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.