we may just find a better way of doing things.

What actually is ‘resilience’?

The first use of the term ‘resilience’ to describe humans appeared in the 1830s. Around that same time in history, ‘resilient’ was being used as a technical term in the watchmaking industry, referring to flexible qualities of internal components.

But it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that Norman Garmezy, first began studying human resilience experimentally at the University of Minnesota. Since then, resilience has been a rich, important, and complex field of study in psychology and, more recently, in education.

Although it has been researched extensively, there is still both a lack of consensus as to how to define ‘resilience’ and some general misunderstandings in the wider community.

The most widely accepted current definition of ‘resilience’ comes from the The American Psychological Association (2014): “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress”.

This definition is important because it helps us clarify some of the following:

  • resilience is not about ‘bouncing back’;
  • resilience is not binary (ie. present or absent);
  • resilience exists on a continuum;
  • resilience is not just a trait (it can be a process and / or outcome);
  • resilience is context-dependent (eg. we might be resilient playing sport but less so at work).

We also know that, through experience, we can learn to become more resilient. Not only are there specific, empirically validated skills that can be taught to children and adults, but mistake and adversity are wonderful teachers. That’s why we need to expose students to them regularly.

As our world becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, there are no guarantees anymore – apart from one: our students will need to be resilient. The world is changing fast, and those who have the capacity to adapt well, to survive and to move forward in spite of change will thrive.

Six keys to student happiness

The 2019 World Happiness Report has just been released. This is the 7th annual edition of the report – based on data from the Gallup World Poll.

This year, the top 10 happiest countries are, in order: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. Australia ranks 11th, the UK 15th, USA 19th, the UAE 21st, and China 93rd.

Interestingly, the six key variables used in the report to explain differences in average life evaluations are:

  1. GDP per capita;
  2. social support;
  3. healthy life expectancy;
  4. freedom;
  5. generosity;
  6. absence of corruption.

These variables have been found in the overall research literature to be important in contributing to general differences in evaluations of happiness. All of this makes sense at a population level, but I wonder what the equivalent six key variables would be for student happiness in schools?

Here’s my list:

  1. safety (Do I feel safe at school?)
  2. belongingness (Do I feel like I belong?)
  3. hope (Do I see a bright future and have the ‘will’ and know the ‘way’ to get there?)
  4. autonomy (Do I feel a sense of volition and control over my schooling?)
  5. purposefulness (Do I feel that my learning make sense and that it matters?)
  6. trust (Do I feel that I can trust my peers and teachers, and do I feel trusted?)

There is no World Student Happiness Report. (The PISA Students’ Wellbeing Report is the closest research we have.) But if there was, the above six factors would contribute significantly. These factors are the foundation of a child’s school experience. Nothing matters more.

What went right?

Does this story sound familiar to you?

Jane is in Year 7 at school. She submits her assignment and feels good about the work she has done. But that night, her teacher reads the assignment and is taken aback. The following day, the teacher calls in Jane’s Head of Year, a very experienced educator, and requests a meeting with Jane’s parents. Jane’s parents come in for the meeting with the Head of Year, Jane, her teacher, and two other of Jane’s teachers who have been called in too.

Jane’s teacher welcomes the ‘committee’ that is now present and begins the meeting. “Jane, I think you probably know why we have gathered everyone today.”

Jane quietly nods.

“The piece of work you submitted yesterday is outstanding. It is not perfect, but, as you well know, that doesn’t matter to us at all. What does matter, is that it demonstrates a new level of creativity, insight, and passion that I haven’t seen in your work before. Although you have always worked hard and done very well at school, this is different. It is so important that we diagnose and understand exactly what went right. I know your parents and teachers are so keen to help you continue to realise and nurture your strengths and so we have formed this committee today to investigate your success fully. You need to know that I will be personally writing a report about these developments that will be sent to the principal and permanently recored on your student file. I am so proud to have the privilege of working with you as your teacher. Thank you Jane.”

How different schools would be if ‘feedback’ wasn’t primarily about fixing deficits.

 

Best practice is not

‘Best practice’ is a very common phrase in education and also one that doesn’t really make sense. Here are just a few of the problems with this concept:

  1. ‘Best practice’? Says who?
  2. ‘Best practice’? Do you mean there is no alternative that might sometimes, occasionally be better?
  3. Does ‘best practice’ mean that every teacher should be doing it? If so, does it just become normal practice? (ie. Is it ‘best practice’ to stop at a red traffic light?)
  4. ‘Best practice’ can encourage complacency. In an evolving field like education, if we rest on our ‘best practice’ laurels, how will we know when the practice has become obsolete?
  5. If we just keep doing the same ‘best practice’ we risk devaluing innovation. Why would I try something new or different in my classroom if there is a known ‘best’ way to do things. ‘Best-practice’ is an enemy of creativity.
  6. Just because a practice works for one teacher or one school, doesn’t mean it will work for others. The only feature shared by every single school is: uniqueness.

Whilst we should stop using the term ‘best practice’ (try ‘effective practice’ instead), it certainly does not mean we should be ignoring excellence demonstrated by our peers or examples of successful methodologies. Of course, we need to be constantly seeking to learn from others and to refine our practice. But we need to do so through a critical lens and with a view to innovation and adaptation rather than laziness or compliance.

 

Homemade

When you buy a cake from the shop and serve it to your guests, it tastes nice, they like it, and you’ve saved time and effort. But you’ve learned nothing about baking.

Many teachers lean heavily on materials and structures built and determined by others. It’s just easier that way.

But when you get the chance to see a lesson being taught by a teacher who has carefully designed, orchestrated, and crafted a student experience from the ground up – with their own stamp on every part if it – you see something different. Not only do you see a teacher who is more deeply invested in the lesson but you see a teacher who is really learning. The real-time student response provides rich and meaningful data that allows a teacher to not only refine their pedagogy, but also to become a better lesson architect.

Great teaching is as much about preparation and design as it is about delivery.

When you start baking for the first time, you make mistakes and you learn. But soon enough, you are able to bake a homemade cake that tastes better than anything you can buy in a shop.