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.

Careful, not too far

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

How to destroy a culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.