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.

Licking the spoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

The carrots are cooked!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s around you?

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

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

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

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

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

The power of not knowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?