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…]

Kindness cascade

How many people will you engage with today or tomorrow? 5, 10, 100, more? How many of them are close friends or family members, and how many of them are merely acquaintances?

One study conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada, found that adults over 25 years of age directly interacted with an average of 6.7 close ties and 11.4 acquaintances daily.

Interestingly, not only did the number of interactions with close ties predict wellbeing and belongingness, but even the number of interactions with weaker ties predicted a person’s sense of belonging

The simple act of engaging meaningfully with another human helps us feel connected to our larger community.

So, imagine this.

What would happen if you and each person in your community was just a little bit kinder tomorrow? What would happen if everyone just conducted one additional, simple act of kindness with each of the 18.1 people they interact with tomorrow? What if you just complimented them on the cool shoes they’re wearing or picked up a dropped pen or asked about their recent vacation?

This is what would happen…

In a school or organisation with 100 colleagues, there would be nearly 2,000 additional acts of kindness tomorrow. And if that was maintained over the week – just one simple act of kindness per interaction – we’d have 10,000 additional acts of kindness. And in a school year, we’d have close to half a million extra acts of kindness. Imagine what that could do for the wellbeing of a community…at zero cost.

And here’s the thing. Kindness is highly contagious. When you smile at a friend, colleague or acquaintance tomorrow, when you choose kindness, you might just make their day. Or you might trigger an unstoppable cascade of kindness. Who knows?!

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.

Which in?

Sasha and Jamie are both 15 years old and are in the same class at the same school. They are both aspiring to make a positive difference in their world.

Sasha has never missed a deadline for an assignment. He is the often the first kid to raise his hand to answer a question. He is a straight ‘A’ student. He is highly intelligent and equally compliant – sitting quietly in the front of the class, keeping to himself, and doing exactly what he is asked to do.

Jamie is less obedient and less intelligent. But Jamie is more: incisive, inclusive, innovative, inquisitive, independent, intuitive, and inquiring.

Sasha will go on to win the school’s highest honour – ­‘The Academic Prize’ – and maybe that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong intelligence is there?

But I’m more interested to see the impact Jamie will have. Intelligence is nice, but other intangibles are not always inferior.

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.

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.

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.

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’?

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.

sdgs_poster_936_en

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Literacy literacy

You know that the world is changing when new forms of ‘literacy’ are being described and taught in schools.

‘Literacy’ used to involve students developing the knowledge and skills to read, write and interpret language confidently. But that was back in the days before fake news, credit cards, and Twitter.

Of course, reading and writing are still foundational skills. But there are other ‘literacies’ emerging that may well be equally critical in the future lives of our students. Here are a few of the most important:

  • Digital literacy — skills associated with harnessing computer-based devices and services;
  • Data & Media literacy — being able to access, filter, digest and make meaning of the masses of available data and to leverage different platforms of data consumption and delivery;
  • News literacy — learning to discern between, efficiently evaluate, and effectively respond to different news sources and stories;
  • Financial literacy — being empowered to understand and harness the increasingly complex and personalised financial systems available to us;
  • Wellbeing literacy — having the skills and knowledge to nurture our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of people we care about.

Schools are pretty good, on the whole, at carefully scaffolding the learning of traditional ‘literacy’. They’ve been doing it for a while! And, now, it’s exciting to see that many progressive and responsive schools are turning their attention to tackling the challenge of teaching a new generation of literacies too – to really prepare their students for a changing world.

 

TBE

As new parents, my wife and I often ask ourselves: “What did we used to do with our time before we had kids?!”

Educators might ask the same thing about email: “What did we used to with our time before we had email?!”

I wonder if that’s when intellectual conversations and debates were had between colleagues. I wonder if this is when books were read and letters were penned? I wonder if that’s when teachers worked on their subject knowledge, and designed and wrote their own curriculum? I wonder if this was when teachers were able to occasionally go for a stroll, to relax and refresh?

I grew up with a Mum who was a teacher in the 70s, 80s and 90s. So I know that those times TBE (Teaching Before Email) had their own challenges. And email isn’t all bad – there are so many advantages in us being able to stay connected with each other.

But TBE, there must have been something nice about being able, at the end of the day, to literally, switch off.

Who’s the client?

One of the benefits of being a lawyer is that, for the most part, you know who your client is. It’s pretty clear that the guy paying you to defend him in court is who you are serving at that moment. It’s similar for carpet cleaners, doctors, and taxi drivers.

But it’s a lot less clear-cut for teachers.

Who are teachers serving? Where does our obligation lie? Who are we ultimately accountable to?

In an independent school, the parents are paying for your service. And if they are unimpressed, they will go to a different service provider. Are parents the client?

But in a government school, the taxpayer is paying for the service; are they the client? And are parents now less of a client?

And what about the student; isn’t he or she the client?

Or is it the Head of Department to whom I’m accountable for my performance and ongoing tenure?

Or is my school the client? They appointed me and directly pay me for my service?

And ultimately, does it even matter?

Most of the time, no, it doesn’t. As a teacher, you do your best to educate the child and, in theory, assuming it goes well, all stakeholders are happy.

But at times when the different stakeholders have different priorities, it can get pretty murky.

What happens, for example, when you have you have been teaching a wonderful child who shines when given the chance to work collaboratively to tackle challenging problems, who has a mature capacity to embrace risk and learn from failure, and who, more than any other child you teach, draws on a deep-well of social intelligence to empathise with other individual students and to unite groups towards a common goal…

…What happens when you are instructed to evaluate this child by telling them to sit in silence, to answer the question as the examiner expects, to avoid risk, to collaborate with no one and to try to beat all the other students…?

…What happens when you believe this is not in the best interest of the child’s education?

…And when you decide to follow the instruction you are given and evaluate the child anyway, you may well do it with a completely clear conscience – “it’s the right thing to do”.

…the right thing for who? Who’s the client now?

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.

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.

Our words are our worlds

Language, it seems, is not entirely necessary for conscious thought. We can think about the taste of toothpaste, or the shape of a balloon without needing to access language.

But imagine trying to understand racism or potential or electricity without language.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian philosopher, wrote in 1922 that: “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind.” As we expand our vocabulary, we develop more nuanced ways of understanding the world and of understanding each other.

And this, in part, is why the teaching of wellbeing science to students is so important. When they learn, for example, that “serenity” is one of the most commonly experienced human emotions, or that “prudence” and “zest” are two universal strengths of character, students perceive their world differently. And when have access to the language of “negativity bias” and “emotional contagion” they gain a way to view, process, and talk about their social environment.

There are many significant benefits of placing wellbeing science at the heart of education, but the development of wellbeing literacy throughout a school community may be the most transformational element of all.

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.

10 interesting facts about education

Here are 10 interesting facts that you probably didn’t know about education.

  1. There is a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), 69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030.
  2. In many developing countries, people with just one additional year of schooling earn 10% higher wages.
  3. Globally, there are around 60 million primary school-age children not enrolled in school. About half of them will never enter school.
  4. Approximately 500 million women and 250 million men remain illiterate. Andorra, Finland, and Norway all have 100% literacy rates whilst South Sudan has just 27%.
  5. The King’s School in Kent, England is the oldest continuously operating school in the world. It was founded in 597 AD.
  6. The average age of teachers in Singapore is 36 years. In Italy, it’s 49
    years.
  7. The City Montessori School in the Indian city of Lucknow is the world’s largest school. CMS has approximately 52,000 K-12 students spread across 18 campuses.
  8. Many schools in Brazil begin their academic day at 7am.
  9. Russian primary school students spend approximately 470 hours in the classroom during the school year which is about half the hours that US and Australian primary students spend in school.
  10. Although no one really knows exactly, most estimates suggest that there are somewhere between 4 and 6 million schools in the world.

Schools are still there, for now

If you hadn’t noticed, the purpose of school – from a student’s perspective – has changed radically in the last twenty years. Kids used to have to go to school to find out stuff. However, somewhere between 2002 and 2004, Google became the most widely used search engine on the planet, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to discover information.

By 2010, there were already more than 3 million articles on Wikipedia offering a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to learn information.

In November 2005, the first YouTube video to reach 1 million views was online and by July 2006, more than 65,000 new videos were being uploaded every day, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to learn skills and share information.

And by the middle of 2009, Facebook had 300 million users, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to meet, hang out, and communicate.

Remember when every town had a video-rental store, photo-finishing shop, newspaper stand, record store, a couple of public phones, and a few schools? At least the schools are still there, for now.

Complex but organised

My cutlery drawer is not very well organised, but it works fine. That’s because it’s a simple system. Schools and organisations are not. They are highly complex. And they can work well too. But they need to be better organised than a cutlery drawer.

The key to effectively and efficiently managing and levering a complex system is ensuring that it is very well organised. In a highly organised school, there is a shared vision and direction, people know their role, they know the protocols, they know how and with whom to communicate, they know where to get help, they know what to do when things go wrong and when things go right.

All schools are complex but only the best really understand, emphasise, and prioritise coherent organisation.

 

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.

Teaching is a horrible job…

As a teacher you have to spend a big chunk of your life looking after other people’s children for them. It’s mind-numbing talking to immature 8-year olds and surly teenagers all day. Ugh!

And you’re constantly having to switch between different tasks all the time – in 45 minute blocks. And you have to try to convince kids who don’t really want to be there that your subject has some relevance – even though their world is so different to the one you grew up in.

And it’s hardly real work – a lot of the time it’s just entertaining and playing with children – unlike the serious work that other people do like finance and law.

And even if you have a good year, the students leave anyway and you have nothing to show for your work.

Teaching is a horrible job.

…if you don’t love it.

But if you do love it…

You get to spend your day surrounded by a youthful, hopeful energy that only children, with their whole life ahead of them, can bring. This energy is contagious and is a constant reminder of the unaffected beauty that sits at the heart of all humans. Wow.

And there’s an amazing variety in the work – from high-level strategic planning, to working out how to connect with and support traumatised young people. Each day, each lesson is unique because each child has unique needs and each class beings unique challenges.

And it pushes you to your limits. There is no other profession that requires the sustaining of 25 real-time, simultaneous relationships for an hour at a time. Every child matters and every interaction with every child matters. No wonder it’s one of the most challenging professions on the planet. And it’s unbelievably fun – being paid to inspire kids!

And, at the end of the day, teachers are stewarding the lives of other humans – our next generation of leaders and parents and lawyers and teachers. Even when things aren’t going great, you are making a positive difference to the lives of children and the future.

Teaching is the most wonderful job in the world…if you love it.

What do your meetings cost?

Face to face meetings continue to play an important role in the functioning and optimising of a school. There are certainly benefits of meetings but there are also significant costs associated.

So, how effective are your meetings? Do you know how much they actually cost? Many leaders don’t really think about it, but meetings in schools are a big investment.

For example, if you have 100 teachers meeting for an hour, not only does that meeting cost 100 hours of time – the equivalent of two and a half weeks of work for one person – but it costs the school the equivalent of close to AUD$5,000 in wages (100 x $48.14*).

There are many ways a school could spend 100 work-hours and $5,000. And maybe a whole-staff meeting justifies the cost. But it’s certainly worth carefully considering other options.

Here are a few questions that might help reduce the cost of meetings:

  • Does everyone need to be there at the same time in the same place?
  • If the meeting is about sharing information, is a meeting the most effective and efficient way to do that?
  • If the meeting is to make a decision, does everyone who is invited really need to be there to make that decision?
  • Is there a very clear agenda and purpose?
  • Can the meeting end as soon as the purpose is achieved or the decision is made?
  • Could the meeting be 12 minutes shorter (that could free up the equivalent of $1,000 in salaries and two and half days of work time)?

Ultimately, there is no replacement for a really good meeting; they can be incredibly valuable, inspiring, and worthwhile. But we need to work hard to make them so. They’re expensive.

 

*48.14 is the approximate average hourly rate for Australian teachers.

Behind every face

If you had to distill and identify just two, simple guiding principles that underpin the most successful school corporate cultures, it may well be these:

  1. Continuously expect the highest standards of integrity, authenticity and professionalism from yourself and your colleagues.
  2. Be compassionate. Behind the face of every one of your colleagues, is a personal struggle that you will never fully understand. The struggles of some are bigger than others’, but we all have them. Whilst we aim to be at our best at all times, because we are human, we cannot be.

Successful cultures don’t rely on us being at our best – all the time. They rely on us turning up and doing our best – all the time – despite our struggles.

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.

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”.

17.9 billion reasons

Mind if we do a few sums? Let’s start with some statistics.

  • In Australia, there are approximately 180 school days in a year.
  • The average salary for a school teacher is approximately AUD$65,000 ($68,000 for high school and $63,000 for primary).
  • There are approximately 276,000 teachers (full-time-equivalent) in about 9,480 schools (primary and secondary).

So here we go with the maths…

On average:

  • Each school has 29 teachers (276,000 teachers ÷ 9,480 schools = 29)
  • A teacher’s daily salary is $361 ($65,000 ÷ 180 working days)
  • Each school pays $10,469 per day in salaries (29 teachers x $361 daily rate)

interesting…but wait for this…

Overall, Australian schools spend a tick under 100 million dollars per day on salaries alone! Check the sums: 276,000 x 361 = $99,636,000. Then you multiply that number by 180 teaching days and we get the annual figure of $17,934,480,000. Yep, that’s 17.9 billion dollars on teacher salaries. And that includes neither the money spent by schools on normal operations, such as maintenance, construction, supplies, energy; nor related peripheral costs such as money spent on fuel driving kids to school.

The total number is hard to calculate but the annual amount spent on the Australian school system may well come close to the country’s total yearly military expenditure of around $35 billion (which is the 13th highest in the world).

So what? Why does this matter?

Well, if, as a country, we’re going to spend somewhere in the vicinity of $20-30 billion a year on a system, it better be good. If we’re going to all this effort of bringing together five million people (teachers, students, support staff) across 9,480 schools every day, it better be a damn good system.

And this is the reason why we have to continue to ask hard questions. This is the reason why it’s not okay to simply accept the status quo. This is the reason why we must be courageous in challenging broken parts of the system. This is the reason why we cannot tolerate any teaching that is not highly professional, prepared, engaged, focussed, and enthusiastic.

This is reason why we have to remain curious and always open to the possibility that there is a better way.

Why professional development often fails

Depending on which study you read, somewhere between 40% and 90% of our typical daily behaviours are based on the automatic routines that we call habits. The cue of getting into my car, for example, triggers a whole sequence of automatic behaviours that occur without any conscious thought at all. Literally before I know it, my seatbelt is on, the mirror and seat are adjusted, the car is started and I’m in reverse.

The huge upside of habits is that they free up our limited conscious attentional capacity to focus on other more important, complex or novel stimuli. The downside of habits is that they are very resistant to change. Just ask anyone who’s tried and failed to alter their diet or begin a new fitness regime or give up smoking.

Creating any significant, long-term behavioural change requires creating a new habit. And this is exactly the intended purpose of professional development (PD) in schools. We are trying to facilitate a shift in behavioural patterns of educators to enable, for example, more effective responses to student mistakes, or more efficient student feedback.

But here’s the thing, changing a habit requires three key elements: first – motivation to make a change, second – a sense of agency or empowerment, and third – repeated reinforcement of the new behaviour. Too often, unfortunately, PD is designed to educate rather than empower. New knowledge from a PD session is irrelevant if I don’t feel motivated or empowered to enact it. And when I don’t enact it, there is no benefit or reinforcement. So I end up learning new stuff that has zero behavioural impact. Sound familiar?

So when considering attending a PD, conference or training, view it through the lens of habits. Is this PD likely to inspire a change in my behaviour? Will I feel empowered to make that change? And will I have the capacity to repeatedly enact the new behaviour and experience some form of reward or benefit as a consequence?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then there are probably better ways to spend your time and money.

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.

Get outside the jar

I was reading Steven Kotler’s book, Stealing Fire¸ recently and I loved an old bit of “southern folk wisdom” quoted that says:

“you can’t read the label while you’re sitting inside the jar.”

This is why coaching and other intentional reflection strategies are increasingly being embedded into performance development plans in some of the most innovative schools in Australia and internationally. These kind of processes enable us to gain such an important perspective and view of ourselves as professionals.

If you don’t have a deliberate, regular, meaningful ‘feedforward’ process that enables you to ‘get outside the jar’, it’s unlikely that you are growing as an educator. And if your professional skills aren’t growing, they’re either stalling or dying.

Think big, act small, learn fast

One of the major challenges we face as we attempt to innovate in education is that the impact of innovation is so hard to measure. Not only are we working with complex humans in a hugely complex system but educational, wellbeing, and developmental outcomes are sensitive to an immeasurable number of inputs and variables.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of trying to collect an excessive amount of data in order to capture a comprehensive ‘picture’. This is a flawed approach for two reasons. First, we end up drowning in huge swathes of data that tell too many stories. And second, it is impossible to capture the full picture anyway. There will always be variables that we have failed to consider or are impossible to measure, control or eliminate.

Here’s what schools that are really harnessing effective innovation are doing:

  1. Clearly identify the specific change you would like to see.
  2. Choose a simple, discrete, well-defined outcome to measure.
  3. Identify a tool that effectively measures this outcome.
  4. Conduct targeted, meaningful experiments.
  5. Measure the impact.
  6. Learn.

Innovation is the result of insight gained from action. When we’re strategic, targeted and patient, rather than instinctive, sweeping and reactive, then we really have the chance to powerfully and confidently innovate.

Think big, act small, learn fast.

Just a story

Our brain really has two fundamental purposes. First, it is a life-preservation device, finely tuned over millennia to identify threats and opportunities that may harm us or enable us and our species to thrive. Second, it is a story-telling machine. It takes in a tiny fraction of reality through our senses and cobbles it all together in the form of a linear narrative that, for the most part, ‘feels’ real. Without this personalised narrative, our lives would lack any sense of continuity and meaning.

Mostly, this narrative helps us navigate through life productively – which is great. Super helpful. But sometimes, the story we tell ourselves creates a bias or blindness that hinders us.

In one conversation I was having with a teacher last week, I couldn’t help notice the overly-certain way that he was describing different elements within his school: “We tried that but nobody _______“; “Everyone wants _______ to happen but management don’t believe in it”; “I know ______ works in other schools but there’s no way it would work with our staff”.

Now, those statements could be true – although it’s pretty unlikely given how generalised and extreme they are. These are the kind of extreme generalisations that are unhelpful in the workplace. Not only do they belie the complexity of organisational communities but they create a myopic lens that closes down possibilities.

And we’re all guilty of this form of bias – to some extent –  from time to time. So the next time you’re in meeting with “the guy who never _______” or you have to go to and speak to “that lady who always ________“, try to catch yourself, take a breath and remind yourself that this is just a story you’re telling. It might be true. But there’s a chance that you are closing an opportunity to really engage with a new moment.

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.

Is busyness lazyness?

The Tebetan term lelo loosely translates into English as ‘laziness’. But lelo is a specific form of laziness which relates to doing idle activities with no concern for virtue. Whilst lelo can refer to lazing around, procrastinating or watching too many YouTube videos instead of pursuing a virtuous life, there is a modern form of lelo that those of us who love our work are more at risk of.

As we become immersed in the working week the number of ‘things to do’ can easily push us beyond our limits. Instead of mindfully choosing how we spend our time, we instead switch to ‘triage-mode’ – frantically trying to manage our inbox and dedicating time to ‘urgent’ and ‘overdue’ tasks. Although this doesn’t really sound like ‘laziness’  it is, in a sense.

In the same way that mindless YouTube videos can take us away from spending our time on rich, meaningful engagement, so too ‘busyness’ at work can disconnect us from that which brings meaning to our lives. We take false comfort in the feeling of ‘getting things done’. Clearing our email can feel like we’re moving life forward –  when in fact it is often just another revolution in an endless cycle. Sometimes it is easier – lazier – just to keep the wheel spinning rather than to step away and reorientate.

Interestingly, the Tebetan word vīrya, meaning ‘diligence’ is seen as the opposite to lelo. When we’re being diligent, we’re working hard in pursuit of our values. When we’re busy, we’re just working hard. That does seem a little lazy.

So if you haven’t already, try to refrain from using the term ‘busy’. Busyness is something to avoid if we can. Let’s keep working hard but let’s aim for diligence instead.

 

 

Where are the students?

Do you work in education? Are you involved in any committee or similar body that makes decisions that directly affect students and their experience at school? Are there student representatives on this committee? If not, why not? There may be a very good reason – and that’s fine. If there’s not a very good reason, invite some students to join.

Of course, there are some challenges with having students sit on a normally-adult-only committee. But the upside of partnering with students – particularly on decisions affecting students – is far bigger than any potential downside.

Why so early?

As human and wellbeing science continues to mature, it forces us to ask questions about schooling that are a little bit uncomfortable. One such question is: “Given what we now know about delayed circadian sleep rhythms in adolescents, why do secondary schools still start lessons so early in the morning?

The underlying biochemical processes that drive an altered, later sleep cycle in teenagers have been well established. Whilst different people have different chronotypes which affect our propensity to want to sleep at certain times, the average adolescent doesn’t begin to feel the effects of sleep-inducing hormones until about 10:45pm. Even, if they fall asleep by 11:00pm, many teenagers require 9-10 hours of sleep, which means they shouldn’t be waking until 8 or 9:00am. It would seem ideal then, that school should begin at 10am to facilitate sleep, health and performance.

This is exactly what a recent UK study found. A shift in start time from an 8:30am to 10:00am not only saw grades significantly improve, but rates of absence due to illness halved. It’s hard to imagine what long-term impact these two outcomes might have across a population.

Many other studies have shown similar outcomes. Whilst it is likely that changing technology and social media are contributing to the widespread sleep deprivation we see in senior schoolers, part of the problem is within our control.

So why don’t schools respond to the research and begin lessons later? Because it’s inconvenient. Think of everything that needs to be changed: bus times, sport training, meetings, lunch times, etc…not to mention the impact on parents…it’s a hassle.

Those are all real concerns. And maybe they justify a maintenance of the status quo. Or maybe we need to think more creatively about this problem.

The power of externalities

The primary outcome of beekeeping is the production of delicious honey. One side effect of beekeeping is that surrounding crops get pollinated which increases the yield for crop farmers. The beekeeper receives no direct income from the healthier, higher value crops but the whole community is better off because of the bees.

In economic terms, this phenomenon is referred to as a positive externality.

We see externalities occur in almost all interconnected systems. In schools, a student’s experience in Lesson 1 with Teacher A can have a huge impact on that student’s approach to Lesson 2 with Teacher B. When Lesson 1 is full of positive emotion, engagement, meaningful connection, achievement and purpose, students walk into Lesson 2 with an optimised psychology and a neurology primed for learning.

There are also negative externalities – such as when pollution emitted by a factory spoils the surrounding environment or when Teacher A allows negativity, disengagement, or disempowerment to fester in Lesson 1. In this case, Lesson 2 feels very, very different for Teacher B and the students.

This is a big part of the reason why wellbeing needs to be placed at the heart of a school or organisation for it to really transform a culture. The more of the community that embrace and ‘live’ wellbeing, the more likely we are to experience the dynamic upward spiral of wellbeing that positive externalities can power.

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.

Otherwise, schools will die

At the 2019 World Government Summit in Dubai last week, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist, delivered an enlightening and sobering prediction about the future impact of Artificial Intelligence.

“I really do not see any specific human skill that, given enough data, machines will be unable to learn…We have a brain, it’s a very, very good brain and it operates beautifully. But whatever that brain does there is going to be machinery that is going to match it and exceed it.”

This impending future is only decades away. And so it is critical that schools, leaders and educators act now to reconsider core educational priorities. Schools will only remain relevant if they can evolve to provide a platform focussed on the development of complex, creative, adaptable, and deeply human skills.

Stand out…or not

The education ‘system’ is engrained and rigid. When, as an educator, you choose an unconventional strategy or challenge the status quo or disrupt the system in some way, there is only one guarantee – you will be judged.

When Paul Richards,  Superintendent of the American School of Dubai, decided to (successfully!) abandon email as a form of internal communication, he was judged. It’s brilliant, and it worked, but there were (mis)judgements made. When Salman Khan launched and popularised Khan Academy, he created a new paradigm of mass education – and he was criticised and judged.

In every school, there are leaders and teachers who are willing to ask brave, challenging questions, to think differently, to push boundaries. It is these educators who are gradually edging us towards an exciting new horizon. And in each case, there is someone eager to criticise them.

Whether you’re a Year 8 kid or an experienced teacher, it takes courage to stand up, to stand out. But there’s always an easy alternative. Sit down, fit in and say nothing.

Hard to get and hard to lose

For the most-part, applying for and being offered a job at a good school is a very challenging process to go through. It’s really hard to get these jobs. But in most schools it’s also really hard to lose your job. You really have to be significantly underperforming and/or behave very unprofessionally.

Teaching jobs are hard to get and easy to keep.

The problem with this setup, particularly in education, is that it’s very difficult – even for highly experienced interviewees – to really predict the future success of an applicant from an interview process. Even if the process involves a lesson observation, the situation is so contrived that the evidence provided can range from truly insightful to completely misleading. So, we don’t always make the best decision and it’s often a decision we’re stuck with.

But what would happen if we reversed the system. What would happen if it was easy to get a job but hard to keep? What if the system was set up to reward real-world performance rather than interview technique?

Of course, this would require a radical rethinking of the educator recruitment process. But it can be done. Many innovative organisations such as Automattic (the people behind WordPress.com) already use ‘job auditioning’ in which all final-stage candidates actually work for the company for 3-8 weeks.

Until we see this level of innovation in education, there are some really exciting data-driven tools beginning to emerge, such as Gallup’s teacher talent selection tool, that can help us make better decisions.

Educator recruitment is part of the education system that has to change soon, that we can change. Choosing the right people to guide the lives of our children is just far too important to leave to a couple of interviews and ‘gut feel’.

Plan C

For a long time, educational research has focussed on trying to understand and distil what outstanding educators do. Whilst there is certainly some merit in this approach, ultimately it is much more important for us to learn how outstanding educators think.

That’s because each situation, each class, each lesson is different. There is no single prescribable way to do things. It’s one of the beautiful things about teaching – and one of the reasons why teaching itself is a craft and not a science.

One of the common characteristics of the best leaders in any field, and certainly in education, is the ability to adapt successfully to unique situations by integrating intuition, reason and imagination to develop a contextualised, unique solution. When faced with a challenge or choice, instead of simply being able to consider Option A and Option B and choose the better one, outstanding educators have the ability to think differently. They can innovate in real-time to create an Option C – an option that contains elements of Options A and B but is superior to both.

Roger Martin describes this skill as ‘opposable mind’. It is a skill that can be practiced and developed. When we are able to see an Option C, experience, norms, status quo, and traditions become not constraints but, rather, sources of unimaginable possibility.

Breathe in

You know that wonderful feeling you get when you watch someone do something amazing or when you hear an incredible story and you feel moved to act or change in some way. We use the word ‘inspired’ to describe that emotion.

The origin of this word traces back to the Latin spirare, meaning “to breathe”. To feel inspired is, literally, to breathe in.

When we inspire others, we open their minds and their hearts and allow them to breathe in new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new possibilities. There is no greater gift an educator or a parent or a friend can give than to inspire others to grow in ways they never before imagined.

This is the goal of education.

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.

Hope was the only thing left

You know the story of Pandora’s Box, right?

Zeus, the Greek god of sky and thunder, gave Pandora a box that she was forbidden to open. The box contained all human blessings and all human curses. Temptation overcame restraint, and Pandora opened the box. 

But are you familiar with the way the story ends?

In a moment, all the curses were released into the world, and all the blessings escaped and were lost – except one – hope. Without hope, mortals can not endure.

Hope alone is still found among the people.

Without hope, humans can not survive. ‘Hope’ refers to the human capacity to envisage a brighter future; a future worth living for.

Hope consists of two components: will – the motivation to reach a goal; and way – knowledge of how to achieve a future goal.

Wellbeing and educational science are evolving rapidly and there is so much that we are learning. But one thing, that we have known for millennia, remains unchanged: hope is the cornerstone of our wellbeing and our humanity.

Before anything else, our role as educators, colleagues, and friends is to help foster a sense of hope in those we care about. When we have the will and the way, we have a reason to learn, a reason to love, a reason to live.

Open book

What would happen, do you think, if we really rethought the whole testing and exam thing in schools. Let’s say we keep exams, but update them to allow us to assess, not memory recall, but the skills we really value today. What if these exams posed hard, challenging problems that, like real-world problems, don’t necessarily have a ‘right’ answer. What if these questions forced students to use critical thinking and complex analysis, to take a moral stance, or to come up with an innovative ‘solution’. (Obviously, we would delete multiple-choice style questions along the way.)

And then, what would happen if all tests, all exams were ‘open book’. Students would be allowed to access their own notes and the accumulated wisdom of others. Perhaps, in these new exams, students could take a concept from YouTube (yes, internet access!) being presented by Stephen Hawking and then evolve his thinking to create a new, applied solution to a new problem.

What if students could connect with other students, share real-time developments, prototyping of solutions and even learn from each other’s mistakes. And what if we could assess the process, the ability of students to really ‘think’ under pressure, to conceptualise a future solution, to collaborate, cooperate and enhance the work of others as they collectively strive towards solving a hard problem using ’21st century skills’ that have been honed throughout their schooling.

Much of the above is already being trialled and researched in innovative schools around the world. There are significant obstacles to overcome, including political and budgetary hurdles, but this future is possible. The University of Queensland even has a very cool Assessment Ideas Factory for educators, designed to share and promote innovative assessment.

But then again, it’s probably easier to just lock students in a room, take their phones away, sit them in silence for two hours and encourage them to try to beat each other at ‘remembering’ the answers. (And multiple-choice exams are so much easier to grade!)

I’m one year older – level me up!

You may not have heard of the concept of ‘social promotion’. But it describes what my three-year old son is about to experience in the Australian school system.

He will enter kindergarten and then primary school at the same age as everyone else in his cohort – regardless of his abilities. And then, he will then go through 12 successive years of promotion into the next Year level – regardless of his abilities.

Of course there are rare outliers, students who leap Year levels or who are ‘kept down’ to support their development. But assuming nothing extreme happens in his learning trajectory, he can’t move up a level before he turns a year older, even if he has mastered all the intended learning outcomes of his current level. He just has to wait until he has sat in class for a year. And conversely, even if he doesn’t master all the intended learning outcomes, he will be promoted anyway.

Does it seem a little weird that skill and content mastery have relatively little to do with ‘levelling-up’ at school? Is it a little bit strange that, pretty much, the only criteria for ‘levelling-up’ at school is: another birthday.

Is this just another case of convenience dictating strategy? Or a kind of perverse-ageism? Or is there really some rationale here? There are certainly alternatives – such as ‘merit promotion’ – the philosophy that we see at tertiary-level education (and in pretty much every other context of life). Couldn’t we just wait until kids achieve the stipulated level of competency and then send them onto the next level?

We could…but according to key research in this area, there are significant risks including: increased school drop-out, little evidence of long term academic benefit, and increased rates of mental disorders, drug-use, and teenage pregnancy.

Although merit or competency based promotion seems logical in many ways, it interferes with the age-based, social stability of traditional cohorts. Moving through school with the same group of kids of the same age has inherent social-emotional benefits that are linked to healthy, natural development.

While, certainly, some of the mechanics of the classical school system need to change, we need to be very careful not to interfere with what is working.

 

Less ‘potential’ please

One of the most misused, unhelpful and possibly damaging words in education is: “potential”.

Common phrases that we hear educators using include:

  1. “Jane hasn’t reached her potential.”
  2. “Jack is wasting his potential.”
  3. “You have a lot of potential Zara.”
  4. “Tomo, you have the potential to get into _______ if you work hard enough.”

Here are some of the problems with the above phrases:

  1. How could you possibly know what Jane’s potential, her maximum upper limit, is?
  2. Potential isn’t something Jack can ‘waste’. Even if the concept of a child having an immovable level of maximum skill made sense, it’s not something he can ‘waste’. He can certainly choose not to pursue his skill development but surely his ‘potential’ is the same regardless of whether he chooses to pursue it or not.
  3. Every healthy child has a lot of opportunity to grow and develop. But what Zara often hears when we talk about her potential is: “They don’t think I’m good enough.”
  4. First, see Problem #1 above. Second, encouraging growth through hard work is a good approach. But it’s misleading to suggest to a child that hard work is the only relevant variable.

And here’s the weirdest, most ironic thing about the concept of human ‘potential’…

Possibly the worst thing you could ever say to a student is: “Sam, you have reached your potential. You have no capacity to learn any more. You’ve maxed out. I’m sorry.”

Your damned if you don’t reach your ‘potential’ and damned if you do!

A bottle of water has a potential capacity of 500ml. We fill it up, put the lid on, and that’s it. No more water can go in. As hard as we try, we can never fit 600ml in. Even if we practise and practise! That’s because it has a knowable, unchangeable upper limit: a potential.

A child, a human does not.

 

What’s the best teaching style?

The world would be a a little bit less interesting if we all liked the same music. A colleague recently attended a heavy metal music festival – and loved it. That’s strange – to me. I love music and have listened to enough heavy metal to know that I just don’t get it. In fact, the more I listen to it, the less I think I like it.

Human preference is a very complex thing. Undoubtedly, our experience and personal history influence the food we like, the art we enjoy and where we like to go on holiday. But, increasingly, we’re finding that personality and even genetics also play a role in everything from our like or dislike for bitter coffee to our temperature preference.

This is why there is no one specific style of teaching that is best. When I had the opportunity to interview some of the world’s best teachers for a writing project in 2011, there were certainly some consistencies between them all such as their unwavering sense of their own values and a their deep personal investment in knowing each student. But these world-class educators were all very different in style – some radically so. In fact, it was often their comfort with their idiosyncrasies that made them stand out.

There is certainly good and bad teaching, but there is no inherently good or bad style of teaching.

If anyone ever criticises your teaching style or suggests you need to do things differently – they might be right – we need to remain open to feedback – but they might be wrong. They might just have a different preference. And if they’re the type of person who likes heavy metal – don’t listen to anything they say! 😉

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?

Tactics vs Strategy

In the 5th century BC, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War:

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”

Unfortunately, many schools are still too focussed on wellbeing ‘tactics’ and actions and interventions and activities and curriculum without having a proper, long-term, coherent strategy in place. It’s certainly understandable. We see some cool mindfulness activities or hear a talk about a new student-led purpose initiative and we want to share it, straight away, with our own students or colleagues.

Strategy is less visible, and often less fun and more arduous. But without one, even the best tactic will be a firework that goes off with a bang and then fades.

Do the hard work first. Spend time and energy articulating a rigorous, comprehensive, informed, wellbeing strategy. Map it across five years. And even if it’s not really ‘seen’ much, it will be the foundation from which whole-school wellbeing can really evolve.

Noise-cancelling schoolphones

If you haven’t tried active, noise-cancelling headphones before, you’re missing out on quite an amazing experience. These headphones have the ability to create a peaceful quiet – even amidst the din of a bustling city, a busy office, or an aeroplane cabin. Consequently, they eradicate much of the distracting environmental stimuli that steals the currency of our consciousness – our attention. And when used effectively, these headphones can facilitate a much deeper, more focused, and more sustained attention.

If only there was a version of this technology that could assist with cancelling some of the noise of schools. It’s not just the sound they would need to subdue, but also the plethora of other distractions that make schools feel always-busy, sometimes-chaotic, and rarely peaceful.

When you ask educators, anywhere in the world, what they most want for their students, you get the same answers: wellbeing, happiness, meaningful engagement with life and learning. But it’s so easy to lose focus on these absolute foundational elements when surrounded by cacophony of distractions that are ever-present in schools.

All of the genuinely world-class educators that we see around the world, share a number of similar skills; one of which, is the ability to cut through the noise – to constantly focus their energy on what really matters.

Put those headphones on.