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.

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.

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 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’?

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.]

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.

Rethinking carrots and sticks

In the 1950s, B. F. Skinner developed an approach to understanding behaviour that became known as ‘behaviourism’. Skinner theorised that human behaviour is the result of the consequence of previous behaviour. If a behaviour leads to punishment or a negative outcome, we are unlikely to repeat it. If a behaviour is rewarded, we are likely to repeat it. Thus, human and animal behaviour, can be controlled and shaped via reward and punishment.

60 years later, some schools are continuing to adopt behaviourist approaches to managing student behaviour. Programs such as PBIS attempt to selectively reward ‘positive’ actions in an attempt to extrinsically reinforce certain behaviours. And, not surprisingly, research shows that they work…if your goal is to coerce certain observable behaviours. Feeding a dog a bone when it fetches a ball will cause a dog to fetch another ball.

The main problem with approaches that focus on observable behaviour is that they force people to focus overly on observable behaviour! Behaviourism is all about what can be seen and measured and it disregards underlying motives, values and character. Unfortunately, countless studies have shown that wellbeing, happiness, community cohesion and long-term prosocial behaviour are directly linked to motives, values and character.

And to make matters worse, dozens of studies have found that intrinsic motivation is undermined and eroded by extrinsic reward. When we ‘pay’ students to be kind or forgiving or courageous, they are actually less likely to be so in the future – especially if the payment is no longer offered.

This is why Positive Education takes a different route. It’s a harder, longer route that focusses on nurturing character, engagement, relationships, meaning, and caring – not because there is some extrinsic reward waiting, but for their own sake. When these virtues become embedded in the hearts and minds of our students, you don’t need carrots and sticks so much anymore.

Who are you?

In Aristotle’s best known work, Nicomachean Ethics, he suggests that our behaviour is not directed by our character, but rather the sum of our behaviour defines our character: “these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”. In other words, we are what we regularly do. If you repeatedly act with kindness, you are considered by others to be a kind person. If you are regularly a little loose with the truth, you are a dishonest person.

Similarly, the lens on character within Positive Psychology is focussed on lived behaviours. Character does not reside within us, it is demonstrated by us. These patterns of behaviour are habitual, and like any habit, they can be changed or reinforced.

As an educator, colleague, friend, partner, how do you repeatedly behave? What is it that you tend to do every day, every time?

Ultimately, this is who you are.