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…]

No one likes fire alarm tests

They’re annoying, disruptive and always seem a little bit unnecessary.

Until there’s a fire.

And then everyone is suddenly very grateful that the system works as it should. Would it have worked without the tests? Probably.

There are many situations when ‘probably’ is fine. Should I take a coat – it looks like it might rain? Probably. Is it worth getting an extra loaf of bread – in case we run out? Probably. Do you think it’s time to get some sleep? Probably.

And there are times when ‘probably’ isn’t good enough.

He’s unconscious – do you think we should call an ambulance? Probably. Yes. The road is icy, do you think I should slow down a bit? Probably. Yes. My friend / student / colleague / sister seemed to be struggling a bit today – should I check that they are okay? Probably. Yes.

Sometimes, it can seem annoying, disruptive and unnecessary to check in with people around us who appear to be struggling? And surely they’ll be okay without us checking in won’t they? Probably. 

Is probably good enough? Probably Definitely not.

Fires happen.

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.

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.

Time for bed

I love how Debbie Millman, American author, educator, and designer describes sleep as “the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac.”

So true.

And as educators, caught up in the mechanism of schooling, we sometimes overlook how much great teaching relies on creativity. When you see a primary (elementary) school teacher choreographing 25 six-year-olds in a complex learning activity, or when you watch a highly-skilled Literature teacher inspiring 15 year-old kids to revel in the nuance and beauty of Macbeth, or when you get the chance to witness the process involved in world-class lesson planning and classroom aesthetic design, you see genuine, applied creativity.

Furthermore, the intricate, interconnected social system at the core of teaching means that there are infinite, simultaneous, active variables. No lesson, no situation, no interaction is ever the same. Originality and creativity are occupational necessities.

Teaching is as much a creative craft as it is a profession.

Time to go to bed.

Unique perspective

As we mature as an educator, we become better at understanding the lived experience of our students. We start to see patterns and we become more nuanced in our ability to predict and pre-empt. We practise and refine our empathic response and we gain perspective.

Perspective empowers us to see the world through a different lens – through the eyes of our students.

Except, it doesn’t, actually.

When artists first started utilising linear perspective in their paintings in the 15th century, they did so to create an illusion of distance and depth. Perspective in art is a trick of the mind – enabling us to ‘see’ three dimensions on a flat surface.

And when we ‘see’ the world through the eyes of our students, this too is an illusion – a trick of the mind. Whilst we can, and should, try as hard as we can to understand the lives of our students, we are constrained by biological and physical realities. We can never really know what it is like inside their worlds.

However, when we accept this paradox – being obliged to strive for something we can never achieve: true perspective – we invite an enhanced level of respect for the individuality of each of our students and remain more present to their reality.

Each student sees their world through the lens of their unique life journey – their unique perspective. But whilst we can never truly ‘take’ their perspective, and they can never truly ‘share’ it, in classrooms characterised by safety, respect, trust and individualised connection, we can come pretty close. Close enough, that we no longer need tricks of the mind.

The power of not knowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t teach a wall

Sometimes, it can be helpful to talk about ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ as if they are two discrete concepts. Each has its own set of practicable skills, for example.

In reality, of course, they are not distinct. By definition, teaching requires someone to be learning. The only reason you can’t teach a wall is because it cannot learn.

And that’s why the most effective professional development for educators embraces the inherent entwinement of teaching and learning. When we view teaching and learning as two sides of the same coin – when we view education simultaneously through the lens of a teacher and a learner – then we can really begin to finess our classroom craft.

Second serve

With Wimbledon under way again we’re reminded what a graceful, exciting and, at times, quirky sport tennis is.

One of the quirkiest aspects is the serve. You get two serves – two attempts – every time. If you miss the first one, no worries, you get another go. Is there any other mainstream sport in the world where you are allowed to completely mess up, without any form of penalty, and have another try? Golf would be a very different game if you could have another go at hitting that putt you just missed. And soccer would be so much less stressful if you were allowed to freely retake a missed penalty shot.

One of the benefits of a second serve in tennis is that it allows players to push the threshold of possibility with their first serve. Risk is all but eliminated. Players hit the first serve with a physical freedom rarely seen in other sports because there is incentive to: the chance of an ‘ace’. And because there is almost no incentive to hold back. There is no fear of failure.

When we are incentivised to push ourselves to the limit of our abilities and we are freed of any fear of failure, we end up with a recipe for excitement and peak human performance.

I wonder how different our classrooms would feel if students were always allowed a second serve?

Mine, mine, mine

There’s a well understood convention in baseball whereby the fielder who is in the best position to catch a ball that is high in the air yells: “Mine, mine, mine!”. It is a signal to the other fielders to relax because their team mate has taken responsibility for the catch. Mine, mine, mine is an acknowledgement that something important needs to be done and that a single person is taking responsibility.

This protocol also helps mitigate one of the risks of team sport – diffusion of responsibility. There’s nothing worse than the ball landing on the ground between us because I thought you were going to catch it and you thought that I was.

And there’s nothing worse than a student in need slipping between the gap because I thought you were going to catch her and you thought that I was. Unfortunately, it happens in schools – often when we’re so busy trying to do our part for the team that we lose touch with the bigger picture or we lose touch with each other.

We can’t be expected to catch every ball. And it’s certainly not about solely ‘owning’ a problem. That’s what a team is for. But we need to keep our eyes up. And when we are in the best position to do something to support a student in need – to coordinate a response, to provide resources, to refer to an expert, or even just to check in – be loud and clear: mine, mine, mine.

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’?

Words also matter

The children we teach are young ­– new to the world. But they have brains that are running two-million-year-old software.

Long before we had written or even spoken language, our ancestors relied on emotional interaction, eye contact, posture, facial expression, and body language to communicate and to catalyse and sustain our connection to our tribe.

These days, we have written and spoken language to help shape our students’ learning and their educational environment. But our students’ sense of safety, connection, and their emotional, physical and neurological state remain heavily affected by our ancient programming that instinctively scans more primeval forms of communication.

We should be careful, planned and deliberate with our words. They matter.

And so do all the many other forms of communication at our disposal.

Down there from up here

From the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, you get an unforgettable view of New York City. At this height, you gain a perspective that is impossible to imagine at ground level. The overall layout of the city is revealed with design features such as the Manhattan road grid coming into clear view. It is both breathtaking and educational. It helps reconfigure your mental map of the city.

But you can no longer see what’s happening at ground level.

You can guess, you can make assumptions – because you’ve been down there. But you can no longer actually see what it’s really like.

This is, often, the cost of perspective. As we get older or more experienced or move up in the hierarchy, it’s easy to forget or to lose sight of what it’s really like ‘down there’.

As we mature as educators, we undoubtedly gain perspective. But with each passing year, we move further away from the tangible experience of childhood and adolescence. And this is why the only choice we have is to partner with students to codesign the educational experience.

Otherwise, we can easily end up with a lovely view that is divorced from the needs and reality of student life ‘down there’.

Fewer stickers

If you strip back extrinsic motivators (stickers, grades, threats etc) from a learning environment, there is only one way to collectively motivate a class – via a shared sense of purpose.

When students feel meaningfully connected to a common purpose, a pathway to the future is illuminated. And when students can see where you want to take them, and they want to go there too, you don’t need carrots and sticks anymore.

Fewer stickers and more ‘why’ – why does this learning matter?

A brain to challenge

I am currently visiting a school in Philadelphia and I was reminded of an old quote I first discovered years ago. It was published as part of a collection of quotations and adages in 1938 by Mary Pettibone Poole, in Philadelphia.

“To repeat what others have said, requires education;

to challenge it, requires brains.”

Schools have changed a lot in the 89 years since Poole made her remark but much remains the same. Educators must still teach key, foundational knowledge to students – this is the bedrock of wisdom. But the best educators are even more interested in using knowledge as a catalyst to inspire their students to ask interesting and important questions and to solve interesting, meaningful, challenging problems.

This is where really powerful learning begins.

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?

Plan vs Design

If one person asked you to ‘plan’ a party and another asked you to ‘design’ a party, would you consider these two tasks to be identical?

What about the ‘plan’ of your living room versus its ‘design’?

Planning starts with well-understood components and organises them in an efficient and logical way. (We’ll do the party games first and then have the cake at the end.)

Design is different. Design is linked to desire. Design starts with a well-understood intention and harnesses imagination to create something that works to serve the intention. (We want our living room to make people feel calm and relaxed.)

Trainee teachers are taught very early about the value of lesson planning and curriculum planning. It’s important, of course, for lessons to be well-structured and efficient.

But lessons really come to life when they are well planned and well designed. Design works when it optimises human experience.

Here are some lesson design questions:

  • What is the intention of the opening three minutes of the lesson? Is it to energise students, to calm them, to focus them, to nurture a sense of safety? How can I create an experience that achieves this intention?
  • What is the desired emotional state for the main lesson activity? Do I want my students to feel stretched, or grateful, or inspired, or…? How can I create an experience that achieves this desire?
  • How can I create an environment in this lesson in which students feel competent, connected, and autonomous?

Great teaching isn’t based on planning perfect lessons. Rather, it is based on an iterative design process driven by a clear intention that creates powerful learning experiences.

Compliance prize

When a kid ‘gets an A’ on a test, it’s usually because they have complied with expectations. They wrote the answer we wanted them to write. We give them a compliance prize – an ‘A’ – and everyone is happy.

Compliance is easy to measure and easy to produce.

However, what an ‘A’ on a test doesn’t usually indicate is:

  • how much a student has actually learned;
  • how much they have contributed to the learning of others;
  • how able they are to innovate with their new learning; to apply their learning to novel, unexpected situations in adaptive ways.

We still spend a lot of time and energy in schools measuring and rewarding compliance. It seems the ‘real world’ though is increasingly valuing agility of learning, positive impact on others, and disruptive, innovative thinking. These are much harder to measure on a test.

Don’t try harder

In an education system in which ‘grit’ is revered, and ‘perseverance’ is considered a universal human value, there can be a tendency to encourage students to “just keep trying” or to “try harder”.

Now, that’s fine for a while, or when a student clearly is not quite giving their all.

But “try harder” is, literally, the worst piece of advice you can give a student…

…when they are using the wrong technique or are unable to access the right strategy.

Grit and perseverance can become the enemy of achievement

…when we are going about something the wrong way.

And this is where discerning teachers are not afraid to encourage their students to ‘quit’; to reevaluate their approach, to pivot, and to try an alternate pathway.

Instead of ‘try harder’, often our students need to hear: ‘try differently’.

This is safety

There’s a scene in pretty much every horror and thriller film when one of the characters walks slowly towards the darkness, their heart thumping, not knowing what lies around the corner…

This is fear.

I remember a boy that I went to school with who was bullied relentlessly – he didn’t know what was going to happen to him each lunchtime.

This is fear.

I remember a teacher I occasionally had in primary school who was very unpredictable – we never knew what to expect or who he was going to interrogate.

This is fear.

And in the best classrooms, students feel at home and connected. There are no unseen dangers around corners. There are social norms and a group dynamic that nurture certainty. Whatever happens – especially if I show vulnerability, take a risk, or fail – everying is going to be alright.

In these classrooms, students feel a sense of belonging. They know it’s okay to be less than perfect. They feel listened to and cared for. And their performance is optimised.

This is safety.

At least, connect

We talk a lot, in schools, about the impact of the teacher-student relationship on learning. And for good reason. Whether you look at highly energised and engaged classrooms or read the empirical research, strong and positive relationships clearly power-up the learning environment. And when relationships mature over time, and are given the right conditions, we end up with teacher-student interactions that are enriched by forgiveness, integrity, trust, compassion, and hope. This is the foundation for education in its ideal form.

But there are times when this is not possible, when a genuine relationship with a child or a group of students is unable to be established. It may be that you have not had time to build trust yet. Or it may be that the students you are working with are in a difficult mental or social space that precludes them building a genuine relationship with another adult. Or maybe, for some reason, you just don’t ‘click’ with a certain student or group.

In situations like this, there is no rush. Relationships can wait. Maybe a relationship will never develop. And that’s okay. In fact, your students don’t actually need a strong relationship with you to learn effectively.

But they do need to feel connected and they do need to feel safe. Connection and safety are hardwired evolutionary necessities for complex learning.

As hard as we try, we can’t control relationships. But as educators, those two factors – connection and safety – are within our control. They require us to turn up for our students authentically, to listen to them, to see them, to value them.

Sometimes that is all we can do – and sometimes this is everything a child needs.

Best version

There’s a quote in Adam Grant’s excellent book, Originals, that stands out – particularly when read through the eyes of an educator:

“In the deepest sense of the word, a friend is someone who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself, someone who helps you become the best version of yourself.”

This is not just true of friends.

In the deepest sense of the term, a great teacher is someone who sees more potential in their students than their students see in themselves, someone who helps their students become the best version of themselves.

That is our goal.

Which story – achievement or failure?

Of course, as educators, we want our students to achieve. And we want them to push themselves, to strive beyond their current ability, to take risks and to embrace failure as an essential part of learning and of doing anything worthwhile.

But which message is the loudest? Which story are your students hearing? Which do they perceive as more important? Achievement or failure?

Because achievement is easy. You just choose the easy task. When we don’t have to try very hard, we rarely fail.

Types of students

On the one hand, pattern recognition is perhaps the greatest and most finely tuned skill of the human brain. We learn language by identifying specific patterns of sounds repeatedly occurring in similar contexts. The face of a friend or relative easily stands out to us as we scan a crowded room. And within a second of hearing that famous ‘F with a G on top‘ chord, we know we’re about to hear A Hard Day’s Night.

On the other hand, our heavy reliance on pattern recognition also causes problems. Visual illusions, implicit discrimination and racism, the allure of gambling, and conspiracy theories are all perceptual quirks that trace back to our pattern recognition system.

And we need to be particularly careful when we see familiar patterns in a child’s character or behaviour that causes us to perceive them as a certain ‘type’ of kid (sporty, musical, resilient, nerdy, naughty, etc). As tempting as it can be, the moment we begin ‘typing’ students is the moment we start blurring the beauty (and sometimes pain) of their individuality – we start devaluing their unique story.

In a speech in 1923, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, noted that: every individual is an exception to the rule. 

It’s when we take time, as educators, to stand back and really look at the face of each of our students that we know that Jung was right. There are, in fact, no ‘types‘ of students.

What’s the most valuable thing you own?

Your story.

“When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.”

Old African proverb

By the time your children or your students are in high school, they will have clocked up nearly 100,000 waking hours of experience. And by the time we’re 40, we have about a quarter of a million waking hours under our belt.

Somehow our incredible brain has the capability to synthesise thousands and thousands of hours of experience containing millions of unique events and piece it all together into a coherent narrative.

We don’t think about ‘our life’ as a list of sequential events. But rather, we synonymise our life with our story.

So what a shame it is, that in the rush of our modern, campfireless life, we give ourselves such limited opportunity to make sense of and to share our stories.

And I wonder how many of our students feel like they are a secondary character in someone else’s story?

As filmmaker Rick Stevenson, a man who has interviewed over 5,500 kids, says: “There is no higher calling than to help our kids fully understand their stories and to learn how to use them…There is an empowerment that comes when kids realise that they are writing their own biography – in real time.”

With this realisation comes a shift in perspective. When we realise that life is about writing our own story, we are compelled to ask: “What story do I want to write?”

It’s hard to think of two more profound, powerful questions to explore with a child than: “What is your story?” and “What story do you want to write?

But there are wrong ways

Is there a ‘right’ way to teach or to parent children? Is there a ‘right’ way to lead a school or organisation? Is there a ‘right’ way to be a friend or colleague?

No. (Life would be so easy if there was.)

But there are wrong ways. It is wrong to parent with abuse. It is wrong to lead with corruption. It is wrong to manipulate friends and colleagues with fear.

And there are wrong ways to teach. Whilst good and great teachers often have very different styles and commonly embrace their varied idiosyncrasies, there are three things that should never, ever occur in any classroom:

  • Intentional humiliation or shaming of a student. This causes so much harm, including to the embarrassed student, to class cohesion, and to the students’ and parents’ respect of the teacher. This is a lose-lose-lose scenario. It is never justifiable.
  • Giving up on a student. Teachers are trained professionals whose job it is to unconditionally nurture and seek the best in every child. It is particularly at the most difficult times, with the most challenging students, that we must model hope.
  • Speaking badly about one student or one group of students to another. This is a form of disloyalty that is not only entirely unprofessional but will inevitably get back to the original student or group and erode trust and relationships further.

Teaching is a highly demanding profession. We will make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, understandable, and forgivable. But the above are not.

No class

Sometimes educators fall into the trap of viewing their ‘class’ as a unified being. It’s not. There are no ‘good’ classes and ‘bad’ classes. A class actually consists of many entirely unique individuals who tend to be roughly the same age, at the same place, with a similar purpose in mind.

But behind the face of each of these young individuals is a lifetime of stories that we, as educators, can never fully appreciate.

If we use some major Australian and international research studies to help us think about the composition of a ‘class’ statistically, we might recognise that, in the course of the year, a typical ‘class’ of 25 Year 8 students looks something like this:

  • 4 students are experiencing a diagnosable mental health condition (only 1 of these will seek professional help);
  • 2 students are self-harming;
  • 2 students will seriously consider a suicide attempt;
  • 2 students will be experiencing some form of family breakdown at home;
  • 5 students are unsure of their sexuality and 3 will end up being LGBTI;
  • 5 students don’t make friends easily at school;
  • 7 students feel that they “don’t belong at school”.

…and many of our students are happy and engaged.

But it is these kinds of statistics that help remind us that our job is not to teach science or geography or Grade 5, and it’s not to teach our ‘class’. Our job is to compassionately guide, nurture and teach each unique child.

 

[Sources: PISA 2015, Australian Human Rights Commission, Beyond Blue]

They learn from how we are

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”

Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

In classrooms around the world, students are learning, from their teachers’ wisdom, about: science and mathematics and language and the humanities. They’re learning about asking questions and solving problems and creativity and teamwork.

And they are also learning, from the way their teachers are, about: compassion, forgiveness, professionalism, power, caring, integrity, trust, love, and hope.

The way we are in a classroom is at least as important as what we teach.

Fear or love

If you are one of the 100 million people in the world who have already seen the  penultimate episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, you will know that the dragon queen does a pretty good job of crudely summarising human motivation theory. To galvanise the people, she says, there are really only two options: fear or love.

[Spoiler alert!]

She chooses: fear.

Whilst, unlike the dragon queen, educators don’t have fire-breathing dragons, we do have other powerful tools available including: tests, exams, competition, ranking systems, humiliation, shame, punishments, failure, calls home, exclusion, detention, judgment.

Importantly, not all of these are inherently fear-inducing or, even, necessarily unpleasant. There are potential positive benefits from formal assessment, for example. But they can, and often do, leverage fear.

When we use these tools as a form of coercion, to generate compliance or obedience, we weaponise their potential to produce: ‘consequences’. And the mechanism underpinning the use of ‘consequences’ as a motivator, threat or deterrent is: fear.

For an educator, like it was for the dragon queen, fear is a choice.

The other alternative is love. That can be a harder choice – often requiring much greater levels of skill, patience, acceptance, nuance, time, respect, relationship, support, and care.

[Spoiler alert!]

But when we choose love instead, we choose a completely different form of education – one with a very different ending than an education fuelled by fear.

Wait, why am I learning this?

If I walked into a random classroom at your school and asked a random student: “This thing you’re learning right now, why are you learning it?”, would they have a good answer? And what if we disallowed the following answers: “Because it’s on the test.” and “Because my teacher told me to.”? Would the student be able to clearly articulate the underlying value and purpose of the lesson?

Learning driven by a deep sense of real-world meaning and powered by curiosity, hope and intrinsic motivation is so powerful. Yet, there are still many lessons being delivered that are void of this sense of meaning and driven, instead, by some form of external motivator (eg stickers, tokens, money, grades, fear, etc).

The best educators always ensure the ‘why‘ is strong – at the heart of their classroom – even in very young students. The ‘why‘ is the source-code of inspiration and the fuel of long-term passion and perseverance.

The ‘why‘ makes learning matter.

Stuff happens

Life is spelt H.A.S.S.L.E. —Albert Ellis​, psychologist

Life is difficult. — M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist & author

Life is suffering. — Buddha

Shit happens. — Anonymous

In seeking to live a rich, full, and meaningful life, here’s what’s guaranteed: you will regularly experience fear, anger, guilt, frustration, disappointment, and sadness.

A ‘life well-lived’, a ‘flourishing’ life will always be one that comes as a package of positive and negative emotional experience. And that’s because it’s a life full of ‘stuff’ that matters.

(It is, therefore, possible to avoid negative emotional experience all together. Just don’t do anything that matters. Have no meaningful relationships, don’t seek to grow or develop at all, set no goals for yourself, never fall in love, and don’t contribute to your community. Instead, just sit on the sofa and watch reruns of Star Trek for the rest of your life.)

Wellbeing science is not attempting to make us ‘happy’ all the time or to help us avoid negative emotional experience. But it is seeking to provide evidence-based skills, knowledge, and strategies that help us handle the inevitable ups and downs of life more effectively.

A ‘good life’ still sucks at times. But we can learn, from wellbeing and human sciences, to better equip ourselves, family, friends, colleagues, and students for the journey.

First, connect

Students learn best when they feel connected to their teacher. And connection involves feeling seen, heard, and valued.

There is nothing more important to do in the first moments of a lesson than seeing each student, hearing each student and directly acknowledging their worth.

It doesn’t take much time or effort to look each student in the eye, greet them warmly by name, and check in with them.

Whatever else is planned for the lesson comes second.

Risk, failure & flow

The psychological phenomenon known as flow‘ is characterised by complete absorption on a task. When in flow, our attentional awareness becomes entirely focussed on a single action, so much so that:

“Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. All aspects of performance –mental and physical – go through the roof.”

Steven Kotler, Director of Research,  Flow Genome Project

In classrooms, the neurochemical and neurophysiological changes generated by flow states can have a huge impact on creativity, learning and performance. But our students can only be in flow when they are pushed to their limits – or slightly beyond. Working at this threshold, approximately 4% outside of our current capability, is risky – failure is a real possibility.

And this is why schools need to orientate themselves as learning institutions rather than performance institutions. When the explicit goal is to learn, risk and failure are normalised, tolerated, and even celebrated. When the goal is to perform, we foster a natural aversion to risk and failure.

The best educators create classroom environments where students feel safe and embrace risk.

Failing never feels nice. But flow does – and accelerated, exciting learning definitely does.

Self-service

Many schools teach about the value of serving others. Even better, some schools offer well-designed community service programs that enable students to experience, first hand, the sense of meaning and purpose that comes from serving others.
That’s great. But students aren’t silly. They understand that, really, ‘doing well’ at school is about improving their own individual grades and securing individual ‘positions of responsibility’. And they are rewarded for competing individually against and outranking other students.

We’re good at telling students how important it is to serve, nurture and support others. But with the system we currently tolerate, students ultimately ‘succeed’ at school by serving themselves.

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.

Creativity is not a good thing

My colleague was driving, and I was in the passenger seat travelling in the outside lane on a freeway last week when another driver in a large SUV overtook us. That would have been fine, except there was no lane next to us. This very impatient driver squeezed between our car and the roadside barrier at high speed. It was very dangerous but also, by most defintions, very creative.

I had never seen anyone do this before – it was a new method of traffic avoidance. And it was useful. The driver, assuming they survived, got where they wanted to go faster than any other method of driving and certainly faster than us. But it was completely inappropriate and potentially quite harmful.

Like all character strengths, creativity is not inherently good.

Whilst it has the wonderful, unique capacity to unlock and even extend human potential, it has a shadow side. There is even some research linking high levels of creativity to poorer mental health outcomes and elevated disagreeableness, hostility and arrogance.

That said, creativity is a pivotal skill for students and educators to embrace…with care. As schools around the world clamber to understand how to best teach and nurture creativity, we need also to be teaching students when creativity is the wrong tool to use – such as when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere on a freeway!

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.

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.

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.

Rinse, repeat

Teaching has a very distinctive rhythm. Term 1 begins, classes commence, new relationships are formed, everyone is fresh and hopeful and primed. We work through to the middle of the school year, more comfortable now – perhaps a little tired. But our relationships warm just as winter sets in. And then the end draws close, we ramp up again to the crescendo of final projects and exams and reports and then…quiet. Summer.

And then we do it all again.

There is something deeply comforting about predictable rhythms. Nature has embedded a biological clock in our bodies that is synchronised with the sun. The language that we speak is a symphony of pitch and rhythm and it is the recognisable beat of different genres of music that draws us in.

Rhythm is reassuring and hypnotic.

For teachers, the annual rhythm is both a blessing and a curse. There is a defined start and end, we know where we stand. We know where we have been and where we are headed. We can predict the ups and downs. And we know that as we tire, the rejuvenating break is near.

And…we are busy. What worked last year, will probably be fine again this year.  My style, my way, fits the beat. Why fix what isn’t broke. We rinse, repeat. And the years can slip by.

But when, as teachers, we seek first, to embrace and serve the child, each year and each day is unique because each student’s needs are unique. The rhythm of schooling remains, but it becomes a somewhat muted backbeat in contrast to the bright, new melody of each of our students.

This perspective, this unwavering focus on the heart of their students is the reason why some of the most enthusiastic and dynamic educators in the world are in their 4th and 5th decades of teaching. They feel the rhythm but they live and teach for the melody.

 

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”.

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.

You are contagious

One of the key factors that has enabled our success as a species is the human ability to synchronise emotional states with others around us. Within our ancient tribe, if you are experiencing fear, there’s probably something highly dangerous in our environment so I had better be on high alert too. Fear has the capacity to spread unconsciously from person to person within milliseconds. Similarly, amusement, joy, serenity, hope and other positive emotions are also rapidly transmitted to other people.

And it’s not only emotions that are contagious. Studies dating as far back as Charles Darwin’s in the 1870s have found that people naturally have a tendency to mirror a conversation-partner’s speech patterns, body language, and facial expressions. We have a special region of cells in our brain, called mirror neurons, that are responsible for this mimicking process. This synchrony system not only helps create a sense of connectedness but allows us to literally feel what the other person is feeling – the foundation of compassion and empathy.

Unfortunately, because this system is so deeply engrained in our humanity, we can easily forget to harness it as an educational lever. And it is quite a big lever. We know our students’ emotions significantly affect their classroom experience and learning. And we know that emotions of a known and trusted individual, such as a teacher, can have a particularly large contagion effect.

Of all the technology and tools available to us as teachers, the way we influence and modulate our students’ psychological state via our modelling of behaviour and emotion is certainly one of the most subtle and most powerful. And this is why we need to be so mindful of our own state both during a lesson and in the final moments before we enter the classroom.

Warming up

When you turn on the shower and the water takes a minute to warm up before you can get in, that is a total waste of energy and resources.

When you a walk into a classroom and take a few minutes to warm up your students by greeting them enthusiastically or checking how they are feeling or sharing a short story or laugh, that is not at all a waste of energy and resources. In fact, this type of direct investment in relationships and connection at the start of a lesson is common amongst almost all of the great teachers we see.

Great teachers choose to spend this precious time engaging in this way with their students because they realise that the return on investment, in terms or relational and learning outcomes, far outweighs the few minutes initially spent. The best educators literally care first and teach second.

You can have a cold shower, but you can’t teach cold kids.

Will this be on the test?

Will this be on the test?

If you hear this question in your classroom, you know something has gone wrong.

Here are just some of the potential problems associated with this question:

  • It is symptomatic of extrinsic motivation;
  • (Or worse…) It is symptomatic of a teacher using a test to generate compliance;
  • Students are devaluing anything that is not ‘on the test’;
  • Students are valuing test performance over actual learning;
  • (Or worse…) Students feel their teacher or parents are valuing test performance over actual learning;
  • Students are concerned about the consequence of a test score;
  • Students are wasting cognitive and attentional capacity thinking about the test rather than their actual learning;
  • Creativity is suppressed (because most tests reward compliance and memorisation rather than creative, divergent, or innovative thinking);
  • Students are incentivised to provide the ‘right answer’ rather than thinking critically or innovatively;
  • Students are focussed on some arbitrary ‘scoring’ on a test to demonstrate their learning;
  • (Or worse…) The teacher is using a test as the primary measure of student learning;
  • (Or worse still…) The teacher is emphasising test performance because the teacher / school leadership is using student test scores as a primary measure of the teacher’s proficiency, skill, or performance.

But there is one thing even more worrying, than a student asking ‘Will this be on the test?’. And that’s a teacher saying “This will be on the test.”

That’s not at all to say that assessment is bad – quite the opposite. There are many, many effective and valuable ways of formatively and summatively assessing student learning. Some of the best involve students actively constructing or performing or transforming something. And many of these methods involve collaboration and teamwork and ‘open books‘.

But rarely is a ‘test’ the best way to really assess learning. And never is it a good way to motivate students.

How to think like Pooh

As I was walking through an excellent kindergarten in Hong Kong today, it struck me just how much time these very young students have to explore – to play – to think. I watched one 3-year-old boy become completely immersed in a wooden puzzle for an extended period, uninterrupted. In a way, these students are afforded far more autonomy (and trust?!) than many schools give to older students in primary and, in particular, secondary settings.

One of the most common complaints I hear from high-school teachers is how little time they feel they have to ‘get through the curriculum’. Why the rush? Do we really feel, still, as a profession, that this is the best approach to schooling? Why can’t school be about offering students as much time as they would like to solve complex, interesting problems. Why can’t high-school be more like kindergarten?

Even Winnie-The-Pooh with his “very little brain” knows that when we are learning something new we need to “Think it over, think it under.”. We must provide time and space for deep, critical, creative thinking and learning. 

Thinking over and thinking under is such a pivotal, future-oriented skill for students to develop – and far more important than ‘getting through the curriculum’.

What actually is ‘resilience’?

The first use of the term ‘resilience’ to describe humans appeared in the 1830s. Around that same time in history, ‘resilient’ was being used as a technical term in the watchmaking industry, referring to flexible qualities of internal components.

But it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that Norman Garmezy, first began studying human resilience experimentally at the University of Minnesota. Since then, resilience has been a rich, important, and complex field of study in psychology and, more recently, in education.

Although it has been researched extensively, there is still both a lack of consensus as to how to define ‘resilience’ and some general misunderstandings in the wider community.

The most widely accepted current definition of ‘resilience’ comes from the The American Psychological Association (2014): “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress”.

This definition is important because it helps us clarify some of the following:

  • resilience is not about ‘bouncing back’;
  • resilience is not binary (ie. present or absent);
  • resilience exists on a continuum;
  • resilience is not just a trait (it can be a process and / or outcome);
  • resilience is context-dependent (eg. we might be resilient playing sport but less so at work).

We also know that, through experience, we can learn to become more resilient. Not only are there specific, empirically validated skills that can be taught to children and adults, but mistake and adversity are wonderful teachers. That’s why we need to expose students to them regularly.

As our world becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, there are no guarantees anymore – apart from one: our students will need to be resilient. The world is changing fast, and those who have the capacity to adapt well, to survive and to move forward in spite of change will thrive.

Six keys to student happiness

The 2019 World Happiness Report has just been released. This is the 7th annual edition of the report – based on data from the Gallup World Poll.

This year, the top 10 happiest countries are, in order: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. Australia ranks 11th, the UK 15th, USA 19th, the UAE 21st, and China 93rd.

Interestingly, the six key variables used in the report to explain differences in average life evaluations are:

  1. GDP per capita;
  2. social support;
  3. healthy life expectancy;
  4. freedom;
  5. generosity;
  6. absence of corruption.

These variables have been found in the overall research literature to be important in contributing to general differences in evaluations of happiness. All of this makes sense at a population level, but I wonder what the equivalent six key variables would be for student happiness in schools?

Here’s my list:

  1. safety (Do I feel safe at school?)
  2. belongingness (Do I feel like I belong?)
  3. hope (Do I see a bright future and have the ‘will’ and know the ‘way’ to get there?)
  4. autonomy (Do I feel a sense of volition and control over my schooling?)
  5. purposefulness (Do I feel that my learning make sense and that it matters?)
  6. trust (Do I feel that I can trust my peers and teachers, and do I feel trusted?)

There is no World Student Happiness Report. (The PISA Students’ Wellbeing Report is the closest research we have.) But if there was, the above six factors would contribute significantly. These factors are the foundation of a child’s school experience. Nothing matters more.

What went right?

Does this story sound familiar to you?

Jane is in Year 7 at school. She submits her assignment and feels good about the work she has done. But that night, her teacher reads the assignment and is taken aback. The following day, the teacher calls in Jane’s Head of Year, a very experienced educator, and requests a meeting with Jane’s parents. Jane’s parents come in for the meeting with the Head of Year, Jane, her teacher, and two other of Jane’s teachers who have been called in too.

Jane’s teacher welcomes the ‘committee’ that is now present and begins the meeting. “Jane, I think you probably know why we have gathered everyone today.”

Jane quietly nods.

“The piece of work you submitted yesterday is outstanding. It is not perfect, but, as you well know, that doesn’t matter to us at all. What does matter, is that it demonstrates a new level of creativity, insight, and passion that I haven’t seen in your work before. Although you have always worked hard and done very well at school, this is different. It is so important that we diagnose and understand exactly what went right. I know your parents and teachers are so keen to help you continue to realise and nurture your strengths and so we have formed this committee today to investigate your success fully. You need to know that I will be personally writing a report about these developments that will be sent to the principal and permanently recored on your student file. I am so proud to have the privilege of working with you as your teacher. Thank you Jane.”

How different schools would be if ‘feedback’ wasn’t primarily about fixing deficits.

 

The bat and ball

A bat and ball costs $1.10 in total.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

If you instantly produced the answer of: 10 cents, you’d be quite normal (more than 50% of Harvard, MIT and Princeton students respond this way) but completely wrong.

The ‘bat and ball’ problem is one of the ways Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman illustrates how our ‘System 1’ – our rapid, subconscious , intuitive processing mode – can lead to biased or incomplete perception and decision making. Often, System 1 is very helpful in guiding our thinking, but sometimes it leads us astray.

So, have you worked out the correct answer yet? It is, of course: 5 cents. The bat, therefore costs 5 cents plus one dollar ($1.05) which added to the $0.05 cost of the ball gives us the total cost of $1.10.

But that answer, even for highly educated, successful people, doesn’t come easily. And that’s because it requires us to switch on ‘System 2’ – our slow, deliberate, analytical mode. In this mode, we stop thinking automatically and instead use rational, conscious intelligence to really ‘think through’ a problem.

In our classrooms, it is critical that we give space and time to develop our students’ System 2 thinking. Whilst skills such as authentic responding, rapid prototyping, and creative intuition can fuel an exciting classroom dynamic, it is the development of slow, System 2 thinking that allows students to cope with complex problems. In the accelerated, information-heavy world in which our students are growing up, it is only via practice that they can become adept at recognising times when they need to slow down – to really think.

 

The art of living well

In 335 BCE, Arisitotle set up his own school, the Lyceum, in a gymnasium on the outskirts of Athens. It was around this time, in his role as a teacher, that he is famously quoted as saying:

“Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.”

It’s a pretty big statement! And as a father and an educator, personally I’m not entirely sure that my parental role excludes helping my son and daughter to learn to ‘live well’. I hope it is not true of my son and daughter that I “only gave them life”.

That said, it’s a powerful sentiment. In many ways, parents are, often, the foundation of a child’s wellbeing. But teachers play a huge role in shaping, guiding and inspiring the future lives of their students.

That shouldn’t be surprising though. Surely, the most succinct way to describe the fundamental purpose of education is: enabling students to ‘live well’. Isn’t that what schools are for?

The greatest of all

If you look back into human history and pull a list of the greatest teachers of all time, you’ll probably end up with names including:

  • Confucius
  • Socrates
  • Anne Sullivan (teacher of Helen Keller)
  • Maria Montessori (of discovery learning fame)
  • John Locke (philosophy of character first and academics later)
  • Jaime Escalante (known for his work teaching maths to troubled students in Los Angeles.)
  • Albert Einstein
  • Marva Collins
  • Madenjit Singh (educating the poor in Cambodia)

What is it that makes these educators particularly brilliant? Partly, it’s fate. In each of the above cases, there were factors that assembled to create an opportunity for great impact. But it’s much more than that.

Whilst this is a very diverse list of people from different times and cultures, they share two fundamental similarities.

First, all of them were, to some degree, controversial in their time because they saw a different way. They bent rules and harnessed disruption and innovation as a source of energy. And this energy helped light a previously unseeable pathway ahead. Escalante taught ‘unteachable’ kids to succeed. Montessori challenged entrenched norms about teaching and, in the process, revolutionised primary education. Collins opened a ‘school’ for impoverished youth on the second floor of her own Chicago home.

Second, all of these great teachers knew that education, ultimately, is not about literacy and numeracy but, rather, about sculpting the character and lives of their students. They possessed a deep sense of purpose – of wanting to contribute to making the world a better place. And, in all cases, this fuelled heightened emotional engagement and deep passion in their students.

First, innovation & hope. Second, inspiration.

Therein is a lesson for all educators.

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.

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.

Withitness

Teaching, at its best, is both incredibly uplifting and exhausting. The main cause of this uplift and exhaustion is relationships. Great teaching hinges on ‘real’, meaningful connection with students. But each teacher-student relationship, like all meaningful relationships, requires an ongoing investment of emotional and energetic capital.

One of the unique aspects of teaching is that it is, perhaps, the only profession that requires the sustaining of, typically, up to 20 or 30 real-time, simultaneous relationships for a significant proportion of a working day. When you walk into that classroom on Monday morning, there are 25 children looking at you and looking up to you. All of them are your responsibility. Each of them has a need to be directly engaged by you. And if you’re a quality educator, each of these children matter to you deeply.

And so to inspire and educate them, you give your heart and soul to each of these 25 children at the same time. And you do it all day, every day. It’s no wonder teaching is so tiring.

Jacob Kounin was an influential 1970s educational researcher and theorist who coined the term “withitness” (with-it-ness) to describe the ability of top teachers to know what was going on at all times in their classroom. Through remaining connected to each student, withitness enables a teacher to notice subtle signs of understanding or confusion, to respond personally to each student’s needs, and to make students feel almost as if the teacher has eyes in the back if their head. Withitness is still being researched and evaluated today and it might just be the key defining feature that distinguishes outstanding educators from the rest.

If you’re doing teaching well, there is no way to avoid this level of connectedness. Because great teaching is about great relationships, it will always be uplifting, exhausting, and wonderful.

The 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.

Think like a kid

Do you really remember what it was like to be a 6 year old, a 10 year old, a 15 year old at school. Can you remember what that felt like? Do you remember what mattered to you? Can you remember the emotion, the feeling of trying to fit in, to find your place, to grow up? Do you remember what it felt like when you succeeded and when you disappointed yourself, your teacher, your parents? Can you picture where you used to sit in the classroom, and who your friends were? Do you remember the teachers that you never really liked and the ones that you loved and trusted.

Hold on to these thoughts dearly.

These memories, these experiences that you have are the guiding light of a great teacher. One of the real and growing risks as we become a teacher and earn qualifications and start clocking years of service is that we start to think too much like a teacher.

Theories of pedagogy and years of practice and Masters and PhDs and teaching toolkits only really matter if we remember how to think like a kid.

Our work is to shape and inspire the minds of a children. The more we can be with them, in their world, as we plan and execute our craft, the more effective we can be.

Inventing jobs

Fact: many of the jobs that students entering primary school today will be doing in 2030 don’t exist yet. The accelerating impact of technology and automation is both eliminating and creating new types of work. Depending on which study you read, the estimates of 2030 jobs that haven’t been invented yet range from 20% all the way up to 85%. And on current trends, our children of today will likely have multiple careers and continue up-skilling and re-skilling throughout their lives.

Already we’re seeing evidence of shifting work patterns. The 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey shows that 43% of millennials expect to leave their jobs within two years.

So what does all of this mean for today’s educators? Perhaps the most important realisation is that we need to have a much greater emphasis on transferable skill development that enables resilience, flexibility and interconnection. Four key future-oriented skill areas are:

  • Self-efficacy – belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task through hard work, creativity and adaptation;
  • Interpersonal skills – the ability to influence, negotiate, forgive, co-create, and empathise;
  • Ethical decision making – being able to consistently behave in line with one’s core values, even when it’s inconvenient or hard;
  • Critical thinking – actively conceptualising, applying, analysing, synthesising, and/or evaluating information.

This is not a complete list, but all of these will be absolutely critical factors contributing to the future success of our students.

These are skills that need lots of development, scaffolding and practice. But that’s okay – because quality teachers have recognised this and are already deeply embedding these skills into most, if not all, lessons.

Grades, ranking, obedience

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

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

The rider and the elephant

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

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

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

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

Overload antidote

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

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

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

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

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

The human hive mind – be like bees

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

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

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

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

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

Brain birth

You’ve probably heard of neuroplastity, right? Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and reorganise itself throughout our life. Our brain literally changes itself to enable you and me to become better and more efficient at skills we practice. Brain circuits that we use regularly not only ‘wire together’ but, due to a process called myelination, can transmit information up to 100 times faster than standard brain circuits. If you’re not very good at knitting or sudoku or maths or telling jokes, it’s because you haven’t given your brain enough opportunity to adapt. Neuroplasticity is also the process that allows people like Jodie Miller to have half of her brain surgically removed and to recover to live a relatively normal life.

But, do you know about neurogenesis? It was only a few years ago that psychology and biology textbooks were stating that the adult human brain has approximately 100 billion brain cells and you can’t grow any more. Wrong. It turns out that mammals – like us – are constantly growing new brain cells;  particularly in the hippocampus, an area associated with memory and learning.

Ultimately, it is the mechanics of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis that allow us to learn.

It’s also why the phrase: “I’m just not good at _________” doesn’t really make sense scientifically. Instead, we should encourage the phrase: “I’m just not good at _________ yet“. Those three simple letters, y-e-t, encapsulate an understanding of the incredible ability of the human brain to help us become better at whatever we choose to practice.

 

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.

What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

It sounds like a habit worth forming.

Choose gratitude instead

Gratitude is a beautiful concept and one of our most frequently experienced positive emotions. When felt and acknowledged, it has a powerful effect on relationships and on our behaviour. And, because humans are unable to experience two opposite emotions at the same time, it cancels out resentment.

Dr Kerry Howells, from the University of Tasmania, defines gratitude as “the act of acknowledging what we receive from others and being motivated to give back out of this acknowledgement“. In other words, we feel appreciation for a gift, and we feel compelled to act on that appreciation in some way.

It is the second part of Howells’ definition that is the key behavioural component of true gratitude. This compulsion to act fuels a virtuous upward spiral that can significantly amplify the positive impact of the initial kind act or gift. It is this amplification effect that makes gratitude immensely powerful and makes it qualitatively different from simple appreciation. And because gratitude focusses our attention on the gifts we receive from others, it reinforces our sense of interconnection with our community and energises us to connect even further.

As educators, our work is immensely challenging and stressful. Things go wrong and we can always find something or someone to complain about. And, as educators, we have the most wonderful job in the world; shepherding and inspiring the lives of children. Things go right so often and we have so much to be grateful for.

It doesn’t always feel like it, but gratitude is a choice. And the choice we make affects our behaviour, our relationships and our students.

Blueberries for homework

I wonder how often Grade 4 or Year 10 teachers set, for homework, the following: ‘Eat blueberries’. It’s probably pretty uncommon.

It shouldn’t be.

One of the most exciting, emerging areas of educational research, one with potential to significantly impact student learning across the board, is: food.

Research from institutions all over the world is beginning to help us understand, for the first time, the direct impact of different nutrients on cognitive performance. Some of the most interesting findings include:

Folic acid (leafy green vegetables) increased memory and information processing speed Wageningen University, Netherlands
Omega-3 fatty acids (fish) increased brain plasticity, neural efficiency University of California, USA
Anthocyanins (blueberries) increased long-term memory performance Tufts University, USA

But it’s not all good news. It seems that, despite tasting good, processed sugary foods  have a harmful impact on cognitive processing (University of Otago, NZ). And a range of studies have indicated a very concerning link between artificially sweetened foods and early damage to to brain cells and impaired cognitive function.

It’s easy to forget that learning is not a psychological process – it’s a physical one. When we help students learn, we are not just helping them understand ideas, we are literally changing their brains. And the building blocks and scaffolding for all of this brain construction come directly from the food we eat.

This research is still in its infancy, but ultimately, we may well discover that the quality of food students eat long-term, has as much impact on their learning, memory and performance as the quality of teaching they are exposed to.

As wellbeing becomes increasingly prioritised by schools around the world, we need to integrate knowledge, not just from human and psychological sciences, but also from nutritional science. Feeling good and doing good depends on eating well.

What about talent?

Australian rules football is a pretty strange sport – particularly if you haven’t grown up playing or watching it. It requires a range of hand and foot skills that are not very ‘natural’ for humans. Similarly unusual skills are required to play the guitar at a high level or to solve complex theoretical mathematics problems. No one, not a single person, is born with the ability to accurately kick at ‘drop punt’ with a football or play a blues riff on a Stratocaster. Clearly, these skills require practice.

But is it all just about practice? Can anyone do 10,000 hours of practice and then go and play professional football? And what about genetics? What about talent?

Aren’t some people just born better at sport / music / maths than others? Aren’t they more talented than you?

The answer, according to experts in skill development such as Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is: no and yes.

Duckworth defines talent as: the rate at which we improve with practice. It is talent times practice that creates a level of skill.

So, no. No one has ever been born better at football than you. And Jimi Hendrix was no better at playing guitar than you when he was born. But each time he practiced, his talent had a multiplier effect.

Therefore, yes. Hendrix had more guitar talent than you. Buthe still had to do thousands of hours of practice to develop his skill – a level of skill that it may have taken you two or three lifetimes to develop!

Talent is real and it matters. But it is only realised and only really matters when we practice. So really, it’s practice that really matters. Clear?!

And, anyway, we have zero control over our talent but almost total control over our effort and practice. Let’s focus on what we can control. Go practice!

 

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!)

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.