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.

Motion is not an option

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perms and parachute pants

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

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

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

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

To change or not to change?

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

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

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

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

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

SDGs – the true purpose of education

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Slow food approach to change

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

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

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