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.