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…]

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 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?

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.

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.

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’.

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.

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.

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.

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]

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 ________?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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’.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

The rock in a VUCA world

In the late 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, the US Army War College began using the acronym VUCA to describe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the world’s geopolitical climate. With the emergence if the 4th Industrial Revolution, there is an even greater sense of personal VUCA as we begin to navigate a world in which biological and digital realms are being blurred.

This sense of VUCA is being felt particularly strongly by many of our students.  To some extent, the period of our lives that we call ‘adolescence’ has always been characterised by VUCA. The emotional volatility, biological uncertainty, social complexity and all-round ambiguity of this life stage create challenges for all of us. This is, in part, why 20% of Australian adolescents are currently living with significant mental health issues.

In the midst of all of this chaos, the impact of a trusted teacher is amplified significantly. This is why the best teachers not only know how to educate and inspire but they appreciate the infinite value of simply ‘being there’ – of turning up time and time again for their students.

Learning should be an adventure, classrooms should be exciting. And when we really get it right, great teaching also provides a foundation of calmness, certainty, simplicity and clarity at the core of a child’s educational experience.

Grades, ranking, obedience

There are multiple negative learning outcomes associated with the use of grades as a motivational tool. Perhaps the most problematic of all is that it encourages students to focus on how well they are doing rather than on what they are doing or why what they are learning matters. When this is combined with some form of ranking system, not only are students focussed on their performance instead of learning, but they are also distracted by trying to beat other students.  Consequently, we get divided attention, increased pressure and erosion of class teamwork, trust, and cohesion.

Sure, grades are an easy and effective way to generate student obedience, but is it really worth all of that downside?

The rider and the elephant

New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of a rider on an elephant to describe the two basic motivational systems in the human brain. The rider represents the rational system – the part that plans, thinks through problems, and weighs potential benefit against cost. The elephant represents the emotional system – the part that enables us to feel, to instinctively respond to the world, and that provides the power for the journey.

When the rider and the elephant are working together, synchronised on their journey, they make great progress. But the elephant is nearly 100 times heavier than the rider, so if there is disagreement or distraction – when push comes to shove…guess who wins?

So often, we spend a disproportionate amount of time finessing the rational element of our lessons, or meetings, or plans and we fail to intelligently and deliberately invest in motivating the elephant.

Teaching and learning is a highly human, highly emotional experience. In our classrooms, in our learning journeys, the rider matters a lot but the elephant matters more.

Overload antidote

In 1971, the Nobel Prize winning, American Political Scientist, Herbert A. Simon wrote: “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”

The students in our schools now are exposed to at least five times the amount of data that most of their teachers were at their age. Unfortunately, humans have a very small, limited attentional capacity, so all of that additional data is being filtered and processed by the same finite resource. It’s no wonder that our students, and we alike, feel overloaded. Our attention, our conscious experience, is being consumed by a tsunami of data.

So, two of the most important skills that we should be allowing our students to learn and practise are: how to allocate attention effectively, and how to sustain attention on what really matters. This is why mindfulness-based meditation is beginning to become an essential part of many teachers’ toolkits.

Mindfulness is about choosing to pay and sustain attention with openness, curiosity, and flexibility. When practiced, mindfulness can be an antidote to overload.

What an incredible advantage we are gifting our students if we empower them with this skill – the ability to sift through the noise and to hone in on what matters. Mindfulness is much, much more than a nice thing to do in schools. It is a must.

The human hive mind – be like bees

Honeybees are a simple animal, capable of making extremely complex decisions. One of the clearest examples is the ability of a group of a few hundred scout bees to fly a recognisance mission, identify a range of possible nesting locations, and then collectively select the most appropriate one. There are many life-dependent variables to consider for their nest including height from the ground, orientation, ventilation, capacity, predator protection, and food sources. Researchers studying this behaviour have found that, working together, the scout bees choose the optimal available nesting site 80% of the time.

This incredible success rate isn’t due to the unique skill of some advanced genius bee or advice from a highly experienced bee nesting consultant. Rather, it is the result of an amplification of intelligence and critical thinking that comes from the unification of many small brains. The collective consciousness of the ‘hive brain’ enables otherwise impossible calculations and allows bees to thrive.

There are a lot of important reasons why we need to foster independence in our students.  Independent learners are are more self-motivated, take more responsibility for their development, show higher levels of grit, are more reflective, and more curious.

But it’s in classrooms that emphasise and nurture interdependence that the real power of the human mind is unlocked. When we are able to shift a student’s mindset from ‘me’ to ‘we’, the positive features of independent learners are multiplied. When a student’s focus shifts outwards, there are measurable changes in biology, neurology and behaviour that benefit the individual and those around them.

Technically, humans are not a hive species, but enabling and harnessing the human ‘hive mind’ is part of the future of education.

Ambulance rules

In pretty much every country around the world, there is a road rule that compels drivers to pull over or move out of the way of an approaching emergency ambulance. There are, usually, very strict penalties for those who fail to comply. But these penalties are almost completely redundant. Why? Well, has this thought ever crossed your mind: ‘Ah, there’s an ambulance coming up behind me with its lights flashing. I’d better pull aside because I fear I might get a $400 fine.’ No. You have never had that thought. You’re not afraid of the penalty. You pull over and follow the road rule because it’s a good rule! You want to follow the rule, regardless of the potential fine. It’s a rule that makes sense. And so we act autonomously, of our own volition to follow the rule.

This sense of volition, of adhering to a regulation, norm, parameter, or rule voluntarily – even when we don’t control the rule itself – is one of the fundamental components of intrinsic human motivation.

Nearly 50 years of research into student motivation has identified that a sense of autonomy is a universal psychological need that has a powerful impact on learning and social outcomes. Importantly, autonomy is not about independence or freedom. In fact, the most effective classroom environments are those that are highly structured and highly autonomous. In other words, great teachers set up tight parameters, and clear values and behavioural expectations. And the students endorse these boundaries with their inherent, ‘natural’ behaviours. They follow the rules because they like them and because they make sense…just like the ambulance rule.

Is it predominantly fear or volition that motivates people in your environment to follow the rules?

Closed circuit

The purpose of closed-circuit television systems (CCTV) is for cameras to record information and send it to one specific location. CCTV is a secure, private system that is the opposite of broadcasting – in which the signal is openly transmitted and anyone can tune in.


You know those rare days, where everything goes right and you are at the top of your game. I had one of those days in 2010. My mother had come to visit the school I was teaching in and, on that day, I was teaching my favourite Year 12 Psychology class. I had done extra preparation for the lesson – I wanted it to go well – and the students were absolutely engaged throughout the lesson and swept-up in the content on ‘evolutionary theories of relationships’. At the end of the lesson, my students left the classroom buzzing and, although I was glad it went well and so happy that my mum had seen me at my best, I kind of wished that I had recorded the lesson. It really was one of my best ever lessons. But no one will ever know. And no other teacher will ever be able to learn from it. (They also won’t be able to learn from all the lessons that didn’t work so well.)

That’s because traditional classroom teaching is closed-circuit.

We are starting to get better, as a profession, at designing more open-circuits. Regular lesson observations, peer-mentoring and ‘walk-throughs’, for example, are commonplace in good schools these days. And some of the most innovative schools are creating safe, transparent, active forums and ‘open-source’ databases; not only encouraging the sharing of best practice, but building it into the heart of the teaching infrastructure.

If we can get it right, this broadcasting of ‘what works’ is a way for us to galvanise our collective resources. It may just be the spark that we need to help ignite an evolution in pedagogy.

What’s in a name?

There is no single word in any language, more important to a child than their name. When a child hears their name, it triggers a unique sequence of activation in their brain that is deeply connected with their core sense of identity. When a child hears their name, they know that someone cares, that they are part of a community, and that they matter.

Learning the names of students is the very first thing a teacher should do. If at all possible, names should be learnt before meeting the students – before the first lesson.

And if you really want to leverage the beneficial effects on relationships and learning, make sure you arrive before your students and warmly greet them by name as they enter the classroom or space. It’s hard to think of a better way to show that you really care about them, the lesson, and their learning.

And as a nice bonus, you might, like teachers in this study, enjoy the 20% increase in engagement and 9% decrease in disruptive behaviour.

It sounds like a habit worth forming.

Authenticity, turning up

‘Authenticity’ is such a buzz word in education. But it’s a concept that is sometimes misunderstood. Being ‘authentic’ isn’t about always speaking what’s on your mind, doing whatever ‘feels right’ in the moment, or compulsively ‘going with your gut’.

Authenticity is about consistency; knowing your values, and allowing them to set an expectation for your behaviour; a kind of ‘behavioural contract’. If kindness, honesty and fairness are what you value, then let people expect that behaviour from you.

As educators, authenticity is about ‘turning up’ for our students and colleagues – even when it’s the last thing we feel like doing. Authenticity is about being absolutely present in that early-evening parent-teacher interview – even when you’d rather be at home with your own family. It’s about standing out in the rain, in the middle of winter, cold, and still giving your all as you coach your middle-school soccer team.

We are professionals. Our students and colleagues expect us to behave professionally. When you turn up, true to your values, time and time again, then you earn the right to be called authentic.

What’s your hook?

One thing that almost all great plays, brilliant speeches or addictive TV series like Mad Men (a current favourite!) have in common is a captivating, attention grabbing, opening ‘hook’. It’s sometimes an image or a scene or a phrase or a line delivered by an actor. This hook inadvertently sucks us in to the content and, often, our entire attentional capacity is so zoomed in that the performance in front of us becomes our reality.

Yet, so few school lessons begin in such a way. Not every lesson needs to be mind-blowing. And a teacher is not a performer on a stage. But every great lesson has a ‘hook’. The opening few minutes of a lesson are so critical in setting up deep learning and focussed attention. In the best classrooms, students quickly become completely immersed in their learning because whatever they are doing immediately feels like it matters and it makes sense. The ability to rapidly cultivate a sense of purpose, a ‘hook’, is right at the core of great teaching.

Our classrooms can be absolutely as captivating as video games and iPhones – but only when we deliberately and skilfully ‘hook in’ our students.

What’s the ‘hook’ in your next lesson or speech?