That space

Aren’t we lucky to have the opportunities that many of us do as modern educators. The choice of colleges to study education, the specialism that we select, the kind of school, the location – perhaps country – in which we choose to teach, the career path – all of these are such rich opportunities. Wonderful.

And yet, whilst we can freely choose which opportunity to pursue, each is very expensive. Economists call this: opportunity cost. For example, as we rise in seniority in our school, we sacrifice opportunities to directly and deeply nurture the learning of individual students. As we become Faculty Heads and Deputy Principles and Heads of School, we no longer get to inhabit the exquisite hubbub of the classroom – a place that was once our ‘home’. Our interaction with students and, therefore with education, becomes quantitatively and qualitatively different.

As we become decision-makers and budget-holders and managers, we have the capacity to scale our influence. But, we give up the privilege of having 20 or 30 young minds to mould – each lesson – at the ‘chalkface’.

We, at once, grow and shrink in our impact.

School leaders create and enable policy and culture and expectations in their communities. School teachers ignite and enable learning, passion, curiosity, empathy, love, hope, and wellbeing in their students. Both of these roles matter. And both of them come with sacrifice.

Ultimately, whilst school leaders undoubtedly have the power to impact the lives of both students and educators, there is nothing more powerful than that beautiful space between a teacher and a student. And when a school leader propagates that space with culture and professional relationships based on forgiveness, integrity, trust, compassion and hope – that space between a teacher and a student is lit up.

That space is where great education truly lives.

 

[P.S. This is my 201st daily post. And my last daily post…for now. I will continue to post here sometimes – but not every day. I need to turn my attention to another writing project. Thank you to everyone who has read my posts, shared my ideas, and kept me going. Lots more to come…]

Professional non-development?

It’s always felt a bit strange to me that schools would designate a particular timeslot and location for a Professional Development (PD) ‘session‘.

So, when we are not in this ‘session’, what is it that we are doing – if not developing professionally?

I wonder what would happen if we could transition from a concept of traditional PD ‘sessions‘ to ‘ongoing‘ or ‘permanent‘ PD? Would this help us shift to seeing ourselves as constantly growing, learning and developing?

Maybe.

But perhaps we’re too busy for this? Easier, probably, to just keep professional development contained in its little ‘session‘.

Quiet is easier

Schools are rife with professional conversations, committees, and meetings. Each one of them is an invitation to contribute. Sometimes we’re compelled to contribute, sometimes obliged, and sometimes we can choose to contribute or not.

Some meetings, of course, are mundane, some are informative, and others are confronting and provocative. It’s in the latter kind that we matter most. If we don’t, we shouldn’t be there.

And it’s in those demanding engagements – at times when we feel elevated emotions and moved to comment – that we are forced to make a choice. Share our view and risk being shouted down, embarrassed, or challenged? Or keep our thoughts to ourselves?

After all, remaining quiet is easier – it helps keep the meeting moving along nicely ­– it helps maintain the status quo – it’s less complicated, trouble-free and painless.

And so we should keep quiet – if uncomplicated, trouble-free and painless is our aspiration.

All good ends must come to a thing

When we invest our time in experiencing a story, presentation, or lesson we have the right to expect some return on that investment. Sometimes, it can be satisfying enough to savour the ride and to be immersed in a wave of emotional or cogntive experience.

But really good lessons are those that change us. They take us on a journey that has us arrive at the destination a slightly different person – affected – perhaps with new insight, enhanced empathy, or a shifted perspective.

And the best lessons end with a unique gift – a tangible shift in behaviour. Not only do we think differently, but we are nudged along a newly-illuminated path.

I attended two brilliant conference presentations on the weekend. One made me eat differently today. The other caused me to make three phone calls – two to family members and one to an old friend.

This is the thing we call impact. It is the mark of great teaching and the broadest goal of education.

No one likes fire alarm tests

They’re annoying, disruptive and always seem a little bit unnecessary.

Until there’s a fire.

And then everyone is suddenly very grateful that the system works as it should. Would it have worked without the tests? Probably.

There are many situations when ‘probably’ is fine. Should I take a coat – it looks like it might rain? Probably. Is it worth getting an extra loaf of bread – in case we run out? Probably. Do you think it’s time to get some sleep? Probably.

And there are times when ‘probably’ isn’t good enough.

He’s unconscious – do you think we should call an ambulance? Probably. Yes. The road is icy, do you think I should slow down a bit? Probably. Yes. My friend / student / colleague / sister seemed to be struggling a bit today – should I check that they are okay? Probably. Yes.

Sometimes, it can seem annoying, disruptive and unnecessary to check in with people around us who appear to be struggling? And surely they’ll be okay without us checking in won’t they? Probably. 

Is probably good enough? Probably Definitely not.

Fires happen.

Not so fragile

Do you know what happens when you apply strain to healthy human muscles? They grow stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on healthy human bones? They grow stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on a healthy human immune system? It gets stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on a wine glass? It breaks.

That’s because a wine glass is fragile. Humans are antifragile.

Antifragile is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe the properties of an object, system or being that gets stronger ­– more resilient, when exposed to moderate stressors.

And because resilience is such a foundational element of wellbeing, it would be negligent of educators and parents to deprive students of the chance to fail, or to shield them from healthy doses of guilt, fear, frustration, disappointment, sadness, and loss.

Because we are antifragile, these experiences tend to make us stronger – in the long run.

Of course, it’s natural to want our children and students to be safe and happy – all the time. But ironically, the more we try to protect them, the more we may risk doing them harm in the long run.

Hitting the nail near the head

Last summer, my friend and I built a wooden play house for my kids. Somewhat surprisingly, seven months later, it’s still standing and getting lots of use.

I noticed today that a couple of the nails fixing the weatherboards (clapboards) to the frame are bent over 90 degrees near the head – they weren’t hammered in straight. They look a little bit shabby compared to the other nails and I was tempted to pull them out and replace them with straight nails.

But I checked, and they’re holding firm. In fact, they’re just as effective as the straight nails. They’re not perfect, but they’re doing their job perfectly well.

When we hold ourselves to high standards in our work or home life, sometimes it can be difficult to remain focussed on the bigger picture – on what really matters. Our lives can easily become full of little tasks and errands and seemingly-important repairs while the most important things become neglected. We can end up fixing nails that don’t need fixing, and miss out on playing a game with our kids.

It certainly feels good to hit the nail on the head doesn’t it! Bang. Straight in. We can stand back and admire the beauty and bask in the sense of achievement. But sometimes, it’s enough to hit the nail near the head. Whoops. A little bit wonky. But fine. Effective. Enough. Go play.

Kindness cascade

How many people will you engage with today or tomorrow? 5, 10, 100, more? How many of them are close friends or family members, and how many of them are merely acquaintances?

One study conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada, found that adults over 25 years of age directly interacted with an average of 6.7 close ties and 11.4 acquaintances daily.

Interestingly, not only did the number of interactions with close ties predict wellbeing and belongingness, but even the number of interactions with weaker ties predicted a person’s sense of belonging

The simple act of engaging meaningfully with another human helps us feel connected to our larger community.

So, imagine this.

What would happen if you and each person in your community was just a little bit kinder tomorrow? What would happen if everyone just conducted one additional, simple act of kindness with each of the 18.1 people they interact with tomorrow? What if you just complimented them on the cool shoes they’re wearing or picked up a dropped pen or asked about their recent vacation?

This is what would happen…

In a school or organisation with 100 colleagues, there would be nearly 2,000 additional acts of kindness tomorrow. And if that was maintained over the week – just one simple act of kindness per interaction – we’d have 10,000 additional acts of kindness. And in a school year, we’d have close to half a million extra acts of kindness. Imagine what that could do for the wellbeing of a community…at zero cost.

And here’s the thing. Kindness is highly contagious. When you smile at a friend, colleague or acquaintance tomorrow, when you choose kindness, you might just make their day. Or you might trigger an unstoppable cascade of kindness. Who knows?!

Motion is not an option

The celebrated management consultant, Peter Drucker, once described by BusinessWeek magazine as “the man who invented management”, rightly had a lot to say about growth and development.

But one of his clearest and most poignant messages was this: ‘Don’t confuse motion with progress’.

Schools are busy places. And in amongst all the organisational and relational ‘noise’, and sometimes-vague performance criteria, even the most experienced educators are at risk of conflating efficiency with effectiveness; motion with progress.

This is why clearly agreed goals and professional accountability are so pivotal. By marking a bearing and checking in regularly we have the best chance of moving forward systematically.

The lazy, wishful alternative is to cross our fingers, set off and hope that things work out. And it might. Or we might spin our wheels, go around in circles, or worse, go backwards.

There will, of course, be occasional detours and bumps in the road to navigate. But as educators, with such precious cargo on board, progress isn’t just the preferred option. It’s the only option.

Licking the spoon

One of the best things about being a kid is having the right to lick the spoon that has been used to stir the cake mixture. OMG. Do you remember how amazing that was? Licking the spoon was, somehow, way more exciting than actually eating a slice of cake.

And the best part is that you don’t have to do any work.

Someone else has learned how to bake, chosen (or written) the recipe, carefully measured the quantities, sifted the flour, cracked the eggs, and stirred it all together. All you have to do is enjoy the resulting deliciousness with a smile!

As a result though, and as good as it tastes, it’s a pretty passive experience. You don’t learn much. Sure, you might come to discern which types of mixture you prefer, and you may even develop the ability to critique the different textural and flavour elements – that’s ‘a little too sweet’ or ‘a little bit lumpy’.

But the thing is, you can’t learn to bake by licking the spoon.

Learning to bake is hard. There will definitely be burnt cake along the way. But bit by bit you get to trade consumption for creation – opening up a new world of exploration and possibility. Best of all, you can still lick the spoon if you want to, but you can also gift the spoon and its joy to others – whenever you like.

Which in?

Sasha and Jamie are both 15 years old and are in the same class at the same school. They are both aspiring to make a positive difference in their world.

Sasha has never missed a deadline for an assignment. He is the often the first kid to raise his hand to answer a question. He is a straight ‘A’ student. He is highly intelligent and equally compliant – sitting quietly in the front of the class, keeping to himself, and doing exactly what he is asked to do.

Jamie is less obedient and less intelligent. But Jamie is more: incisive, inclusive, innovative, inquisitive, independent, intuitive, and inquiring.

Sasha will go on to win the school’s highest honour – ­‘The Academic Prize’ – and maybe that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong intelligence is there?

But I’m more interested to see the impact Jamie will have. Intelligence is nice, but other intangibles are not always inferior.

Perms and parachute pants

Looking back, most things from the 80s seem pretty suboptimal by today’s standards. VHS video was terrible quality. People were smoking on airplanes and in teacher lounges. And mullets, perms, and animal print parachute pants…say no more.

It’s impossible to imagine how 2019 will look in 2049. But today’s status quo is guaranteed to look old, suboptimal and kind of ridiculous. What we are doing now, the way we are living our lives, the way we are delivering education is, possibly, the best we can do at the moment.

But it’s not ideal. There are better ways. The people of tomorrow will live this enhanced experience.

And if we genuinely open ourselves up to possibilities, there’s a chance for us to not only glimpse the future, but to help create it.

Time for bed

I love how Debbie Millman, American author, educator, and designer describes sleep as “the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac.”

So true.

And as educators, caught up in the mechanism of schooling, we sometimes overlook how much great teaching relies on creativity. When you see a primary (elementary) school teacher choreographing 25 six-year-olds in a complex learning activity, or when you watch a highly-skilled Literature teacher inspiring 15 year-old kids to revel in the nuance and beauty of Macbeth, or when you get the chance to witness the process involved in world-class lesson planning and classroom aesthetic design, you see genuine, applied creativity.

Furthermore, the intricate, interconnected social system at the core of teaching means that there are infinite, simultaneous, active variables. No lesson, no situation, no interaction is ever the same. Originality and creativity are occupational necessities.

Teaching is as much a creative craft as it is a profession.

Time to go to bed.

The carrots are cooked!

There’s a great idiom in French that says: “Les carottes sont cuites!” – The carrots are cooked! – There is nothing that can be done to change the situation.

There are times when this is true. And there are times when it just feels true.

Sometimes, the carrots are in the water but haven’t actually started to cook. Sometimes, the carrots are half-cooked but still crunchy. And sometimes, the carrots are cooked, but they’re still carrots – different but okay.

When unexpected change happens, there is often a kind of concussion – we feel stunned and stilled. But eventually, we have to make a choice. We can lean back, longingly, into the past, hoping to ‘unchange’ the situation. Or we can step forward, hopefully, into future possibilities.

It might not change much, but even one step causes a slightly shifted perspective, a slightly changed situation.

[PS In 2015 an Australian scientist won a Nobel prize for his discovery of how to uncook an egg. I imagine it’s much harder to uncook a carrot.)

Unique perspective

As we mature as an educator, we become better at understanding the lived experience of our students. We start to see patterns and we become more nuanced in our ability to predict and pre-empt. We practise and refine our empathic response and we gain perspective.

Perspective empowers us to see the world through a different lens – through the eyes of our students.

Except, it doesn’t, actually.

When artists first started utilising linear perspective in their paintings in the 15th century, they did so to create an illusion of distance and depth. Perspective in art is a trick of the mind – enabling us to ‘see’ three dimensions on a flat surface.

And when we ‘see’ the world through the eyes of our students, this too is an illusion – a trick of the mind. Whilst we can, and should, try as hard as we can to understand the lives of our students, we are constrained by biological and physical realities. We can never really know what it is like inside their worlds.

However, when we accept this paradox – being obliged to strive for something we can never achieve: true perspective – we invite an enhanced level of respect for the individuality of each of our students and remain more present to their reality.

Each student sees their world through the lens of their unique life journey – their unique perspective. But whilst we can never truly ‘take’ their perspective, and they can never truly ‘share’ it, in classrooms characterised by safety, respect, trust and individualised connection, we can come pretty close. Close enough, that we no longer need tricks of the mind.

Who’s around you?

We are hardwired social beings. As such, our lives are enmeshed with the lives of the people around us. Our fate is only partly in our own hands. Our inner social circle affects not just the trajectory of our lives but the way with live it and who we are in it.

One of the great 19th century American education reformers, Elizabeth Peabody, once wrote in a letter that:

“No being of a social nature can be entirely beyond the tendency to fall to the level of his associates.”

And so, perhaps we do become the average of the people with whom we most associate.

Look around you. In spaces and lounges in which educators gather in our schools, we see the temptation to cling to people who see the world the same way that we do, or who applaud the same things, or who reflect and amplify a shared sense of injustice. And that’s fine. Or maybe it’s not. It all depends on how you are intending to ‘turn up’ every day and who you hope to become.

The power of not knowing

In the ‘age of information’ in which we live, it is easy to be seduced by our limitless access to data and knowledge. Through the wonder of communications technology, we hold in our hands, a gateway to the collective wisdom of all of humanity. We have the answer to almost any question, literally at our fingertips.

What’s more, our students, our children are native to this experience.

And yet, learning, science, development, progress rely not so much on answers as on uncertainty.

What if there was no poverty on earth? What if men and women were treated equally, everywhere, all the time?

The same is true of education. Some of the best teaching and most powerful learning occurs when there is no answer, where there are no facts, just the tension of ambiguity and possibility. Where we have students, purposefully engaged in thought but revelling in mystery and uncertainty, we often find brilliant teachers. The great English poet, John Keats, described this state as ‘Negative Capability’; the embracing of not knowing the answer and not yearning for the answer.

Ultimately, it is not facts or correct answers that propel humanity; it is curiosity, not knowing, and the asking of ‘wonder-full’ and courageous questions.

Of course, knowledge, facts, and answers matter – but only as a starting point – a catalyst for what really matters. When students are taught that knowledge and ‘answers’ are just kindling for curiosity, not knowing, and ‘wonder-full’ and courageous questions, we move beyond the traditional schooling paradigm. And it’s here, in this realm, the realm of ‘What if…’ that we find education at its best – education that genuinely empowers students to make the world a better place.

You can’t teach a wall

Sometimes, it can be helpful to talk about ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ as if they are two discrete concepts. Each has its own set of practicable skills, for example.

In reality, of course, they are not distinct. By definition, teaching requires someone to be learning. The only reason you can’t teach a wall is because it cannot learn.

And that’s why the most effective professional development for educators embraces the inherent entwinement of teaching and learning. When we view teaching and learning as two sides of the same coin – when we view education simultaneously through the lens of a teacher and a learner – then we can really begin to finess our classroom craft.

Second serve

With Wimbledon under way again we’re reminded what a graceful, exciting and, at times, quirky sport tennis is.

One of the quirkiest aspects is the serve. You get two serves – two attempts – every time. If you miss the first one, no worries, you get another go. Is there any other mainstream sport in the world where you are allowed to completely mess up, without any form of penalty, and have another try? Golf would be a very different game if you could have another go at hitting that putt you just missed. And soccer would be so much less stressful if you were allowed to freely retake a missed penalty shot.

One of the benefits of a second serve in tennis is that it allows players to push the threshold of possibility with their first serve. Risk is all but eliminated. Players hit the first serve with a physical freedom rarely seen in other sports because there is incentive to: the chance of an ‘ace’. And because there is almost no incentive to hold back. There is no fear of failure.

When we are incentivised to push ourselves to the limit of our abilities and we are freed of any fear of failure, we end up with a recipe for excitement and peak human performance.

I wonder how different our classrooms would feel if students were always allowed a second serve?

The ‘not’ cost

There’s nothing wrong with spending an hour on social media or watching Youtube or playing a video game. But there’s a cost involved.

The cost is not spending an hour having a conversation with an old friend and not reading a book and not exercising and not

There are some benefits, of course, but each hour of Instagram costs quite a lot. Sometimes, it’s probably worth it.

Mine, mine, mine

There’s a well understood convention in baseball whereby the fielder who is in the best position to catch a ball that is high in the air yells: “Mine, mine, mine!”. It is a signal to the other fielders to relax because their team mate has taken responsibility for the catch. Mine, mine, mine is an acknowledgement that something important needs to be done and that a single person is taking responsibility.

This protocol also helps mitigate one of the risks of team sport – diffusion of responsibility. There’s nothing worse than the ball landing on the ground between us because I thought you were going to catch it and you thought that I was.

And there’s nothing worse than a student in need slipping between the gap because I thought you were going to catch her and you thought that I was. Unfortunately, it happens in schools – often when we’re so busy trying to do our part for the team that we lose touch with the bigger picture or we lose touch with each other.

We can’t be expected to catch every ball. And it’s certainly not about solely ‘owning’ a problem. That’s what a team is for. But we need to keep our eyes up. And when we are in the best position to do something to support a student in need – to coordinate a response, to provide resources, to refer to an expert, or even just to check in – be loud and clear: mine, mine, mine.

The last kid

We give prizes and ovations to the kids who come first, who write the most sophisticated essays, who run the fastest, who make the fewest mistakes on the test. Those kids get to walk across the stage, shake hands, and get their photo taken. They are the ‘winners’.

But who is there to salute the kid who works just as hard, gives his all but doesn’t get an ‘A’? Who’s there to celebrate the last kid, puffed and sweating, when he crosses the line? Doesn’t he deserve an ovation too?

Or maybe we only cheer for the ‘winners’?

Stand there shining

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
― Anne Lamott

Students learn so much from the way a respected teacher goes about their life as an educator. Of course, we need to keep our eyes open for any signs that a student might need overt support. But in living well, in role-modelling wellbeing, we help define and create a culture that illuminates a pathway forward for our students.

Their wellbeing is directly affected by our wellbeing. There will be cloudy and foggy days when we’re not quite as bright, but it is our obligation to shine.

Words also matter

The children we teach are young ­– new to the world. But they have brains that are running two-million-year-old software.

Long before we had written or even spoken language, our ancestors relied on emotional interaction, eye contact, posture, facial expression, and body language to communicate and to catalyse and sustain our connection to our tribe.

These days, we have written and spoken language to help shape our students’ learning and their educational environment. But our students’ sense of safety, connection, and their emotional, physical and neurological state remain heavily affected by our ancient programming that instinctively scans more primeval forms of communication.

We should be careful, planned and deliberate with our words. They matter.

And so do all the many other forms of communication at our disposal.

Which frame?

It’s interesting how the same painting can look quite different when placed in a different frame.

frame

There are times when we really just aren’t particularly excited about having to meet a particular person (again) or having to try a new experience perhaps.

When we button up our protective vest, cross our arms, and scrunch up our face, the interaction is guaranteed to be non-productive.

But when we open ourselves to the possibility, at least, of a positive experience, we change the frame. You never know what effect this might have.

To change or not to change?

There’s a reason why we tend to be resistant to change. Change requires time, energy, and often, struggle. We have to be prepared to leave behind an old, comfortable version of ourselves – and to travel to a different place.

We have to acknowledge that there might be a better way. And we have to be prepared to try something new – and to accept the risks that come with that choice. What if the change doesn’t make things better? What if we invest in change and it’s not worth it? What if we waste our time and energy? What if we can’t go back to the old way?

All fair questions. Change isn’t always good. There are risks and costs. But there are also risks and costs of standing still.

So, to embrace a change or not? Is there a right choice?

Yeah, there is. It’s the choice informed by our values and fuelled by courage.

Down there from up here

From the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, you get an unforgettable view of New York City. At this height, you gain a perspective that is impossible to imagine at ground level. The overall layout of the city is revealed with design features such as the Manhattan road grid coming into clear view. It is both breathtaking and educational. It helps reconfigure your mental map of the city.

But you can no longer see what’s happening at ground level.

You can guess, you can make assumptions – because you’ve been down there. But you can no longer actually see what it’s really like.

This is, often, the cost of perspective. As we get older or more experienced or move up in the hierarchy, it’s easy to forget or to lose sight of what it’s really like ‘down there’.

As we mature as educators, we undoubtedly gain perspective. But with each passing year, we move further away from the tangible experience of childhood and adolescence. And this is why the only choice we have is to partner with students to codesign the educational experience.

Otherwise, we can easily end up with a lovely view that is divorced from the needs and reality of student life ‘down there’.

Turning towards

It doesn’t particularly matter which piece of psychological research you read, in regards to relationships, there are two very consistent themes emerging. First, the quality of our relationships has a huge impact on our wellbeing. Second, positive relationships are the result of many accumulated micro-moments of positive interaction that occur over time.

These micro-moments contribute to what University of Washington relationship researcher, John Gottman, calls an emotional bank account. It is a foundational resource when things are going well and a protective investment to draw upon in more difficult times. When a stockpile of positive experience exists in a relationship, we are much more willing to make allowances in disagreements or when we feel wronged.

And that’s why, whenever there is an opportunity to acknowledge even the smallest positive interaction, it is so important, as Gottman writes, that we ‘turn towards’ it – not just to savour the experience but to bank it for later.

“Drop by drop is the water pot filled.”  Buddha.

Giving and receiving

Teaching is absolutely a profession of giving. We give our time, we give our energy, we give attention, we give advice and guidance, we give compassion, we give support.

All of this giving is why teaching is so tiring. Teachers, at the end of a long week or a semester or a year often feel, literally, exhausted. It feels like there is nothing left to give.

But, to our students, even when we feel exhausted, we continue to give hope, we give purpose, and we give love. And in the giving of hope, purpose, and love, we receive in return, a deep, profound sense of meaning in our lives.

That’s why we keep bouncing back up and doing it all again.

Fewer stickers

If you strip back extrinsic motivators (stickers, grades, threats etc) from a learning environment, there is only one way to collectively motivate a class – via a shared sense of purpose.

When students feel meaningfully connected to a common purpose, a pathway to the future is illuminated. And when students can see where you want to take them, and they want to go there too, you don’t need carrots and sticks anymore.

Fewer stickers and more ‘why’ – why does this learning matter?

A brain to challenge

I am currently visiting a school in Philadelphia and I was reminded of an old quote I first discovered years ago. It was published as part of a collection of quotations and adages in 1938 by Mary Pettibone Poole, in Philadelphia.

“To repeat what others have said, requires education;

to challenge it, requires brains.”

Schools have changed a lot in the 89 years since Poole made her remark but much remains the same. Educators must still teach key, foundational knowledge to students – this is the bedrock of wisdom. But the best educators are even more interested in using knowledge as a catalyst to inspire their students to ask interesting and important questions and to solve interesting, meaningful, challenging problems.

This is where really powerful learning begins.

SDGs – the true purpose of education

In New York in September 2015, 193 member countries of the United Nations General Assembly ratified a vision for a brighter future; the Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

In essence, the 17 SDGs constitute humanity’s consensus for how we hope to develop as a species over the next decade.

The SDG’s include the eradication of global poverty and hunger, and reduced inequality.

sdgs_poster_936_en

If this is what we, as collective humans, have determined is our desired future, surely there is no clearer purpose of education than to equip young people with the skills and knowledge to help us move towards these goals.

If we are not educating to shape a better world, what are we doing?

Plan vs Design

If one person asked you to ‘plan’ a party and another asked you to ‘design’ a party, would you consider these two tasks to be identical?

What about the ‘plan’ of your living room versus its ‘design’?

Planning starts with well-understood components and organises them in an efficient and logical way. (We’ll do the party games first and then have the cake at the end.)

Design is different. Design is linked to desire. Design starts with a well-understood intention and harnesses imagination to create something that works to serve the intention. (We want our living room to make people feel calm and relaxed.)

Trainee teachers are taught very early about the value of lesson planning and curriculum planning. It’s important, of course, for lessons to be well-structured and efficient.

But lessons really come to life when they are well planned and well designed. Design works when it optimises human experience.

Here are some lesson design questions:

  • What is the intention of the opening three minutes of the lesson? Is it to energise students, to calm them, to focus them, to nurture a sense of safety? How can I create an experience that achieves this intention?
  • What is the desired emotional state for the main lesson activity? Do I want my students to feel stretched, or grateful, or inspired, or…? How can I create an experience that achieves this desire?
  • How can I create an environment in this lesson in which students feel competent, connected, and autonomous?

Great teaching isn’t based on planning perfect lessons. Rather, it is based on an iterative design process driven by a clear intention that creates powerful learning experiences.

Twice as good

The best educators are so because they are students of their craft. No one is born a great teacher. Like all complex crafts, it takes thousands of hours of practice and years of experience to hone world-class teaching practice.

Great teachers are constantly seeking to sharpen their skills. They know they can continue to improve and so they work hard to become 5 or 10% better each year.

And when you ask one of these top teachers: “Is it possible for you to, one day, be twice as good as you are now?”, they invariably say ‘Yes’. And even more interestingly, they can describe what this would look like.

They have already envisaged this reality.

This future reality is the source-code of innovation in education.

Compliance prize

When a kid ‘gets an A’ on a test, it’s usually because they have complied with expectations. They wrote the answer we wanted them to write. We give them a compliance prize – an ‘A’ – and everyone is happy.

Compliance is easy to measure and easy to produce.

However, what an ‘A’ on a test doesn’t usually indicate is:

  • how much a student has actually learned;
  • how much they have contributed to the learning of others;
  • how able they are to innovate with their new learning; to apply their learning to novel, unexpected situations in adaptive ways.

We still spend a lot of time and energy in schools measuring and rewarding compliance. It seems the ‘real world’ though is increasingly valuing agility of learning, positive impact on others, and disruptive, innovative thinking. These are much harder to measure on a test.

Don’t try harder

In an education system in which ‘grit’ is revered, and ‘perseverance’ is considered a universal human value, there can be a tendency to encourage students to “just keep trying” or to “try harder”.

Now, that’s fine for a while, or when a student clearly is not quite giving their all.

But “try harder” is, literally, the worst piece of advice you can give a student…

…when they are using the wrong technique or are unable to access the right strategy.

Grit and perseverance can become the enemy of achievement

…when we are going about something the wrong way.

And this is where discerning teachers are not afraid to encourage their students to ‘quit’; to reevaluate their approach, to pivot, and to try an alternate pathway.

Instead of ‘try harder’, often our students need to hear: ‘try differently’.

I’m sorry, I was wrong

There is single moment, after these five words are spoken with genuineness, in which trust and closeness either grow or shrink. If the receiver of this message opens themselves to its inherent vulnerability, accepts it with authenticity, and sees it as a present or future opportunity to also share their own challenges or weaknesses – trust grows and the relationship grows.

Harvard professor Jeff Polzer calls this moment a ‘vulnerability loop’:

  1. Person A sends a message of vulnerability – an apology or shares a shortcoming.
  2. Person B detects and accepts this message.
  3. Person B sends their own message of vulnerability.
  4. Person A detects and accepts this message.
  5. A new norm is created with closeness and trust enhanced.

What evolves from this type of interaction is a relationship in which it is okay to be wrong, to be imperfect and to need help sometimes. Vulnerability loops are linked to our sense of safety – they help create a human bond.

It takes courage to share our faults. And for some people, being seen to be right is more important than being seen. But the truth is, we are all flawed and we all need other people. A shared, respected sense of vulnerability simply gives us permission to tell the truth and to grow together.

This is safety

There’s a scene in pretty much every horror and thriller film when one of the characters walks slowly towards the darkness, their heart thumping, not knowing what lies around the corner…

This is fear.

I remember a boy that I went to school with who was bullied relentlessly – he didn’t know what was going to happen to him each lunchtime.

This is fear.

I remember a teacher I occasionally had in primary school who was very unpredictable – we never knew what to expect or who he was going to interrogate.

This is fear.

And in the best classrooms, students feel at home and connected. There are no unseen dangers around corners. There are social norms and a group dynamic that nurture certainty. Whatever happens – especially if I show vulnerability, take a risk, or fail – everying is going to be alright.

In these classrooms, students feel a sense of belonging. They know it’s okay to be less than perfect. They feel listened to and cared for. And their performance is optimised.

This is safety.

Shadows fall behind

There’s a slightly quaint quote that appeared on a banner at the World Anti-Bullying Forum in Dublin last week:

“Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.”

The quote is often attributed to the poet Walt Whitman, sometimes to the social activist Helen Keller, and occasionally to English poet Charles Swain. No one is really sure who first said it or wrote it.

But it has endured because it’s profound. It’s a reminder that in amongst the buzz of our lives, we continue to make fundamental choices that shape our experience.

Even when we are at our best and going well, we can’t escape the shadows. But when we immerse ourselves in what really matters to us, our lives feel brighter, and the shadows fade.

Slow food approach to change

Putting a pre-made frozen lasagne in the oven on a really low heat so that that it takes five hours to warm up doesn’t make it ‘slow food’. Slow food isn’t as much about the time it takes to cook as it is about the traditional, structured methods involved. Unlike fast food, slow food requires patience and commitment, over an extended period, to a proven strategy that produces a qualitatively better product.

Similarly, implementing an evidence-based, self-sustaining, whole-school approach to wellbeing requires a slow, systematic approach. The slow part – expending a bit less energy today –  is easy. The hard part is the long-term commitment to a carefully designed sequence and strategy.

You can’t make a delicious, rich, creamy risotto by letting it sit on the back-burner –  it requires constant stirring. And you can’t transform a school’s culture and behavioural norms without a lot of carefully planning and methodical execution over time.

Passion, suffering

For many educators, teaching is much more than a job – it’s a vocation. So often, we hear committed educators referencing the ‘passion’ they have for working with kids and guiding young lives.

Of course, passion should be embraced. It is a powerful intrinsic motivator that is connected into our brain’s doperminergic reward system. It feels wonderful when we are able to successfully pursue our passion. And when our passion is coupled, not to money or other extrinsic goal, but to our ‘why’ – our sense of purpose – then it is doubly rewarding.

…And because of this, we need to be very careful with our passions. The 12th century latin origin of the word ‘passion’ is “passio” – which literally means “suffering”. Passions, like any dopamine-inducing substance or activity, can become obsessive and can easily cause harm to ourselves, to others, or to our relationships – if we don’t keep them in check.

So if you are passionate about education, perhaps think of that as both a delightful blessing and a potential curse.

At least, connect

We talk a lot, in schools, about the impact of the teacher-student relationship on learning. And for good reason. Whether you look at highly energised and engaged classrooms or read the empirical research, strong and positive relationships clearly power-up the learning environment. And when relationships mature over time, and are given the right conditions, we end up with teacher-student interactions that are enriched by forgiveness, integrity, trust, compassion, and hope. This is the foundation for education in its ideal form.

But there are times when this is not possible, when a genuine relationship with a child or a group of students is unable to be established. It may be that you have not had time to build trust yet. Or it may be that the students you are working with are in a difficult mental or social space that precludes them building a genuine relationship with another adult. Or maybe, for some reason, you just don’t ‘click’ with a certain student or group.

In situations like this, there is no rush. Relationships can wait. Maybe a relationship will never develop. And that’s okay. In fact, your students don’t actually need a strong relationship with you to learn effectively.

But they do need to feel connected and they do need to feel safe. Connection and safety are hardwired evolutionary necessities for complex learning.

As hard as we try, we can’t control relationships. But as educators, those two factors – connection and safety – are within our control. They require us to turn up for our students authentically, to listen to them, to see them, to value them.

Sometimes that is all we can do – and sometimes this is everything a child needs.

Best version

There’s a quote in Adam Grant’s excellent book, Originals, that stands out – particularly when read through the eyes of an educator:

“In the deepest sense of the word, a friend is someone who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself, someone who helps you become the best version of yourself.”

This is not just true of friends.

In the deepest sense of the term, a great teacher is someone who sees more potential in their students than their students see in themselves, someone who helps their students become the best version of themselves.

That is our goal.

Which story – achievement or failure?

Of course, as educators, we want our students to achieve. And we want them to push themselves, to strive beyond their current ability, to take risks and to embrace failure as an essential part of learning and of doing anything worthwhile.

But which message is the loudest? Which story are your students hearing? Which do they perceive as more important? Achievement or failure?

Because achievement is easy. You just choose the easy task. When we don’t have to try very hard, we rarely fail.

The cost of human experience

Is attention.

We can make time, buy time, and find time. But not attention.

That’s because attention is the currency of human experience. Our lives are a series of experiences – and for each experience we have to pay attention. Once spent, we cannot get any more.

And just like money, the way we spend our attention determines the value we receive from it. When we divide it, we dilute it. When we focus it, we magnify its impact signficantly.

Some research has found that productivity can be enhanced by up to 500% in times of peak attentional focus, or flow. And other studies have shown that the simple presence of a moble phone on a desk– even when it’s turned off – siphons away a small amount of attention; significantly reducing cogntive performance.

When we refect on our day or year or life, we are doing nothing more than looking back on what we paid attention to. Attention is a finite, non-renewable resource. It is the most valuable resource we will ever possess. That’s why so many companies and people want it. And that’s why we must not waste it.

Interdependence

I travelled from Melbourne to Hong Kong today. The trip was fine. I got to the airport, scanned my boarding pass, got on the plane, arrived, collected my luggage, showed my passport and checked into the hotel.

And now, as I think back across my day, it’s impossible to even begin to count the number of people who enabled me to do what I did. Everyone from the taxi driver to the customs officials to the luggage handlers to the people who designed the tyres for the plane.

It might be one of society’s most interesting paradoxes – that we continue to exalt, celebrate and glorify independence – whilst becoming increasingly dependent on others for our independence.

However, when I got off the plane at Hong Kong, there was a mother travelling with three young children. As they exited the plane, each with their own little suitcase on wheels, all three children smiled and thanked the flight attendant for looking after them. And in that little moment, the paradox subsided. It might be, that in mindful gratitude, an interdependent-independence can exist.

Types of students

On the one hand, pattern recognition is perhaps the greatest and most finely tuned skill of the human brain. We learn language by identifying specific patterns of sounds repeatedly occurring in similar contexts. The face of a friend or relative easily stands out to us as we scan a crowded room. And within a second of hearing that famous ‘F with a G on top‘ chord, we know we’re about to hear A Hard Day’s Night.

On the other hand, our heavy reliance on pattern recognition also causes problems. Visual illusions, implicit discrimination and racism, the allure of gambling, and conspiracy theories are all perceptual quirks that trace back to our pattern recognition system.

And we need to be particularly careful when we see familiar patterns in a child’s character or behaviour that causes us to perceive them as a certain ‘type’ of kid (sporty, musical, resilient, nerdy, naughty, etc). As tempting as it can be, the moment we begin ‘typing’ students is the moment we start blurring the beauty (and sometimes pain) of their individuality – we start devaluing their unique story.

In a speech in 1923, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, noted that: every individual is an exception to the rule. 

It’s when we take time, as educators, to stand back and really look at the face of each of our students that we know that Jung was right. There are, in fact, no ‘types‘ of students.

Effort counts twice

How much, if anything, does innate genetically-endowed talent contribute to a child’s musical or mathematical or sports achievement? Or is it all just down to hard work and effort?

The talent versus effort debate has been raging in academic circles for at least 300 years. And it is still a very-much alive discussion in schools around the world.

But perhaps it should end now.

University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela Duckworth, summarises hundreds of reseach studies into human performance and ability in these simple equations:

Talent x Effort = Skill

Skill Effort = Achievement

So, talent counts but effort counts twice.

(And given that we have 0% control over talent and 100% control over effort, it doesn’t seem like ‘talent’ should get much, if any, airtime in schools, does it?!)

Space for peace

Forgiving is hard. Especially when we’ve been really wronged, hurt, or betrayed. And even more so when the hurt is inflicted by someone close to us.

But the only alternative to forgiveness is holding a grudge. And that’s a choice we can make. But holding a grudge consumes a lot of emotional energy. Anger and resentment are negative emotions that require constant fuelling. And 30 years of forgiveness science has identified a range of harmful long-term physiological and psychological effects that all of this negative emotional exertion can have.

When we forgive, we do not forget.

But when we are able to forgive, we unstick ourselves from the past; we release ourselves from anger and create room inside for peace.

What’s the most valuable thing you own?

Your story.

“When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.”

Old African proverb

By the time your children or your students are in high school, they will have clocked up nearly 100,000 waking hours of experience. And by the time we’re 40, we have about a quarter of a million waking hours under our belt.

Somehow our incredible brain has the capability to synthesise thousands and thousands of hours of experience containing millions of unique events and piece it all together into a coherent narrative.

We don’t think about ‘our life’ as a list of sequential events. But rather, we synonymise our life with our story.

So what a shame it is, that in the rush of our modern, campfireless life, we give ourselves such limited opportunity to make sense of and to share our stories.

And I wonder how many of our students feel like they are a secondary character in someone else’s story?

As filmmaker Rick Stevenson, a man who has interviewed over 5,500 kids, says: “There is no higher calling than to help our kids fully understand their stories and to learn how to use them…There is an empowerment that comes when kids realise that they are writing their own biography – in real time.”

With this realisation comes a shift in perspective. When we realise that life is about writing our own story, we are compelled to ask: “What story do I want to write?”

It’s hard to think of two more profound, powerful questions to explore with a child than: “What is your story?” and “What story do you want to write?

But there are wrong ways

Is there a ‘right’ way to teach or to parent children? Is there a ‘right’ way to lead a school or organisation? Is there a ‘right’ way to be a friend or colleague?

No. (Life would be so easy if there was.)

But there are wrong ways. It is wrong to parent with abuse. It is wrong to lead with corruption. It is wrong to manipulate friends and colleagues with fear.

And there are wrong ways to teach. Whilst good and great teachers often have very different styles and commonly embrace their varied idiosyncrasies, there are three things that should never, ever occur in any classroom:

  • Intentional humiliation or shaming of a student. This causes so much harm, including to the embarrassed student, to class cohesion, and to the students’ and parents’ respect of the teacher. This is a lose-lose-lose scenario. It is never justifiable.
  • Giving up on a student. Teachers are trained professionals whose job it is to unconditionally nurture and seek the best in every child. It is particularly at the most difficult times, with the most challenging students, that we must model hope.
  • Speaking badly about one student or one group of students to another. This is a form of disloyalty that is not only entirely unprofessional but will inevitably get back to the original student or group and erode trust and relationships further.

Teaching is a highly demanding profession. We will make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, understandable, and forgivable. But the above are not.

Literacy literacy

You know that the world is changing when new forms of ‘literacy’ are being described and taught in schools.

‘Literacy’ used to involve students developing the knowledge and skills to read, write and interpret language confidently. But that was back in the days before fake news, credit cards, and Twitter.

Of course, reading and writing are still foundational skills. But there are other ‘literacies’ emerging that may well be equally critical in the future lives of our students. Here are a few of the most important:

  • Digital literacy — skills associated with harnessing computer-based devices and services;
  • Data & Media literacy — being able to access, filter, digest and make meaning of the masses of available data and to leverage different platforms of data consumption and delivery;
  • News literacy — learning to discern between, efficiently evaluate, and effectively respond to different news sources and stories;
  • Financial literacy — being empowered to understand and harness the increasingly complex and personalised financial systems available to us;
  • Wellbeing literacy — having the skills and knowledge to nurture our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of people we care about.

Schools are pretty good, on the whole, at carefully scaffolding the learning of traditional ‘literacy’. They’ve been doing it for a while! And, now, it’s exciting to see that many progressive and responsive schools are turning their attention to tackling the challenge of teaching a new generation of literacies too – to really prepare their students for a changing world.

 

TBE

As new parents, my wife and I often ask ourselves: “What did we used to do with our time before we had kids?!”

Educators might ask the same thing about email: “What did we used to with our time before we had email?!”

I wonder if that’s when intellectual conversations and debates were had between colleagues. I wonder if this is when books were read and letters were penned? I wonder if that’s when teachers worked on their subject knowledge, and designed and wrote their own curriculum? I wonder if this was when teachers were able to occasionally go for a stroll, to relax and refresh?

I grew up with a Mum who was a teacher in the 70s, 80s and 90s. So I know that those times TBE (Teaching Before Email) had their own challenges. And email isn’t all bad – there are so many advantages in us being able to stay connected with each other.

But TBE, there must have been something nice about being able, at the end of the day, to literally, switch off.

Iteration is a choice

A typical classroom educator will deliver between 800 and 1,000 hours of teaching in a year. That might equate to around 1,000 lessons. Whilst each of these 1,000 lessons is unique, it is also relatively similar in many ways, to all the others. The structurally repetitive nature of teaching  provides a wonderful opportunity – more than in many professions – for iteration.

The English word ‘iteration’ derives from the latin ‘itemum’ – meaning ‘again’. Doing something again and again is the foundation of skill development.

However, I type on my computer keyboard for a couple of hours everyday and I’m not getting any better. I still make the same number of mistakes. This is because repetition doesn’t guarantee iteration.

Iteration is enabled when we do something repetitively and we have a specific focus on improvement towards a goal and we learn from the previous trial.

As a classroom educator, iteration is a choice. The alternative is stagnation or, worse, decay.

Obligation or opportunity

Is a one-hour commute to work an obligation or an opportunity? What about coaching a school sport team? What about supervising students in the playground? What about a visit to the dentist? What about writing student reports or marking papers? What about parent meetings or annual performance reviews? Obligation or opportunity?

There are some people who are brilliant at acknowledging an obligation and immediately seeing the latent opportunities. ‘A one-hour commute is a great chance to listen to my favourite podcasts or to call a friend.’ ‘Supervising students in the playground gives me a chance to develop my relationships with them in a situation where they are more open and relaxed.’

And there are others who practise seeing only the obligation.

Every obligation has opportunity hidden inside. Sometimes we need to go looking a little harder to find it. But when we do, the opportunity starts to make the obligation feel less obligatory.

No class

Sometimes educators fall into the trap of viewing their ‘class’ as a unified being. It’s not. There are no ‘good’ classes and ‘bad’ classes. A class actually consists of many entirely unique individuals who tend to be roughly the same age, at the same place, with a similar purpose in mind.

But behind the face of each of these young individuals is a lifetime of stories that we, as educators, can never fully appreciate.

If we use some major Australian and international research studies to help us think about the composition of a ‘class’ statistically, we might recognise that, in the course of the year, a typical ‘class’ of 25 Year 8 students looks something like this:

  • 4 students are experiencing a diagnosable mental health condition (only 1 of these will seek professional help);
  • 2 students are self-harming;
  • 2 students will seriously consider a suicide attempt;
  • 2 students will be experiencing some form of family breakdown at home;
  • 5 students are unsure of their sexuality and 3 will end up being LGBTI;
  • 5 students don’t make friends easily at school;
  • 7 students feel that they “don’t belong at school”.

…and many of our students are happy and engaged.

But it is these kinds of statistics that help remind us that our job is not to teach science or geography or Grade 5, and it’s not to teach our ‘class’. Our job is to compassionately guide, nurture and teach each unique child.

 

[Sources: PISA 2015, Australian Human Rights Commission, Beyond Blue]

Home is perspective

There’s a line that Shaun White, professional skateboarder, snowboarder and Olympian recites to himself before a major run at an event:

“I’m here, I’m going to try my best, and I’m going to go home, and my family’s there.”

Most of us aren’t Olympic athletes but we know that feeling of ‘being at the top of a run’. We know what it feels like just before we ‘drop into’ something at work or at home that matters. Winning feels great, applause is nice, being overlooked hurts and failing sucks.

But humans always see outcomes through a lens, a perspective. And when we change lenses or shift perspective, the world looks different, the world is different.

When we remember that, at the end of the day, despite everything, we go home to our family and our ‘tribe’; our wins are tempered by humility and gratitude. And our failures are cushioned by hope and love.

Who’s the client?

One of the benefits of being a lawyer is that, for the most part, you know who your client is. It’s pretty clear that the guy paying you to defend him in court is who you are serving at that moment. It’s similar for carpet cleaners, doctors, and taxi drivers.

But it’s a lot less clear-cut for teachers.

Who are teachers serving? Where does our obligation lie? Who are we ultimately accountable to?

In an independent school, the parents are paying for your service. And if they are unimpressed, they will go to a different service provider. Are parents the client?

But in a government school, the taxpayer is paying for the service; are they the client? And are parents now less of a client?

And what about the student; isn’t he or she the client?

Or is it the Head of Department to whom I’m accountable for my performance and ongoing tenure?

Or is my school the client? They appointed me and directly pay me for my service?

And ultimately, does it even matter?

Most of the time, no, it doesn’t. As a teacher, you do your best to educate the child and, in theory, assuming it goes well, all stakeholders are happy.

But at times when the different stakeholders have different priorities, it can get pretty murky.

What happens, for example, when you have you have been teaching a wonderful child who shines when given the chance to work collaboratively to tackle challenging problems, who has a mature capacity to embrace risk and learn from failure, and who, more than any other child you teach, draws on a deep-well of social intelligence to empathise with other individual students and to unite groups towards a common goal…

…What happens when you are instructed to evaluate this child by telling them to sit in silence, to answer the question as the examiner expects, to avoid risk, to collaborate with no one and to try to beat all the other students…?

…What happens when you believe this is not in the best interest of the child’s education?

…And when you decide to follow the instruction you are given and evaluate the child anyway, you may well do it with a completely clear conscience – “it’s the right thing to do”.

…the right thing for who? Who’s the client now?

The one-percenters add up

There is a very unusual type of statistic kept in professional Australian Rules Football called a ‘one-percenter‘. A one-percenter is a statistic that recognises an action by a player that entails just a little more effort or courage than normal.

An example of a one-percenter is when a player chases the ball-carrying opposition player over an extended distance. Even if the player is unable to catch or tackle the ball-carrier, the added pressure applied because of the chase is deemed valuable. These one-percenters, in themselves, often have very little apparent impact on the game, in fact they can easily go unnoticed, but collectively they can change the result.

The best educators tend to make an artform of one-percenters. The next chance you have to see an outstanding teacher in action, try to see beyond their content expertise and refined pedagogy and you might observe things like:

  • their ability to subtly shift the energy in the room;
  • an almost imperceptible nod of gratitude to a child who has again helped another student;
  • a well-timed, self-deprecating joke to defuse anxiety;
  • an extraordinary level of organisation, readiness, adaptability and withitness;
  • an enhanced ability to ‘think like a student’, to empathise, and to inspire;
  • an absolute present-mindedness, the sense that there is nothing more important than this lesson, this child, this moment.

In football and in teaching, it’s true that, sometimes, it’s the ‘big’ moments that matter – the great goals, the amazing lesson. But ultimately, the most respected and valued footballers and teachers are the ones who turn up authentically again and again, and really commit to the one-percenters.

Is that an interesting and important question?

There was a time, not long ago, when ‘knowing the correct answer’ was the pinnacle of education. Information was stored in encyclopaedias or in your head – and so there was a premium placed on memory recall.

The world has changed. Education is changing.

Our students’ future success will depend less on reciting what they know and more on asking what they don’t know.

Whilst creativity and innovation begin with a foundation of knowledge, their life-source is curiosity. The ability to solve interesting and important problems begins with the skill of asking interesting and important questions.

So it’s critical that educators consider how effectively their students are learning this skill? How often are they practising it? How much lesson time is dedicated to this skill? How is it being assessed and how is feedback being provided on this skill?

All, it would seem, very interesting and important questions.

____________________________________________

PS Here is a little sample of interesting questions students are exploring in a school I visited recently:

    • Why don’t you do the things you know you should be doing?
    • What don’t you know about ________?
    • If you weren’t scared, what would you do?
    • Is it possible that what you know about _______ is wrong?
    • What would happen if we ________?
    • Is it possible that there’s another way to ________?

Learning from what you hate

There is so much talk, in the field of wellbeing, about values: in our deepest heart, what kind of person, teacher, colleague, friend, parent do we want to be?

And we now have so much evidence linking long-term happiness and success in the workplace to a life lived in-line with our values.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about values. And so I know that my four core values are connection, caring, contribution and adventure.

But if you struggle to articulate your deepest values, try this little exercise…

Part A — What is it, about other people’s behaviour, that really ticks you off, or really annoys you? (eg  arrogance, or dishonesty, or entitlement, or prejudice, or…)

Part B — Take your answer from Part A and identify its opposite trait. (eg arrogance : humility, dishonesty : honesty, entitlement : gratitude, prejudice : fairness

Did you discover, in Part B, values that are very dear to you? You may even have stumbled on your core values.

When we get annoyed or angry or frustrated at other people, it’s almost always because they have violated one of our core values.

So the better we understand what we value most, the more effectively, mindfully, and healthily we can respond to situations or people that might compromise our values.

They learn from how we are

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”

Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

In classrooms around the world, students are learning, from their teachers’ wisdom, about: science and mathematics and language and the humanities. They’re learning about asking questions and solving problems and creativity and teamwork.

And they are also learning, from the way their teachers are, about: compassion, forgiveness, professionalism, power, caring, integrity, trust, love, and hope.

The way we are in a classroom is at least as important as what we teach.

Choosing courage instead

The people in our lives, educators or otherwise, who really stand out, who we most admire, tend to be those who are especially courageous or brave in some way. They are friends who tell us the truth. They are family who hug us even when we’ve hurt them. They are students who fall and get back up again and again. They are colleagues who say what we are afraid to say. They are leaders who say ‘no’ when it’s just easier and safer to say ‘yes’.

But bravery is a character strength that we all have and that can be cultivated.

Dr Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, suggests a question that we can ask ourselves as we try to live as authentically and bravely as possible:

Today, when I had the opportunity, did I choose courage over comfort?

Did you?

Fear or love

If you are one of the 100 million people in the world who have already seen the  penultimate episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, you will know that the dragon queen does a pretty good job of crudely summarising human motivation theory. To galvanise the people, she says, there are really only two options: fear or love.

[Spoiler alert!]

She chooses: fear.

Whilst, unlike the dragon queen, educators don’t have fire-breathing dragons, we do have other powerful tools available including: tests, exams, competition, ranking systems, humiliation, shame, punishments, failure, calls home, exclusion, detention, judgment.

Importantly, not all of these are inherently fear-inducing or, even, necessarily unpleasant. There are potential positive benefits from formal assessment, for example. But they can, and often do, leverage fear.

When we use these tools as a form of coercion, to generate compliance or obedience, we weaponise their potential to produce: ‘consequences’. And the mechanism underpinning the use of ‘consequences’ as a motivator, threat or deterrent is: fear.

For an educator, like it was for the dragon queen, fear is a choice.

The other alternative is love. That can be a harder choice – often requiring much greater levels of skill, patience, acceptance, nuance, time, respect, relationship, support, and care.

[Spoiler alert!]

But when we choose love instead, we choose a completely different form of education – one with a very different ending than an education fuelled by fear.

Don’t be a donkey

One of dilemmas faced by dynamic professionals is where to focus and prioritise their energy. This is often the case in early and mid-stage educators. And it is certainly the case for outstanding educators who tend to be pretty good at, and passionate about most areas of education. There is an increasing smorgasbord of options available for growth,  professional development, specialisation, and post-graduate study.

But there’s a danger here…

There’s an old fable about a donkey who is both very hungry and very thirsty. He is standing halfway between a stack of hay and a bucket of water. He keeps looking to the left at the hay and then to the right at the water. He is equally attracted to the hay and the water but is unable to decide on an option. Eventually he falls down and dies of both hunger and thirst.

There are many exciting, emerging opportunities and platforms for education practitioners to make an impact both in their classrooms and beyond. But real impact requires expertise. And expertise requires a choice and a commitment. And this, in turn, requires courage and a long-term perspective.

Otherwise, the three alternatives for enterprising and progressive educators are:

  1. Deciding to remain more of a highly-skilled ‘generalist’ rather than an ‘expert’ – which is perfectly fine.
  2. Deciding to try to become expert at many things and burning out in the process – which isn’t fine.
  3. Not deciding at all. (But that didn’t work out well for the donkey.)

Good enough

As an educator, can you ever become good enough?

No.

Last week, I met a career teacher in his final year before retirement. He was one of the most engaged, interested and committed participants in a high quality professional development workshop.

I imagine that some of his colleagues do think that they’re good enough. But I can’t be sure, I didn’t get to meet them. They weren’t at the workshop. They gave up on commitment to systematic growth and development the day they decided they were good enough.

Careful, not too far

When you get the chance to experience true innovation in schools or organisations, it feels exciting. It’s not just the novelty, it’s the sense that this new way of doing something is qualitatively better.

This kind of development stems from an intimate knowledge of the system in which the innovation is occurring. When we have this level of understanding, we know how far the constraints and conventions of the system can be pushed or bent before they break.

But when we fail to respect the system, or we push too hard or too fast against its foundations, it doesn’t give people time to adjust or adapt. When people feel too challenged or destabilised, we can end up simply causing frustration and/or being dismissed as someone who “doesn’t get it”.

Innovation will, at times, be disruptive and stressful for some people within a system. But when done well, carefully, professionally, and respectfully, innovation can nudge behaviours, reshape constraints, and energise the system without upsetting the apple cart.

Wait, why am I learning this?

If I walked into a random classroom at your school and asked a random student: “This thing you’re learning right now, why are you learning it?”, would they have a good answer? And what if we disallowed the following answers: “Because it’s on the test.” and “Because my teacher told me to.”? Would the student be able to clearly articulate the underlying value and purpose of the lesson?

Learning driven by a deep sense of real-world meaning and powered by curiosity, hope and intrinsic motivation is so powerful. Yet, there are still many lessons being delivered that are void of this sense of meaning and driven, instead, by some form of external motivator (eg stickers, tokens, money, grades, fear, etc).

The best educators always ensure the ‘why‘ is strong – at the heart of their classroom – even in very young students. The ‘why‘ is the source-code of inspiration and the fuel of long-term passion and perseverance.

The ‘why‘ makes learning matter.

Stuff happens

Life is spelt H.A.S.S.L.E. —Albert Ellis​, psychologist

Life is difficult. — M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist & author

Life is suffering. — Buddha

Shit happens. — Anonymous

In seeking to live a rich, full, and meaningful life, here’s what’s guaranteed: you will regularly experience fear, anger, guilt, frustration, disappointment, and sadness.

A ‘life well-lived’, a ‘flourishing’ life will always be one that comes as a package of positive and negative emotional experience. And that’s because it’s a life full of ‘stuff’ that matters.

(It is, therefore, possible to avoid negative emotional experience all together. Just don’t do anything that matters. Have no meaningful relationships, don’t seek to grow or develop at all, set no goals for yourself, never fall in love, and don’t contribute to your community. Instead, just sit on the sofa and watch reruns of Star Trek for the rest of your life.)

Wellbeing science is not attempting to make us ‘happy’ all the time or to help us avoid negative emotional experience. But it is seeking to provide evidence-based skills, knowledge, and strategies that help us handle the inevitable ups and downs of life more effectively.

A ‘good life’ still sucks at times. But we can learn, from wellbeing and human sciences, to better equip ourselves, family, friends, colleagues, and students for the journey.

First, connect

Students learn best when they feel connected to their teacher. And connection involves feeling seen, heard, and valued.

There is nothing more important to do in the first moments of a lesson than seeing each student, hearing each student and directly acknowledging their worth.

It doesn’t take much time or effort to look each student in the eye, greet them warmly by name, and check in with them.

Whatever else is planned for the lesson comes second.

You had your nature-pill today?

The way we are living our high-tech, hyper-connected, stimulus-rich lives can be very exciting, meaningful, rewarding… and stressful.

Ongoing exposure to highly stimulating environments can take a significant toll on our nervous system, endocrine (hormonal) system, and immune system.

But we do have a very powerful antidote. Nature.

Research over the last 30 years has demonstrated that connectedness and exposure to nature is linked to a range of mental and physical health benefits including:

  • increased positive emotion, vitality, and life satisfaction;
  • reduced pain and faster hospital recovery;
  • stronger feelings of connectedness with others, greater sense of community, lower levels of violence and aggression, and a better capacity to cope with life’s demands.

But how much nature do we need?

A new study from researchers at the University of Michigan has helped to answer this question. They found that taking a “nature-pill” involving spending 20 minutes in a “place that brings a sense of contact with nature” was enough to significantly reduce stress hormones in saliva samples.

There are many things we can do to enhance our wellbeing and help protect us against stress and illbeing. But ultimately, there may be nothing more more broadly effective, efficient, and powerful than a short daily stroll through the park.

 

How leaders create the future

There’s a billboard on the main freeway in Dubai that reads: “The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it, and execute it.”

A similar sentiment was echoed by renowned business thinker and author, Peter Drucker, who said, “The only way to predict the future is to create it.”

This ability, of great leaders, to shape the future, begins with them being able to articulate their vision in words. These words paint a picture for others that catalyses action and orientates behaviours.

JFK says: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade“, and a new, shared vision is realised. Martin Luther King says: “I have a dream…“, and his dream becomes our vision too.

Having worked with dozens of school leaders around the world, I see, in the best of them, this same ability to help paint a picture of an exciting, brighter future. When a picture of the future is clear enough and inspiring enough, it can be wonderfully infectious. And then, it’s amazing how an idea, dream, or vision of the future can be willed into reality.

Why did the human cross the road?

If you’ve ever visited Vietnam you’ll be familiar with the ‘experience’ of crossing the road on foot. If you haven’t, you might struggle to imagine what it feels like to walk out into a swarm of oncoming motor scooters that seem to be oblivious to the laws requiring vehicles to stop at pedestrian crossings.

Against your instincts, locals will tell you to step confidently out into the scooter-stream, look straight ahead and walk at a steady pace across the road. Somehow, scooters rapidly zip behind and in front of you – as if perfectly choreographed. It sounds and seems crazy, but it works.

It works because everyone knows the intention and direction of each other. The scooter-riders know that you are trying to get from one side to the other. And they know that you are going to walk straight and steady. You know that they are going to steer around you – as long as you walk straight and steady.

In amongst the apparent chaos, these predictable behaviours create an effective and efficient system. Everyone gets where they need to go safely and reliably.

There are times in our lives when it makes sense to embrace experimentation, growth, challenge, and innovation. And there are other times when it makes sense to keep our head down and walk straight and steady…just to get to the other side.

Risk, failure & flow

The psychological phenomenon known as flow‘ is characterised by complete absorption on a task. When in flow, our attentional awareness becomes entirely focussed on a single action, so much so that:

“Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. All aspects of performance –mental and physical – go through the roof.”

Steven Kotler, Director of Research,  Flow Genome Project

In classrooms, the neurochemical and neurophysiological changes generated by flow states can have a huge impact on creativity, learning and performance. But our students can only be in flow when they are pushed to their limits – or slightly beyond. Working at this threshold, approximately 4% outside of our current capability, is risky – failure is a real possibility.

And this is why schools need to orientate themselves as learning institutions rather than performance institutions. When the explicit goal is to learn, risk and failure are normalised, tolerated, and even celebrated. When the goal is to perform, we foster a natural aversion to risk and failure.

The best educators create classroom environments where students feel safe and embrace risk.

Failing never feels nice. But flow does – and accelerated, exciting learning definitely does.

Self-service

Many schools teach about the value of serving others. Even better, some schools offer well-designed community service programs that enable students to experience, first hand, the sense of meaning and purpose that comes from serving others.
That’s great. But students aren’t silly. They understand that, really, ‘doing well’ at school is about improving their own individual grades and securing individual ‘positions of responsibility’. And they are rewarded for competing individually against and outranking other students.

We’re good at telling students how important it is to serve, nurture and support others. But with the system we currently tolerate, students ultimately ‘succeed’ at school by serving themselves.

Feedforward

Feedback, especially critical feedback, often isn’t pleasant to receive. And it’s really hard to hear it when it’s about our work. So why do we put ourselves through it? Why do we go out of our way to seek high-quality, genuinely constructive feedback from peers or mentors? Because it helps us grow. Feedback drives learning.

But when you give feedback, your intention matters.

Is your intention to deconstruct a performance from the past and give your view on what would have been better or what you would have done instead? Because that’s hard to listen to. That’s the kind of feedback that can easily demotivate someone or make them defensive.

Or is your intention to help illuminate someone’s future by highlighting inherent strengths and tools that can help them be even better? When we show that we genuinely care by walking beside someone in the process, helping them see a new path, that feels really different.

Some people call this feedforward instead.

Bad ideas

“Most of the successful people I know have tons of bad ideas.”

— Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram.

This is as true in education as it is in entrepreneurship. Success and leadership is less about always being right or always having the great idea — and more about being willing to be wrong and having the courage to pivot at the right time.

A hand on my shoulder

At one of the most pivotal points in my schooling, when I was a 14 year old boy struggling through a low point in my life, there was a teacher who knew me and knew the challenges I was facing. At one point, about half way through a lesson, when the whole class was working busily, he must have sensed that I wasn’t at my best. He walked over, put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said to me: “It’s going to be okay.”

It was a tiny gesture of support, empathy, compassion, understanding, and connection. It was layered with wisdom, kindness and hope. It renewed my confidence, made me smile, and became etched in my memory.

This was not an ‘intervention’. It wasn’t a tool or a strategy or a ‘coaching’ technique. It’s just part of what great teachers do day in and day out as they lift up their students.

RPM

The rate of spin on a ball that a golfer hits off a tee affects the distance the ball travels. Lower spin rates mean greater distance. Professional golfers hit a ball off a tee with about 2680 RPM (revolutions per minute). I hit the ball off a tee with about 3300 RPM. But I’m getting better.

I enjoy going to the golf simulator which allows me to hit a real ball into a screen – surrounded by sensors that measure the direction and spin of the ball. The incredible level of accuracy and instantaneous nature of the feedback allow me to continuously tweak and improve my swing. I’m getting measurably better, hour by hour.

Imagine if we could apply similar technology to teaching. Imagine if we could harness cutting-edge human-awareness and biometric technology to measure student engagement and to parse classroom language in real time. Imagine if a teacher could slightly tweak their methodology and get instant feedback on the effect on student engagement and learning. Imagine if, for example, as teachers experiment with different ways to ask questions, they could get accurate, live data on average student RPM (responses per minute).

Imagine if even experienced teachers were getting measurably better, lesson by lesson.

Whilst there are ethical issues still to resolve, this future is coming.

Musical chairs and beating the game

Do you remember being a young child at a birthday party and playing ‘musical chairs’? The aim is to be the one winner of the game, not one of the nine losers. And you win by beating all the other kids by being the last one in the game – the other kids are the obstacle for you to overcome, (or over-step or over-climb, or whatever it takes). It seemed like fun at the time, didn’t it, if you weren’t one of the losers?

Guess what happens if, instead, the game is modified a little so that other kids become partners to enable you to win rather than obstacles that are trying to prevent you from winning? What do you think happens if, as the chairs disappear one by one, the final goal is for all 10 children to work together to squeeze onto the final chair?

Not only do children enjoy the game more, but these types of modifications have been found to increase general cooperativeness and decrease aggression in young children. We still get all the benefits of competition, including high levels of engagement and learning, but we’re harnessing cooperative competition (beating the game) rather than adversarial competition (beating each other).

It’s not surprising that working together to ‘beat the game’, feels so enjoyable and rewarding; it is deeply encoded in our genes.

Whilst having virtually no particular physical prowess, and despite evolving in a range of hostile environments, the human ability to communicate, plan for the future, and cooperate has enabled our survival and our thriving. Despite being faced with immensely challenging problems, humans have evolved to harness cooperation to beat the game, to beat the odds, rather than to beat each other.

Maybe schools can too.

Criticism or irrelevance

I was at an education conference this week and the most innovative and challenging presentations were the ones that generated the most robust discussion, but also attracted some of the most heated critique. In a civil and respectful setting, all of this is good. As a presenter, if you’re not getting any feedback or if everyone agrees with everything you’re saying, then what you’re saying is probably boring, banal or irrelevant.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO says it this way: “If you can’t tolerate critics, then don’t do anything new or interesting”.

Our words are our worlds

Language, it seems, is not entirely necessary for conscious thought. We can think about the taste of toothpaste, or the shape of a balloon without needing to access language.

But imagine trying to understand racism or potential or electricity without language.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian philosopher, wrote in 1922 that: “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind.” As we expand our vocabulary, we develop more nuanced ways of understanding the world and of understanding each other.

And this, in part, is why the teaching of wellbeing science to students is so important. When they learn, for example, that “serenity” is one of the most commonly experienced human emotions, or that “prudence” and “zest” are two universal strengths of character, students perceive their world differently. And when have access to the language of “negativity bias” and “emotional contagion” they gain a way to view, process, and talk about their social environment.

There are many significant benefits of placing wellbeing science at the heart of education, but the development of wellbeing literacy throughout a school community may be the most transformational element of all.

Creativity is not a good thing

My colleague was driving, and I was in the passenger seat travelling in the outside lane on a freeway last week when another driver in a large SUV overtook us. That would have been fine, except there was no lane next to us. This very impatient driver squeezed between our car and the roadside barrier at high speed. It was very dangerous but also, by most defintions, very creative.

I had never seen anyone do this before – it was a new method of traffic avoidance. And it was useful. The driver, assuming they survived, got where they wanted to go faster than any other method of driving and certainly faster than us. But it was completely inappropriate and potentially quite harmful.

Like all character strengths, creativity is not inherently good.

Whilst it has the wonderful, unique capacity to unlock and even extend human potential, it has a shadow side. There is even some research linking high levels of creativity to poorer mental health outcomes and elevated disagreeableness, hostility and arrogance.

That said, creativity is a pivotal skill for students and educators to embrace…with care. As schools around the world clamber to understand how to best teach and nurture creativity, we need also to be teaching students when creativity is the wrong tool to use – such as when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere on a freeway!

The children we mean to raise

How important is it to you that your children and / or students develop into ethical, caring adults? In one study from the University of Virginia, 96% of parents said that the development of a caring orientation and moral character in their children was pivotal; more important even than high achievement.

Yet, in a 2014 Harvard study involving 10,000 middle and high school students, 80% of the youths reported that their parents and teachers “are more concerned about achievement or happiness (feeling good) than caring for others.”

The researchers suggested this data might reflect a “rhetoric/reality gap”. Perhaps what we, as influential adults, say we value isn’t reflected in our behaviour.

Closing that rhetoric/reality gap isn’t easy, especially for high schools who are, for the most part, subject to a system that rewards test scores more than character or caring. But it’s not impossible. You only have to walk into a school that is genuinely committed to wellbeing and character to see that their reality and rhetoric are more closely aligned. These schools celebrate and highlight behaviour and images and displays and artwork and physical spaces that reflect a prioritisation of character and caring.

Some other schools, however, choose to highlight their trophy cabinet. That reflects a different priority.

10 interesting facts about education

Here are 10 interesting facts that you probably didn’t know about education.

  1. There is a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), 69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030.
  2. In many developing countries, people with just one additional year of schooling earn 10% higher wages.
  3. Globally, there are around 60 million primary school-age children not enrolled in school. About half of them will never enter school.
  4. Approximately 500 million women and 250 million men remain illiterate. Andorra, Finland, and Norway all have 100% literacy rates whilst South Sudan has just 27%.
  5. The King’s School in Kent, England is the oldest continuously operating school in the world. It was founded in 597 AD.
  6. The average age of teachers in Singapore is 36 years. In Italy, it’s 49
    years.
  7. The City Montessori School in the Indian city of Lucknow is the world’s largest school. CMS has approximately 52,000 K-12 students spread across 18 campuses.
  8. Many schools in Brazil begin their academic day at 7am.
  9. Russian primary school students spend approximately 470 hours in the classroom during the school year which is about half the hours that US and Australian primary students spend in school.
  10. Although no one really knows exactly, most estimates suggest that there are somewhere between 4 and 6 million schools in the world.

Schools are still there, for now

If you hadn’t noticed, the purpose of school – from a student’s perspective – has changed radically in the last twenty years. Kids used to have to go to school to find out stuff. However, somewhere between 2002 and 2004, Google became the most widely used search engine on the planet, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to discover information.

By 2010, there were already more than 3 million articles on Wikipedia offering a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to learn information.

In November 2005, the first YouTube video to reach 1 million views was online and by July 2006, more than 65,000 new videos were being uploaded every day, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to learn skills and share information.

And by the middle of 2009, Facebook had 300 million users, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to meet, hang out, and communicate.

Remember when every town had a video-rental store, photo-finishing shop, newspaper stand, record store, a couple of public phones, and a few schools? At least the schools are still there, for now.

Railbirding

In the game of poker, the mildly derogatory term, Railbird, is used to describe a person who watches games “from the rail” rather than actually playing. They are generally viewed as a nuisance by actual players and add little, if any, value to the game. Yet many Railbirds feel justified in commentating on the game or critiquing the decisions of the players.

Every school and organisation is made up of players and Railbirds. And so, we have a choice to make. Am I willing to sit down at the table, accept the risks, know that I might get burned, but give myself the opportunity to make a difference? Or do I want to watch the game from the rails?

The upside of Railbirding is that it’s safe; you never lose. But then, you never get to play.

Don’t chase the score

In general, the growing emphasis on ‘measurement’ of different educational outcomes is a good thing. This is especially the case with wellbeing in schools. As the data-collection tools for wellbeing have become more sophisticated and prioritised, first by schools and now governments, it has attracted more attention, energy, and resources. As a result, we have higher quality data, better materials, and refined practices.

Because wellbeing researchers and schools are trying to harness the scientific method, they rely heavily on the process of quantification. Quantification allows us to take inherently ‘uncountable’ and intangible human experience and turn it into numerical data. For example, the feeling of trust that a student has for their teacher can be quantified into a number using a rating scale. This is helpful because it allows for statistical analysis and more meaningful discussions that are less hindered by subjective language.

But quantification is not the same as measurement.

Measurement is counting the quantity of a unit of material via an agreed standard.

Quantification is turning something that cannot be counted or measured directly into a number via subjective opinion.

So when I use a scale to measure my weight and I’ve gone up from 76kg last month to 78kg this month, that’s because I am heavier. We can measure weight directly.

But when a student’s self-reported ‘trust score’ goes up from ‘3’ last month to ‘4’ this month that does not mean that they trust me more. It might mean that. But it might instead be because it’s the student’s birthday today or because their football team won on the weekend or because they now trust their other teachers less and so, relatively, they feel more trusting of me. Or maybe it’s because scoring something as complex and nuanced as trust on a numerical scale of 1 to 5 is a very crude method. We don’t actually know. And that’s because we cannot measure trust directly.

And all of this is fine. As long as we don’t try to chase the score or place too much value on the score or data.

Ultimately, we must be focussed on optimising the wellbeing of our students, not the wellbeing data. Those two things are not the same.

Complex but organised

My cutlery drawer is not very well organised, but it works fine. That’s because it’s a simple system. Schools and organisations are not. They are highly complex. And they can work well too. But they need to be better organised than a cutlery drawer.

The key to effectively and efficiently managing and levering a complex system is ensuring that it is very well organised. In a highly organised school, there is a shared vision and direction, people know their role, they know the protocols, they know how and with whom to communicate, they know where to get help, they know what to do when things go wrong and when things go right.

All schools are complex but only the best really understand, emphasise, and prioritise coherent organisation.

 

Why proud schools are good schools

Pride is such an important positive emotion. And a healthy abundance of pride is one of the best indicators of a really good school.

Whilst being careful to distinguish it from arrogance, smugness, and vanity, Aristotle described pride as the “crown of the virtues”. When we know that we are capable of making a contribution of great value and when we strive to do so, we are rewarded with a sense of authentic pride.

Schools are, of course, incredibly complex systems that are notoriously hard to evaluate. But if I was given just three minutes to gain as deep an insight into a school as possible, these are the three questions I would ask:

  1. to the principal – “How proud are you of your school? Why?”
  2. to a group of teachers – “How proud are you of your work at this school? Why?”
  3. to a group of students – “How proud are you to be a student at this school? Why?”

Authentic pride being expressed by the principal, teachers, and students in a school is only possible when they feel deeply connected to the community, purposefully engaged, and when they feel that they are making important and significant contribution that matters.

So when you get a sense that there is a school community full of pride, it’s likely a school that not only values moral excellence, but achieves it. That’s the kind of school I want to send my kids to.

Teaching is a horrible job…

As a teacher you have to spend a big chunk of your life looking after other people’s children for them. It’s mind-numbing talking to immature 8-year olds and surly teenagers all day. Ugh!

And you’re constantly having to switch between different tasks all the time – in 45 minute blocks. And you have to try to convince kids who don’t really want to be there that your subject has some relevance – even though their world is so different to the one you grew up in.

And it’s hardly real work – a lot of the time it’s just entertaining and playing with children – unlike the serious work that other people do like finance and law.

And even if you have a good year, the students leave anyway and you have nothing to show for your work.

Teaching is a horrible job.

…if you don’t love it.

But if you do love it…

You get to spend your day surrounded by a youthful, hopeful energy that only children, with their whole life ahead of them, can bring. This energy is contagious and is a constant reminder of the unaffected beauty that sits at the heart of all humans. Wow.

And there’s an amazing variety in the work – from high-level strategic planning, to working out how to connect with and support traumatised young people. Each day, each lesson is unique because each child has unique needs and each class beings unique challenges.

And it pushes you to your limits. There is no other profession that requires the sustaining of 25 real-time, simultaneous relationships for an hour at a time. Every child matters and every interaction with every child matters. No wonder it’s one of the most challenging professions on the planet. And it’s unbelievably fun – being paid to inspire kids!

And, at the end of the day, teachers are stewarding the lives of other humans – our next generation of leaders and parents and lawyers and teachers. Even when things aren’t going great, you are making a positive difference to the lives of children and the future.

Teaching is the most wonderful job in the world…if you love it.

What do your meetings cost?

Face to face meetings continue to play an important role in the functioning and optimising of a school. There are certainly benefits of meetings but there are also significant costs associated.

So, how effective are your meetings? Do you know how much they actually cost? Many leaders don’t really think about it, but meetings in schools are a big investment.

For example, if you have 100 teachers meeting for an hour, not only does that meeting cost 100 hours of time – the equivalent of two and a half weeks of work for one person – but it costs the school the equivalent of close to AUD$5,000 in wages (100 x $48.14*).

There are many ways a school could spend 100 work-hours and $5,000. And maybe a whole-staff meeting justifies the cost. But it’s certainly worth carefully considering other options.

Here are a few questions that might help reduce the cost of meetings:

  • Does everyone need to be there at the same time in the same place?
  • If the meeting is about sharing information, is a meeting the most effective and efficient way to do that?
  • If the meeting is to make a decision, does everyone who is invited really need to be there to make that decision?
  • Is there a very clear agenda and purpose?
  • Can the meeting end as soon as the purpose is achieved or the decision is made?
  • Could the meeting be 12 minutes shorter (that could free up the equivalent of $1,000 in salaries and two and half days of work time)?

Ultimately, there is no replacement for a really good meeting; they can be incredibly valuable, inspiring, and worthwhile. But we need to work hard to make them so. They’re expensive.

 

*48.14 is the approximate average hourly rate for Australian teachers.

Behind every face

If you had to distill and identify just two, simple guiding principles that underpin the most successful school corporate cultures, it may well be these:

  1. Continuously expect the highest standards of integrity, authenticity and professionalism from yourself and your colleagues.
  2. Be compassionate. Behind the face of every one of your colleagues, is a personal struggle that you will never fully understand. The struggles of some are bigger than others’, but we all have them. Whilst we aim to be at our best at all times, because we are human, we cannot be.

Successful cultures don’t rely on us being at our best – all the time. They rely on us turning up and doing our best – all the time – despite our struggles.

You might be wrong

Here’s a little quiz:

1. What’s your earliest memory?

2. Approximately how old were you at the time?

My guess is that your answer to both of those questions is wrong.

There is now a significant body of evidence that we are forming memories in our mother’s womb from about 30 weeks after conception. Your first memories were laid down well before you were born. And, in fact, many of your most powerful, enduring, and important memories were formed in your first two years of life.

In your first months, you memorised a hugely complex set of sensory, cognitive and muscular interactions that enabled you to walk (a feat that even the most sophisticated robots in the world struggle with), and to memorise thousands of sequences of sounds to enable you to talk. You permanently memorised the incredibly subtle adjustments in facial expressions of adults around you that helped you interpret human emotions. You created memories that would help protect your life into your future – memories associated with danger, fear, and pain.

And these memories formed without any conscious effort or awareness. Psychologists refer to these unconscious recordings as implicit memories.

Implicit memories never stop being formed. In fact, our implicit memory store is, in a sense, far bigger and more influential than our explicit memory store – memories that we can consciously recall.

Sometimes I hear people say that they hardly remember anything they were taught at school. This, again, is entirely wrong.

Sure, at school, we learn (and forget) lists of capital cities or how to work out the area of a circle. But we also form indelible memories that will shape our life.

From our peers and our teachers we learn what kindness and unkindness feels like, we learn trust and forgiveness, we learn the value of truth and when to lie, we learn compassion and the impact of selfishness, we come to know failure and hope, we learn how power can be used to control, coerce or enliven others. And, if we’re lucky, we begin to learn love, and we ‘learn ourselves’.

None of these memories will ever be forgotten.

So if you thought of school mostly as a place where kids go to learn explicit skills and knowledge…sorry, you were wrong again.

Rinse, repeat

Teaching has a very distinctive rhythm. Term 1 begins, classes commence, new relationships are formed, everyone is fresh and hopeful and primed. We work through to the middle of the school year, more comfortable now – perhaps a little tired. But our relationships warm just as winter sets in. And then the end draws close, we ramp up again to the crescendo of final projects and exams and reports and then…quiet. Summer.

And then we do it all again.

There is something deeply comforting about predictable rhythms. Nature has embedded a biological clock in our bodies that is synchronised with the sun. The language that we speak is a symphony of pitch and rhythm and it is the recognisable beat of different genres of music that draws us in.

Rhythm is reassuring and hypnotic.

For teachers, the annual rhythm is both a blessing and a curse. There is a defined start and end, we know where we stand. We know where we have been and where we are headed. We can predict the ups and downs. And we know that as we tire, the rejuvenating break is near.

And…we are busy. What worked last year, will probably be fine again this year.  My style, my way, fits the beat. Why fix what isn’t broke. We rinse, repeat. And the years can slip by.

But when, as teachers, we seek first, to embrace and serve the child, each year and each day is unique because each student’s needs are unique. The rhythm of schooling remains, but it becomes a somewhat muted backbeat in contrast to the bright, new melody of each of our students.

This perspective, this unwavering focus on the heart of their students is the reason why some of the most enthusiastic and dynamic educators in the world are in their 4th and 5th decades of teaching. They feel the rhythm but they live and teach for the melody.

 

I’m a seed, wondering why it grows

In one of the more obscure and lesser known Pearl Jam songs, titled Education, there’s a lyric, the final line in the song, that has kept popping back into my head as I have visited a number of different schools in recent months.

I’m a seed, wondering why it grows…

One of the key differences between good teachers and great teachers is this:

When taught by a good teacher, students learn well because they are taught well. But when taught by a great teacher, learning is qualitatively different. Students engage at a deeper level because they are motivated by a deeper sense of purpose, a deeper understanding of why their learning matters.

And at a larger scale, the same goes for schools. When schools and teachers work hard to nurture a genuine sense of purpose, when learning is linked, not to tests, but to solving interesting problems and to serving something greater than themselves, students feel like they are learning and growing for a reason. To borrow a metaphor from Michael Steger, the sense of purpose that great teachers foster, creates an anchor into the future that pulls students towards greater learning. When grounded in a greater purpose, learning makes sense and it matters.

Without this, it is not surprising that a student might wonder: What is all this for? Why are we doing this? 

If we, as educators, fail to invest heavily in a why of learning that resonates with our students, then they will continue to feel like “a seed, wondering why it grows”.

Read the fine print

If you work in education and haven’t been living under a rock for the past ten years, chances are you’re familiar with Dr Carol Dweck’s work on mindset. For decades, Dweck has been studying the effects that our beliefs about ability have on learning behaviours and our future success.

If you believe that ability is mostly the result of practice and hard work, you tend to work harder, practice more, accept more feedback and tackle more challenging problems. And guess what happens…you get better at whatever you are working on. Dweck calls this a growth mindset.

If you believe that ability is mostly the result of predetermined genetic factors or inherent ‘talent’, you don’t practice as diligently, are resistant to feedback and tackle less challenging problems. (After all, there’s no point practicing if ability is genetic.) And guess what happens…you don’t get better at whatever ability it is you think is ‘talent’ based. She calls this a fixed mindset.

Despite some vocal critics of Dweck’s work, there are significant benefits associated with nurturing a growth mindset in children. But like all psychological theories, we need to be careful not to skim the headlines of research and, consequently, develop blunt, broad-spectrum, low-resolution approaches.

Here are just a few of the situations in which Dweck herself, a staunch proponent of growth mindset, has explained that a fixed mindset is healthier and beneficial:

  • When faced with certain acute mental or physical health conditions, those who believe they will be able to work their own way through it or ‘get over it’ may be less likely to seek professional or medical help and therefore increase the risk of harm.
  • When faced with issues associated with sexual orientation, those who accept that this is who they are and this is who they’re meant to be seem to respond more effectively and adjust more healthily than people who think they should be resisting or trying to change something about themselves.
  • When faced with the realisation of aging, graceful acceptance of the inevitability of physical change is often associated with more healthy adaptation of behaviour. In Dweck’s words, we are less likely to “run around nipping and tucking”.

As educators, we should be consuming high-quality research findings. But when we do, it’s important to read the headlines and the ‘fine print’.

Happily ever after

“…and they all lived happily ever after.”

No. No they did not.

I’m confused about how honest I should try to be with my three-year-old son. I’m conflicted about the Santa Clause ‘lie’. I’m struggling a little bit with the whole Easter Bunny thing. And I don’t know whether to let him know that, despite what his storybooks tell him, no one lives ‘happily ever after’.

From such an early age, we begin to build this socially-constructed myth that happiness is the normal, natural, default state for humans. And most of the time we don’t even know that we’re complicit in this myth. How many times as an adult have you seen a sad child and instinctively asked “What’s wrong?”. Sad = wrong. Happy = right. Instead of validating negative emotions, we tend to demonise them.

And children’s books are full of this narrative. Of course, they tell stories of challenge and struggle and fear, but in the final chapter, the sadness goes away, the ice melts, the little fish gets reunited with his family and everyone is okay and happy again. Back to the way it should be. Happy!

Clearly, there is a lot to be said for protecting the innocence of childhood. But there’s also a risk that, if the illusion is too great, if we build an impenetrable happiness myth, then we set our children up for unrealistic comparisons that can cause real problems later in life.

So, just as the best teachers demonstrate balance in their pedagogy, there is a middle-ground we should aim for with children. Let them get lost in the joy and wonder of Santa. And when they feel upset or afraid or disappointed, instead of asking “What’s wrong?”, be there, hold them, and say something like “I can see that you’re sad, I’m here with you. Tell me about what you’re feeling.”

The Santa and the Easter Bunny myths are relatively harmless; the happiness myth is not.

Bruised apple

Some people pick up an apple, see that it has a little bruise on it and throw it away because it’s a ‘bad apple’.

Other people pick up the same apple, see the little bruise, cut it off, and enjoy a delicious, juicy snack.

We all carry little bruises. And if we go looking for bruises in others, we’ll see them. And then we miss out on all the other wonderful bits that are beautiful and whole. What a waste!

17.9 billion reasons

Mind if we do a few sums? Let’s start with some statistics.

  • In Australia, there are approximately 180 school days in a year.
  • The average salary for a school teacher is approximately AUD$65,000 ($68,000 for high school and $63,000 for primary).
  • There are approximately 276,000 teachers (full-time-equivalent) in about 9,480 schools (primary and secondary).

So here we go with the maths…

On average:

  • Each school has 29 teachers (276,000 teachers ÷ 9,480 schools = 29)
  • A teacher’s daily salary is $361 ($65,000 ÷ 180 working days)
  • Each school pays $10,469 per day in salaries (29 teachers x $361 daily rate)

interesting…but wait for this…

Overall, Australian schools spend a tick under 100 million dollars per day on salaries alone! Check the sums: 276,000 x 361 = $99,636,000. Then you multiply that number by 180 teaching days and we get the annual figure of $17,934,480,000. Yep, that’s 17.9 billion dollars on teacher salaries. And that includes neither the money spent by schools on normal operations, such as maintenance, construction, supplies, energy; nor related peripheral costs such as money spent on fuel driving kids to school.

The total number is hard to calculate but the annual amount spent on the Australian school system may well come close to the country’s total yearly military expenditure of around $35 billion (which is the 13th highest in the world).

So what? Why does this matter?

Well, if, as a country, we’re going to spend somewhere in the vicinity of $20-30 billion a year on a system, it better be good. If we’re going to all this effort of bringing together five million people (teachers, students, support staff) across 9,480 schools every day, it better be a damn good system.

And this is the reason why we have to continue to ask hard questions. This is the reason why it’s not okay to simply accept the status quo. This is the reason why we must be courageous in challenging broken parts of the system. This is the reason why we cannot tolerate any teaching that is not highly professional, prepared, engaged, focussed, and enthusiastic.

This is reason why we have to remain curious and always open to the possibility that there is a better way.

What if we work together instead?

The International Space Station (ISS) is, arguably, the most incredible feat of human engineering ever. It is also the most expensive single item ever constructed – costing over US$150 billion to construct. It is also, potentially, the most valuable tool available to humanity. Already, medical and environmental discoveries have been made onboard – and the scientific research that the ISS enables, may one day lead to us populating other planets. Amazing.

And it has only been possible because of cooperation instead of competition. The ISS is a joint project involving four countries; Canada, Japan, Russia, USA. The ISS was realised because these four countries worked together (along with the European Space Agency) to fund, design, and construct it.

It simply would not exist in a competitive environment.

It’s interesting, therefore, to consider the widely accepted notion in schools that competition is critical because it ‘builds character’ and ‘produces excellence’.

Actually, much of the evidence relating to schools suggests that competition tends to: suppress innovation, reduce standards of excellence, harm self-esteem, reduce teamwork, limit empathy, and increase anxiety. And numerous studies have shown that, when students are cooperating and supporting each other rather than trying to beat each other, they not only perform better but enjoy the activity more.

If you delete competition and other forms of extrinsic motivation, all we have left as a motivational catalyst is meaning and purpose. When a child or adult is doing something that they feel inherently makes sense and it matters, competition becomes redundant. In fact, when we’re doing something that feels like it really matters we are instinctively compelled to work with others, not against them, because we know the force-multiplying effect that cooperation unlocks.

Ultimately, the building of character and production of excellence requires, not competition, but the fostering of cooperation, empathy, interdependence, and a sense of united purpose. When we get this right, amazing things happen in schools and International Space Stations get built.

Emotion vs Emotion

You know when you’re angry and someone or something makes you laugh – and you no longer feel angry anymore? This is the psychological phenomenon known as reciprocal inhibition.

In essence, it is impossible for a human to feel two opposing emotions at the same time. For example, we can’t feel admiration and disgust at the same time; or compassion and hostility; or interest and boredom. In each of these cases, one emotion dominates and, in doing so, represses the other.

This is, in part, why Dr Kerry Howells‘ work on gratitude in education is so important. When we cultivate a deep sense of gratitude, it forces us out of our own heads. When we feel gratitude, we experience a world that is not ‘about me’ but rather, about the gifts we receive from others. And so – instead of being affected by our own fear or guilt or grudges or worries – gratitude opens our hearts and minds – it allows us to transcend ourselves.

Gratitude isn’t just a nice emotion we feel on a ‘good’ day – it’s a strategy that causes us to educate differently. And because we all have so much to be thankful for, gratitude is a choice…even on a ‘bad’ day.

…especially on a ‘bad’ day.

The horrible first draft

Neil Gaiman, highly acclaimed author, and master story teller, creator of works including Coraline, and the Sandman graphic novels, said it this way:

“Nobody is ever meant to read your first draft.”

Terry Pratchett, knighted for his services to literature, said it this way:

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize winning author, said it this way:

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

But the thing is…our first draft is also our best draft…

…until we do a second draft. And we can’t do a second draft unless we’re brave enough to do a first draft.

The human species, more than any other, is a learning species. We are born as a blank slate with almost no inherent capabilities other than to cry, eat, sleep and learn. When you read Hemingway or watch Federer or listen to Gaga, don’t forget that they once had a ‘first draft’ too – and it was rubbish.

Your strengths are your weakness in disguise

How do you describe your character? What would your friends say are your most prominent character strengths? Bravery, creativity, kindness, and gratitude perhaps? Or how about persistence, fairness, humour…? There are, of course, many others.

But disguised in each of these strengths is a shadow side that we can fail to recognise if we’re not careful. None of us are perfect. And so if we asked our friends and colleagues to honestly say what they find most irritating about us, our list of ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ might well be almost identical:

  • You’re really creative? But you sometimes forget or ignore day-to-day processes and protocols.
  • You’re really kind? But you find it hard to make tough decisions that affect others or to give honest, critical feedback.
  • You’re really hopeful and optimistic? But you sometimes bite off more than you can chew and cause avoidable stress for yourself and others.
  • You’re really zestful and energeticBut others find you tiring to be around sometimes. And you can tend to interfere with others’ desire for calmness and quiet?

As we really start to know ourselves better by exploring the strengths and limitations of our own character, and remaining open to feedback from those we trust, there is an enhanced opportunity to understand how we are known by others. Embracing this learning fertilises our social intelligence. We become more self-aware and more aware of our effect on others.

And, perhaps most importantly, when we recognise both sides of our own character, it helps remind us that behind the imperfections and faults in our friends, colleagues and family are the same beautiful human qualities that we love in them.

You are contagious

One of the key factors that has enabled our success as a species is the human ability to synchronise emotional states with others around us. Within our ancient tribe, if you are experiencing fear, there’s probably something highly dangerous in our environment so I had better be on high alert too. Fear has the capacity to spread unconsciously from person to person within milliseconds. Similarly, amusement, joy, serenity, hope and other positive emotions are also rapidly transmitted to other people.

And it’s not only emotions that are contagious. Studies dating as far back as Charles Darwin’s in the 1870s have found that people naturally have a tendency to mirror a conversation-partner’s speech patterns, body language, and facial expressions. We have a special region of cells in our brain, called mirror neurons, that are responsible for this mimicking process. This synchrony system not only helps create a sense of connectedness but allows us to literally feel what the other person is feeling – the foundation of compassion and empathy.

Unfortunately, because this system is so deeply engrained in our humanity, we can easily forget to harness it as an educational lever. And it is quite a big lever. We know our students’ emotions significantly affect their classroom experience and learning. And we know that emotions of a known and trusted individual, such as a teacher, can have a particularly large contagion effect.

Of all the technology and tools available to us as teachers, the way we influence and modulate our students’ psychological state via our modelling of behaviour and emotion is certainly one of the most subtle and most powerful. And this is why we need to be so mindful of our own state both during a lesson and in the final moments before we enter the classroom.

Warming up

When you turn on the shower and the water takes a minute to warm up before you can get in, that is a total waste of energy and resources.

When you a walk into a classroom and take a few minutes to warm up your students by greeting them enthusiastically or checking how they are feeling or sharing a short story or laugh, that is not at all a waste of energy and resources. In fact, this type of direct investment in relationships and connection at the start of a lesson is common amongst almost all of the great teachers we see.

Great teachers choose to spend this precious time engaging in this way with their students because they realise that the return on investment, in terms or relational and learning outcomes, far outweighs the few minutes initially spent. The best educators literally care first and teach second.

You can have a cold shower, but you can’t teach cold kids.

Tinkering is not innovation

I have a one-year old daughter who is quite playful. She likes to pick up objects and experiment with different ways of using them. She is too young to have any clear purpose underpinning her play. This is tinkering.

I also have a three-year old son who is quite playful. He likes to play with toy cars. He has a favourite purple Hotwheels car that he loves to zoom across the lounge room floor. He enjoys experimenting with different techniques with the clear purpose of trying to maximise the travel distance of the car. In a recent extended play session, he realised that using a ‘backhand’ technique allowed the car to travel straighter and therefore further than a ‘forehand’ technique. Now, he only ever uses the backhand zooming method. This is innovation.

Both tinkering and innovation are sparked by curiosity. But innovation alone, in car zooming or schools, is guided by purpose – by a bigger ‘why’.

Until you have a clear purpose, stop tinkering.

Why professional development often fails

Depending on which study you read, somewhere between 40% and 90% of our typical daily behaviours are based on the automatic routines that we call habits. The cue of getting into my car, for example, triggers a whole sequence of automatic behaviours that occur without any conscious thought at all. Literally before I know it, my seatbelt is on, the mirror and seat are adjusted, the car is started and I’m in reverse.

The huge upside of habits is that they free up our limited conscious attentional capacity to focus on other more important, complex or novel stimuli. The downside of habits is that they are very resistant to change. Just ask anyone who’s tried and failed to alter their diet or begin a new fitness regime or give up smoking.

Creating any significant, long-term behavioural change requires creating a new habit. And this is exactly the intended purpose of professional development (PD) in schools. We are trying to facilitate a shift in behavioural patterns of educators to enable, for example, more effective responses to student mistakes, or more efficient student feedback.

But here’s the thing, changing a habit requires three key elements: first – motivation to make a change, second – a sense of agency or empowerment, and third – repeated reinforcement of the new behaviour. Too often, unfortunately, PD is designed to educate rather than empower. New knowledge from a PD session is irrelevant if I don’t feel motivated or empowered to enact it. And when I don’t enact it, there is no benefit or reinforcement. So I end up learning new stuff that has zero behavioural impact. Sound familiar?

So when considering attending a PD, conference or training, view it through the lens of habits. Is this PD likely to inspire a change in my behaviour? Will I feel empowered to make that change? And will I have the capacity to repeatedly enact the new behaviour and experience some form of reward or benefit as a consequence?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then there are probably better ways to spend your time and money.

Teaching from the middle

Having had the opportunity to interview, work with and meet some of the world’s best teachers, one of the most striking similarities is just how average they are – or to be more precise, how balanced they are.

Great teaching is not about leveraging extreme talent or skill. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Great teaching is about developing access to a broad spectrum of capacities, strengths, and character and prudently choosing the right point on the spectrum to mindfully guide in-the-moment decision making and behaviour.

In the same way that the best chefs add a little sweetness to sour ingredients to create a beautifully balanced dish, the best teachers balance the following:

  • confidence and humility;
  • planning and action;
  • assertiveness and letting go;
  • excitement and serenity (calmness);
  • fostering achievement and allowing failure;
  • providing support and nurturing independence.

The ancient Greek temple of Apollo bore the inscription ‘Meden Agan’ – meaning ‘Nothing in excess’. The Greeks knew that a virtuous life, a good and happy life was one characterised by moderation and balance. Great teachers know this too.

Will this be on the test?

Will this be on the test?

If you hear this question in your classroom, you know something has gone wrong.

Here are just some of the potential problems associated with this question:

  • It is symptomatic of extrinsic motivation;
  • (Or worse…) It is symptomatic of a teacher using a test to generate compliance;
  • Students are devaluing anything that is not ‘on the test’;
  • Students are valuing test performance over actual learning;
  • (Or worse…) Students feel their teacher or parents are valuing test performance over actual learning;
  • Students are concerned about the consequence of a test score;
  • Students are wasting cognitive and attentional capacity thinking about the test rather than their actual learning;
  • Creativity is suppressed (because most tests reward compliance and memorisation rather than creative, divergent, or innovative thinking);
  • Students are incentivised to provide the ‘right answer’ rather than thinking critically or innovatively;
  • Students are focussed on some arbitrary ‘scoring’ on a test to demonstrate their learning;
  • (Or worse…) The teacher is using a test as the primary measure of student learning;
  • (Or worse still…) The teacher is emphasising test performance because the teacher / school leadership is using student test scores as a primary measure of the teacher’s proficiency, skill, or performance.

But there is one thing even more worrying, than a student asking ‘Will this be on the test?’. And that’s a teacher saying “This will be on the test.”

That’s not at all to say that assessment is bad – quite the opposite. There are many, many effective and valuable ways of formatively and summatively assessing student learning. Some of the best involve students actively constructing or performing or transforming something. And many of these methods involve collaboration and teamwork and ‘open books‘.

But rarely is a ‘test’ the best way to really assess learning. And never is it a good way to motivate students.

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 nine, 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.

 

 

I don’t know where to start!

Systemic changes, fundamental shifts, philosophical pivots – these are all big journeys to go on. And so a comment we often hear from school leaders and educators who are attempting to adopt a whole-school approach to wellbeing is: ‘I don’t know where to start’. 

Although we now have a pretty well-honed roadmap that provides support and direction for schools, each journey is different because each school is unique. But each of these journeys always begins the same way: with a first step. This is often the hardest and most important step of all because it leads to the next step.

The poet Rumi perhaps said this best when he wrote:

“As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.”

7 steps to great teaching

It’s no wonder that many educators are ever-hopeful of a silver bullet – an overarching education theory that’s going to make things simpler and cleaner. It’s natural to go looking for something to simplify the complexity and noise of classroom teaching.

I was having a conversation about this with my friend and mentor, John Hendry, who was recently awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his services to education. I joked that, in the pursuit of being as professional and methodical as possible, it’s almost as if some teachers want a 7-step plan to becoming a great teacher.

This was John’s response:

“Let me tell you about the seven steps I always took…they were the last 7 steps before I got to any classroom door – when I would gather myself and acknowledge how grateful I was for the privilege of helping guide the lives of my students. 

You never know exactly what lies behind that door other than the guarantee that it will be different to anything you’ve experienced before and that it will be wonderful.”

Teaching isn’t a science, it’s a craft. And it’s that endless uniqueness and sense of wonder that are the canvas and paint for great teachers.

The bat and ball

A bat and ball costs $1.10 in total.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

If you instantly produced the answer of: 10 cents, you’d be quite normal (more than 50% of Harvard, MIT and Princeton students respond this way) but completely wrong.

The ‘bat and ball’ problem is one of the ways Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman illustrates how our ‘System 1’ – our rapid, subconscious , intuitive processing mode – can lead to biased or incomplete perception and decision making. Often, System 1 is very helpful in guiding our thinking, but sometimes it leads us astray.

So, have you worked out the correct answer yet? It is, of course: 5 cents. The bat, therefore costs 5 cents plus one dollar ($1.05) which added to the $0.05 cost of the ball gives us the total cost of $1.10.

But that answer, even for highly educated, successful people, doesn’t come easily. And that’s because it requires us to switch on ‘System 2’ – our slow, deliberate, analytical mode. In this mode, we stop thinking automatically and instead use rational, conscious intelligence to really ‘think through’ a problem.

In our classrooms, it is critical that we give space and time to develop our students’ System 2 thinking. Whilst skills such as authentic responding, rapid prototyping, and creative intuition can fuel an exciting classroom dynamic, it is the development of slow, System 2 thinking that allows students to cope with complex problems. In the accelerated, information-heavy world in which our students are growing up, it is only via practice that they can become adept at recognising times when they need to slow down – to really think.

 

The art of living well

In 335 BCE, Arisitotle set up his own school, the Lyceum, in a gymnasium on the outskirts of Athens. It was around this time, in his role as a teacher, that he is famously quoted as saying:

“Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.”

It’s a pretty big statement! And as a father and an educator, personally I’m not entirely sure that my parental role excludes helping my son and daughter to learn to ‘live well’. I hope it is not true of my son and daughter that I “only gave them life”.

That said, it’s a powerful sentiment. In many ways, parents are, often, the foundation of a child’s wellbeing. But teachers play a huge role in shaping, guiding and inspiring the future lives of their students.

That shouldn’t be surprising though. Surely, the most succinct way to describe the fundamental purpose of education is: enabling students to ‘live well’. Isn’t that what schools are for?

The greatest of all

If you look back into human history and pull a list of the greatest teachers of all time, you’ll probably end up with names including:

  • Confucius
  • Socrates
  • Anne Sullivan (teacher of Helen Keller)
  • Maria Montessori (of discovery learning fame)
  • John Locke (philosophy of character first and academics later)
  • Jaime Escalante (known for his work teaching maths to troubled students in Los Angeles.)
  • Albert Einstein
  • Marva Collins
  • Madenjit Singh (educating the poor in Cambodia)

What is it that makes these educators particularly brilliant? Partly, it’s fate. In each of the above cases, there were factors that assembled to create an opportunity for great impact. But it’s much more than that.

Whilst this is a very diverse list of people from different times and cultures, they share two fundamental similarities.

First, all of them were, to some degree, controversial in their time because they saw a different way. They bent rules and harnessed disruption and innovation as a source of energy. And this energy helped light a previously unseeable pathway ahead. Escalante taught ‘unteachable’ kids to succeed. Montessori challenged entrenched norms about teaching and, in the process, revolutionised primary education. Collins opened a ‘school’ for impoverished youth on the second floor of her own Chicago home.

Second, all of these great teachers knew that education, ultimately, is not about literacy and numeracy but, rather, about sculpting the character and lives of their students. They possessed a deep sense of purpose – of wanting to contribute to making the world a better place. And, in all cases, this fuelled heightened emotional engagement and deep passion in their students.

First, innovation & hope. Second, inspiration.

Therein is a lesson for all educators.

How to destroy a culture

There is a really important place in schools and organisations for critical analysis, constructive criticism and, even more importantly, constructive conflict (a blog topic for another day). Lazy consensus and blind compliance are the enemies of progressive, dynamic education.

But whinging and complaining are entirely different. Unfortunately, whinging can be quite a social endeavour. People who, for whatever reason, feel that they don’t have a voice or can’t speak openly to their colleagues or don’t feel empowered to have difficult conversations with their managers often tend to seek out other whingers to huddle with. Most schools have one or two groups of whingers.

Here’s the thing, whinging – especially about people behind their backs – is one of the few unproductive, maladaptive, culture-harming practices that can be eradicated instantly. Because it’s a choice. If people choose not to whinge, it doesn’t happen. Or if organisations choose not to tolerate it, it doesn’t happen.

In an interview on stage at an Inc. magazine conference, media mogul Ariana Huffington explained that:

“Going behind someone’s back is the way to destroy a company…Now during interviews, there is a speech I give to everybody…I give you full permission to walk into my office and scream at me. But I want you to consider this as my last warning. If you complain about any of your colleagues behind their back…you would be let go.”

Imagine what schools would be like if whinging was replaced entirely by open, honest, fair, equitable, forgiving, growth-orientated, empathic conversations. In part, it is the responsibility of school leaders to work hard to create such a culture. And it part, it’s up to the whingers to make a different, braver choice.

Three components of trust

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” 
― George MacDonald, Scottish author and poet

Every educator knows the importance of trust. Trust is the foundation upon which relationships are built – and relationships are the foundation of teaching and learning.

All good teachers have an intuitive sense of how to develop trust in the classroom, which is great. But the problem is, when we rely only on intuition, there’s a chance that we’re missing opportunities to develop and leverage trust more effectively.

Referencing decades of psychological research,  The Trust Project at Northwestern University, in Illinois has identified three dimensions of trust: competence, honesty, and benevolence.

Competence relates to the perception of a person being able to do a job – to teach the Year 8 Science curriculum, for example. Honesty relates to the perception that the teacher keeps their promises and is authentic. Benevolence relates to the belief that the teacher genuinely has the students’ best interests at heart.

When any one of these components is overemphasised at the expense of another, trust is  harmed. I’m sure we can all think of educators who are so desperate to prove their level of competence that they fail to be fully open and honest about their limitations.

There’s no shortcut to building real trust – it takes time. But it is a simple recipe:

  1. Be competent. Prepare, plan, work harder than your students.
  2. Be honest. Make promises and keep them. Be consistent. Be professional.
  3. Be benevolent. Care. And let students know you care. Keep an open heart.

And listen to your intuition. Not always, but often – it will guide you towards a constructive balance of the three components of trust.

Get outside the jar

I was reading Steven Kotler’s book, Stealing Fire¸ recently and I loved an old bit of “southern folk wisdom” quoted that says:

“you can’t read the label while you’re sitting inside the jar.”

This is why coaching and other intentional reflection strategies are increasingly being embedded into performance development plans in some of the most innovative schools in Australia and internationally. These kind of processes enable us to gain such an important perspective and view of ourselves as professionals.

If you don’t have a deliberate, regular, meaningful ‘feedforward’ process that enables you to ‘get outside the jar’, it’s unlikely that you are growing as an educator. And if your professional skills aren’t growing, they’re either stalling or dying.

Think big, act small, learn fast

One of the major challenges we face as we attempt to innovate in education is that the impact of innovation is so hard to measure. Not only are we working with complex humans in a hugely complex system but educational, wellbeing, and developmental outcomes are sensitive to an immeasurable number of inputs and variables.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of trying to collect an excessive amount of data in order to capture a comprehensive ‘picture’. This is a flawed approach for two reasons. First, we end up drowning in huge swathes of data that tell too many stories. And second, it is impossible to capture the full picture anyway. There will always be variables that we have failed to consider or are impossible to measure, control or eliminate.

Here’s what schools that are really harnessing effective innovation are doing:

  1. Clearly identify the specific change you would like to see.
  2. Choose a simple, discrete, well-defined outcome to measure.
  3. Identify a tool that effectively measures this outcome.
  4. Conduct targeted, meaningful experiments.
  5. Measure the impact.
  6. Learn.

Innovation is the result of insight gained from action. When we’re strategic, targeted and patient, rather than instinctive, sweeping and reactive, then we really have the chance to powerfully and confidently innovate.

Think big, act small, learn fast.

People of determination

I had the privilege today of attending a welcoming of the Irish Special Olympic Team to Dubai in readiness for the upcoming Games. I was reflecting on why I came away from the event feeling so inspired. And I think it comes down to witnessing a very raw, unadulterated version of the human spirit.

Under the UAE’s National Policy for Empowering People with Special Needs, people with special needs or disabilities are referred to as ‘people of determination’. I love that. These fellow people face obstacles that I could never truly understand – and yet they achieve and succeed anyway. They know their goal is going to be an immense challenge and so they just dig deeper.

There is nothing more inspiring than that.

All of this made me wonder: if our primary goal as educators is to genuinely inspire our students, how often did I role-model struggle? How often did I allow my students ‘behind the curtain’ to see obstacles I was battling? How often was my determination really on show?

In a way, the Special Olympics are a window into some of the most beautiful and fundamental elements of our humanity. When we’re willing to open our hearts, we see that we share so much in common. And it reminds us that, whilst we each carry the burden of our own personal challenges and battles, we are blessed as a species with an incredible depth of spirit fuelled by determination and hope.

Just a story

Our brain really has two fundamental purposes. First, it is a life-preservation device, finely tuned over millennia to identify threats and opportunities that may harm us or enable us and our species to thrive. Second, it is a story-telling machine. It takes in a tiny fraction of reality through our senses and cobbles it all together in the form of a linear narrative that, for the most part, ‘feels’ real. Without this personalised narrative, our lives would lack any sense of continuity and meaning.

Mostly, this narrative helps us navigate through life productively – which is great. Super helpful. But sometimes, the story we tell ourselves creates a bias or blindness that hinders us.

In one conversation I was having with a teacher last week, I couldn’t help notice the overly-certain way that he was describing different elements within his school: “We tried that but nobody _______“; “Everyone wants _______ to happen but management don’t believe in it”; “I know ______ works in other schools but there’s no way it would work with our staff”.

Now, those statements could be true – although it’s pretty unlikely given how generalised and extreme they are. These are the kind of extreme generalisations that are unhelpful in the workplace. Not only do they belie the complexity of organisational communities but they create a myopic lens that closes down possibilities.

And we’re all guilty of this form of bias – to some extent –  from time to time. So the next time you’re in meeting with “the guy who never _______” or you have to go to and speak to “that lady who always ________“, try to catch yourself, take a breath and remind yourself that this is just a story you’re telling. It might be true. But there’s a chance that you are closing an opportunity to really engage with a new moment.

Mis-take

Sometimes at school, children mess up, they get things wrong. And the way that we, as educators, handle that moment of erring is far more important than many people realise. In that moment, having been caught in the wrong, the stakes are high for the child, their immediate future is uncertain and they experience an elevated emotional state. And, as a result, the educative potential is maximised.

How you, as an educator, respond in this moment and others will have a lasting, cumulative impact on the child. Arguably the most important lesson the child will learn is: how do people with ‘power’ (modelled by teachers) use their power to treat others? Is power to be used to suppress, control and coerce behaviour (punitive discipline)? Or is it possible, even at times of erring, for power to be used to nurture, grow and enliven others?

When we view children through a genuine lens of optimism, hope and goodness, we must choose to view errant behaviour as mistake – literally a mis-take. Children come to school – a world where they are pushed, challenged, excited, and growing – and they give their best take at muddling through it all. Often, their first take is good, great even. But sometimes they make a mis-take.

And through that lens, of a child trying hard to work things out, coming to school with their whole heart and having a go at life, the only truly human response to mis-take is not ‘punishment’, but compassion, kindness and forgiveness. When we take this stance, power is used, not to do something to students (eg detention, suspension), but rather to do something with them (eg help them learn to rebuild damaged relationships and trust).

This type of approach to student behaviour is helping to transform schools in both independent and government settings and high and low socio-economic settings.

This simple word, mistake, has immense power to shift the way we think, talk, and care about the children in our schools.

One in, one out

Have you ever queued up to get into a bar or club that has a one in, one out policy? When a venue reaches capacity, the one in, one out policy is a very simple, effective method of regulating the number of people inside. The only way for a new person to enter is for a current person to leave. The bar never gets overcrowded. Brilliant.

Imagine how different schools and other workplaces would be if they applied a strict one in, one out policy to new programs, initiatives, or procedures. Wouldn’t it be great if the only way for a cool new idea to be adopted was if an equivalent redundancy or inefficiency could be hunted down and deleted.

Not only would our organisation become more refined over time, but the system would never get overcrowded or bloated. Brilliant.

 

Happy genes

How much is our happiness affected by our genes? Are some people just born happier than others?

One of the largest ever studies aiming to help answer this question was published in 2015. It analysed genetic data from over 300,000 people and identified three specific genes associated with subjective levels of happiness. Two genes were also identified that seem to be directly linked to depressive symptoms.

Why does this matter? Well, it does confirm other empirical findings suggesting that there is not a level playing field with regards to happiness. Our genetics undoubtedly play a role in both mental wellness and mental illness. And it is a good reminder that our wellbeing is not entirely within our control.

But whilst we may not be able to choose our genes, researchers like University of California Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky point out that at least 40% of our happiness is due to the choices we make: “happiness, more than anything, is a state of mind, a way of perceiving and approaching ourselves and the world in which we reside.”

There are some factors affecting our happiness that we cannot control. And there are certainly many that we can.

Is busyness lazyness?

The Tebetan term lelo loosely translates into English as ‘laziness’. But lelo is a specific form of laziness which relates to doing idle activities with no concern for virtue. Whilst lelo can refer to lazing around, procrastinating or watching too many YouTube videos instead of pursuing a virtuous life, there is a modern form of lelo that those of us who love our work are more at risk of.

As we become immersed in the working week the number of ‘things to do’ can easily push us beyond our limits. Instead of mindfully choosing how we spend our time, we instead switch to ‘triage-mode’ – frantically trying to manage our inbox and dedicating time to ‘urgent’ and ‘overdue’ tasks. Although this doesn’t really sound like ‘laziness’  it is, in a sense.

In the same way that mindless YouTube videos can take us away from spending our time on rich, meaningful engagement, so too ‘busyness’ at work can disconnect us from that which brings meaning to our lives. We take false comfort in the feeling of ‘getting things done’. Clearing our email can feel like we’re moving life forward –  when in fact it is often just another revolution in an endless cycle. Sometimes it is easier – lazier – just to keep the wheel spinning rather than to step away and reorientate.

Interestingly, the Tebetan word vīrya, meaning ‘diligence’ is seen as the opposite to lelo. When we’re being diligent, we’re working hard in pursuit of our values. When we’re busy, we’re just working hard. That does seem a little lazy.

So if you haven’t already, try to refrain from using the term ‘busy’. Busyness is something to avoid if we can. Let’s keep working hard but let’s aim for diligence instead.

 

 

The Overview Effect

On the 24th December, 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders took one of the most iconic photographs of all time.  The photo, known as Earthrise, depicts our planet rising above the lunar horizon as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon.

Even today, 50 years later, this beautiful photograph is still very moving. In part this is due to the stark composition and contrast. But more than this, Earthrise forces a potent, altered perspective for the viewer. We see our planet for what it really is; a tiny, fragile, lonely blue rock engulfed by the blackness of the cosmos. Former International Space Station astronaut, Nicole Stott, called this perspective “a beautiful reality check of who and where we all are, together in the universe.”

This ‘reality check’ has had a profound effect on many of the astronauts who have witnessed the view of earth from outer space. In fact, space historian, Frank White, coined the term ‘overview effect’ to describe the permanent cognitive shift that many astronauts have reported. The overview effect is characterised by an increased sense of empathy for and connectedness to all other life on earth, and a greater sense of the ‘big picture’.

Back at home, Earthrise contributed to catalysing the modern environmental movement and gave rise to a growing global sense of responsibility to protect our planet.

In all of our lives, from time to time, we experience our own version of the overview effect. Sometimes it’s a major personal event that shakes our lives and other times, perhaps, it’s a conversation with a trusted friend or a random moment of insight. When that happens, we need to be as mindful and grateful as possible in the experience. The gift of perspective is one of the greatest gifts of all.

 

Where are the students?

Do you work in education? Are you involved in any committee or similar body that makes decisions that directly affect students and their experience at school? Are there student representatives on this committee? If not, why not? There may be a very good reason – and that’s fine. If there’s not a very good reason, invite some students to join.

Of course, there are some challenges with having students sit on a normally-adult-only committee. But the upside of partnering with students – particularly on decisions affecting students – is far bigger than any potential downside.

An innovation equation

With the growing emphasis on collaboration and creativity in education, teachers and students around the world are being encouraged to practise and embrace innovation as a foundational future-oriented skill. This is resulting in some wonderful developments in pedagogical approaches, learning environments, and even assessment.

When we truly open ourselves to a philosophy of creativity and innovation, we need to be prepared to accept two realities. One, there will be challenges and obstacles. Walking an unbeaten path is exciting but risky and will, unavoidably, result in us falling over occasionally. Two, innovation by nature is disruptive. And not everyone likes being disrupted.

When we choose to think differently, to ask hard questions, or to offer an alternative solution, there will always be critics who don’t share our vision. These people are often too invested in the ‘old way’ to be open to a ‘new way’  – even when it is clearly better.

On a recent podcast, Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, shared an equation that has helped him prepare for the inevitable response to an innovative idea:

SW2 + WC = MO

(Some will love it, some won’t + who cares? = move on)

Interestingly, many of the most important innovations  (light bulbs, aeroplanes, vaccines, taxis, personal computers, etc) began with an individual or small group being ridiculed for their idea but pursuing it anyway. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to convince detractors that an idea makes sense. Often though, it’s much more effective to rally the people who ‘get it’ and harness their energy to bring your idea to life. Some will love it, some won’t, who cares? move on.

Professional isn’t enough

‘Teaching’ is, really, a word we use to describe a vast collection of tasks and actions which can range from emotional counselling of students through to marketing the school at conferences. Obviously, planning and delivering lessons is part of ‘teaching’ along with: assessment; professional mentorship; student behaviour, wellbeing, performance and mistake management; and much more. It is a complex job with many ‘moving parts’. Some of the tasks are discreet, some are interrelated, some are short-term, others are infinite, some require collaboration, others require deep contemplation.

Unfortunately, in the busyness of an educator’s day, these seperate tasks and actions tend to blur into an overall ‘job’ that we call ‘teaching’. And when we fail to seperate tasks, it is impossible to ask ourselves the question: what would I have to do to perform this task at a world-class level? What would ‘truly remarkable’ look like as I perform this task?

And when we’re not asking those questions, we’re probably not asking the more important question: how do I do this task better and better each time?

Instead, for many teachers, even many good teachers, the standard they hold themselves to is: ‘good enough’. My student reports are good enough. My lesson plan is good enough. My marking and assessment are good enough. “Good enough’ is linked closely to the concept of ‘professionalism’ – minimum expected standards of behaviour and performance.

‘Good enough’ is fine and it’s safe. But ‘good enough’ is the enemy of ‘outstanding’. When we raise the standard of accountability from ‘good enough’ to ‘outstanding’ or ‘exceptional’, we’re raising the stakes. We struggle more, we fail more, we make more noise and get criticised more. But these are the educators who are remembered, who are driving the profession forward and who are really making a difference.

Work-life integration

The concept of ‘work-life balance’ didn’t last very long. It was first used in the 1970s but is starting to die out. In part, this is because mobile communications technology has meant that many of us carry work with us in our pocket – and so geographical detachment from work no longer occurs. But in part, ‘work-life balance’ never really made sense in the first place.

The idea that there is some kind of binary competition between ‘work’ and ‘life’ naively overlooks that fact that, for many of us, our work is a pillar pivotal to our sense of wellbeing and fulfilment in life. Sure, there are other pillars such as family and community that contribute too, but ‘work’, when chosen and aligned with our values adds huge meaning to our lives.

So, perhaps a better term, as promoted by the University of California’s Haas School of Business, is ‘work-life integration‘. As different domains of our lives become more blended, our wellbeing does not depend on a proportional trade-off between domains but rather a synergistic and harmonised integration. We benefit from work-life integration, for example, when our experience and accomplishments in the office make us a more empathic friend. Or when a teacher’s challenges of raising their own young family provide a perspective that amplifies the impact of work with their students.

Work-life integration is not a utopia. There will always be too many things to do and different priorities to juggle. But the more comfortable and cognisant we are of our core values – what really matters to us – the more we can align our work life, family life, community life, and personal life in an integrated way.

Superman’s top character strength

What would you say Superman’s top character strength might be? Bravery? Fairness? Perseverance? I suspect the answer might be a little different actually.

I imagine that when you have the capabilities that Superman has – including the ability to fly, to tilt a planet off its axis, or to outrun a speeding bullet – there may be one particular character strength that you need to draw upon more than all the others. Prudence.

Prudence refers to the ability to make wise, cautious, far-sighted, goal-directed decisions.  Prudence is closely linked to practical wisdom.

Clearly, Superman’s strength and abilities make him Super. But it is much to do with his prudence that makes him a Hero. Superman does not flagrantly or gratuitously deploy his powers. Rather, he is circumspect and judicious and, wherever possible, avoids collateral damage as he fights evil and saves the world.

As we develop reach, impact, and power in our own lives, our strength of prudence becomes increasingly important. It is our prudence that keeps us focussed on meaningful goals and allows us to make decisions aligned with what really matters to us in the long run.

 

[ps ‘Prudence‘ is unrelated in origin from the word ‘Prude‘ – a person who is excessively proper. ‘Prude‘ is, instead, derived from the latin ‘prud’ meaning good, brave or proud.]

Withitness

Teaching, at its best, is both incredibly uplifting and exhausting. The main cause of this uplift and exhaustion is relationships. Great teaching hinges on ‘real’, meaningful connection with students. But each teacher-student relationship, like all meaningful relationships, requires an ongoing investment of emotional and energetic capital.

One of the unique aspects of teaching is that it is, perhaps, the only profession that requires the sustaining of, typically, up to 20 or 30 real-time, simultaneous relationships for a significant proportion of a working day. When you walk into that classroom on Monday morning, there are 25 children looking at you and looking up to you. All of them are your responsibility. Each of them has a need to be directly engaged by you. And if you’re a quality educator, each of these children matter to you deeply.

And so to inspire and educate them, you give your heart and soul to each of these 25 children at the same time. And you do it all day, every day. It’s no wonder teaching is so tiring.

Jacob Kounin was an influential 1970s educational researcher and theorist who coined the term “withitness” (with-it-ness) to describe the ability of top teachers to know what was going on at all times in their classroom. Through remaining connected to each student, withitness enables a teacher to notice subtle signs of understanding or confusion, to respond personally to each student’s needs, and to make students feel almost as if the teacher has eyes in the back if their head. Withitness is still being researched and evaluated today and it might just be the key defining feature that distinguishes outstanding educators from the rest.

If you’re doing teaching well, there is no way to avoid this level of connectedness. Because great teaching is about great relationships, it will always be uplifting, exhausting, and wonderful.

A wellbeing birthday card

I love birthdays – especially other people’s! But I’ve never been able to get excited or seen much value in birthday cards. I’m pretty good at remembering the birthdays of my friends and family but I tend to just write a mundane card or message along the lines of:

Dear Nicky, Happy Birthday! I’m thinking of you today and hope you are having a lovely day. Best wishes for the year ahead, David.

Now, that’s a nice acknowledgement. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure Nicky appreciated me taking the time and energy to write to her. But it doesn’t at all reflect the fact that Nicky’s actual birth day turned out to be a gift to me. Because she was born, my life, via her friendship, is richer, happier and more meaningful.

And so I’m trying a new character strengths-based messaging strategy. I choose one of the 24 VIA character strengths that most stand out for me when I think about the recipient and write a short message describing how I see this strength actioned by them.

This is the birthday message I actually sent to Nicky this year:

On your birthday, I wanted to say thank you for what you bring to our family as a close, dear and trusted friend. One part of your character that I truly value is your modesty / humility. You are so strong and resilient and so capable but it is very much a quiet strength. I know you have been through a lot in your life and you face every challenge with hope because you know that you will be okay. But you never boast or brag about it. You just quietly and purposefully make things happen. I really admire this in you. Thank you again for making our lives happier and richer for having you in them. Have a great year ahead Nic! 

Sure, it took a few more minutes to write – but it’s a few minutes I spent thinking about the best qualities in a friend. Not so bad! And I suspect this is a message that is a lot more meaningful to Nicky too.

Whose birthday is next in your life? Have a go at writing them a strengths card!

[Note: If you are interested in learning more about the science of character, head over to https://www.viacharacter.org/]

Your why

I am yet to meet a quality educator anywhere in the world, who decided to become a teacher for the fame and fortune or because they thought it would be a cruisy way to earn a buck.

Despite the fact that we knew it would be hard work, with long hours, high levels of stress, and relatively low pay and prestige, we chose it anyway. We all had our own different reasons for choosing this work – but we had a reason – a why.

Unfortunately, it is easy for that reason, that why, to get clouded by the day to day stress and needs of the job. And before we know it, we can lose track of it altogether.

When that happens (and it does happen), it’s critical to take time out to reconnect with that deep purpose so that it can drive our goals, decisions and behaviour. Or perhaps it’s time to consider another a different job.

Why so early?

As human and wellbeing science continues to mature, it forces us to ask questions about schooling that are a little bit uncomfortable. One such question is: “Given what we now know about delayed circadian sleep rhythms in adolescents, why do secondary schools still start lessons so early in the morning?

The underlying biochemical processes that drive an altered, later sleep cycle in teenagers have been well established. Whilst different people have different chronotypes which affect our propensity to want to sleep at certain times, the average adolescent doesn’t begin to feel the effects of sleep-inducing hormones until about 10:45pm. Even, if they fall asleep by 11:00pm, many teenagers require 9-10 hours of sleep, which means they shouldn’t be waking until 8 or 9:00am. It would seem ideal then, that school should begin at 10am to facilitate sleep, health and performance.

This is exactly what a recent UK study found. A shift in start time from an 8:30am to 10:00am not only saw grades significantly improve, but rates of absence due to illness halved. It’s hard to imagine what long-term impact these two outcomes might have across a population.

Many other studies have shown similar outcomes. Whilst it is likely that changing technology and social media are contributing to the widespread sleep deprivation we see in senior schoolers, part of the problem is within our control.

So why don’t schools respond to the research and begin lessons later? Because it’s inconvenient. Think of everything that needs to be changed: bus times, sport training, meetings, lunch times, etc…not to mention the impact on parents…it’s a hassle.

Those are all real concerns. And maybe they justify a maintenance of the status quo. Or maybe we need to think more creatively about this problem.

It’s not about interventions

It goes without saying that our wellbeing, moment-to-moment and long-term, depends heavily on our habits. Repetitive, hourly, daily and weekly behavioural patterns not only have consequences for our physical and mental health but they can actually, over time, affect us at a genetic level. The field of epigenetics studies changes in gene expression caused by behavioural and environmental factors.

Our habits, undoubtedly, have a profound effect on our wellbeing.

Sometimes we seek to break or change or adapt habits by intervening. An intervention, by definition, is the process of deliberately interfering with a process in an attempt to alter an outcome. When we find out that a student is bullying other students, we intervene. If we feel we are constantly distracted at work, we can try using a mindfulness meditation as an intervention. Interventions can also have a profound effect on our wellbeing…in the short term.

The thing is, interventions are, conceptually, the opposite of a habit. Interventions interrupt habits. Interventions, by nature, are short-term disruptions. Interventions do not affect us at a genetic level. Mindfulness mediation, for example, has no long-term effect on wellbeing…unless it becomes a habit. (At which point it is no longer an intervention!)

Wellbeing researchers are continuing to identify very interesting and potentially valuable interventions. But these interventions only really matter when they stop being interventions and, instead, transition to long-term behavioural patterns.

Interventions affect our habits. Habits affect our lives.