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…]

Professional non-development?

It’s always felt a bit strange to me that schools would designate a particular timeslot and location for a Professional Development (PD) ‘session‘.

So, when we are not in this ‘session’, what is it that we are doing – if not developing professionally?

I wonder what would happen if we could transition from a concept of traditional PD ‘sessions‘ to ‘ongoing‘ or ‘permanent‘ PD? Would this help us shift to seeing ourselves as constantly growing, learning and developing?

Maybe.

But perhaps we’re too busy for this? Easier, probably, to just keep professional development contained in its little ‘session‘.

All good ends must come to a thing

When we invest our time in experiencing a story, presentation, or lesson we have the right to expect some return on that investment. Sometimes, it can be satisfying enough to savour the ride and to be immersed in a wave of emotional or cogntive experience.

But really good lessons are those that change us. They take us on a journey that has us arrive at the destination a slightly different person – affected – perhaps with new insight, enhanced empathy, or a shifted perspective.

And the best lessons end with a unique gift – a tangible shift in behaviour. Not only do we think differently, but we are nudged along a newly-illuminated path.

I attended two brilliant conference presentations on the weekend. One made me eat differently today. The other caused me to make three phone calls – two to family members and one to an old friend.

This is the thing we call impact. It is the mark of great teaching and the broadest goal of education.

Motion is not an option

The celebrated management consultant, Peter Drucker, once described by BusinessWeek magazine as “the man who invented management”, rightly had a lot to say about growth and development.

But one of his clearest and most poignant messages was this: ‘Don’t confuse motion with progress’.

Schools are busy places. And in amongst all the organisational and relational ‘noise’, and sometimes-vague performance criteria, even the most experienced educators are at risk of conflating efficiency with effectiveness; motion with progress.

This is why clearly agreed goals and professional accountability are so pivotal. By marking a bearing and checking in regularly we have the best chance of moving forward systematically.

The lazy, wishful alternative is to cross our fingers, set off and hope that things work out. And it might. Or we might spin our wheels, go around in circles, or worse, go backwards.

There will, of course, be occasional detours and bumps in the road to navigate. But as educators, with such precious cargo on board, progress isn’t just the preferred option. It’s the only option.

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?

Stand there shining

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
― Anne Lamott

Students learn so much from the way a respected teacher goes about their life as an educator. Of course, we need to keep our eyes open for any signs that a student might need overt support. But in living well, in role-modelling wellbeing, we help define and create a culture that illuminates a pathway forward for our students.

Their wellbeing is directly affected by our wellbeing. There will be cloudy and foggy days when we’re not quite as bright, but it is our obligation to shine.

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’.

Giving and receiving

Teaching is absolutely a profession of giving. We give our time, we give our energy, we give attention, we give advice and guidance, we give compassion, we give support.

All of this giving is why teaching is so tiring. Teachers, at the end of a long week or a semester or a year often feel, literally, exhausted. It feels like there is nothing left to give.

But, to our students, even when we feel exhausted, we continue to give hope, we give purpose, and we give love. And in the giving of hope, purpose, and love, we receive in return, a deep, profound sense of meaning in our lives.

That’s why we keep bouncing back up and doing it all again.

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.

Twice as good

The best educators are so because they are students of their craft. No one is born a great teacher. Like all complex crafts, it takes thousands of hours of practice and years of experience to hone world-class teaching practice.

Great teachers are constantly seeking to sharpen their skills. They know they can continue to improve and so they work hard to become 5 or 10% better each year.

And when you ask one of these top teachers: “Is it possible for you to, one day, be twice as good as you are now?”, they invariably say ‘Yes’. And even more interestingly, they can describe what this would look like.

They have already envisaged this reality.

This future reality is the source-code of innovation in education.

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.

Passion, suffering

For many educators, teaching is much more than a job – it’s a vocation. So often, we hear committed educators referencing the ‘passion’ they have for working with kids and guiding young lives.

Of course, passion should be embraced. It is a powerful intrinsic motivator that is connected into our brain’s doperminergic reward system. It feels wonderful when we are able to successfully pursue our passion. And when our passion is coupled, not to money or other extrinsic goal, but to our ‘why’ – our sense of purpose – then it is doubly rewarding.

…And because of this, we need to be very careful with our passions. The 12th century latin origin of the word ‘passion’ is “passio” – which literally means “suffering”. Passions, like any dopamine-inducing substance or activity, can become obsessive and can easily cause harm to ourselves, to others, or to our relationships – if we don’t keep them in check.

So if you are passionate about education, perhaps think of that as both a delightful blessing and a potential curse.

At least, connect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Effort counts twice

How much, if anything, does innate genetically-endowed talent contribute to a child’s musical or mathematical or sports achievement? Or is it all just down to hard work and effort?

The talent versus effort debate has been raging in academic circles for at least 300 years. And it is still a very-much alive discussion in schools around the world.

But perhaps it should end now.

University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela Duckworth, summarises hundreds of reseach studies into human performance and ability in these simple equations:

Talent x Effort = Skill

Skill Effort = Achievement

So, talent counts but effort counts twice.

(And given that we have 0% control over talent and 100% control over effort, it doesn’t seem like ‘talent’ should get much, if any, airtime in schools, does it?!)

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.

Literacy literacy

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

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

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

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

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

 

TBE

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

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

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

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

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

Iteration is a choice

A typical classroom educator will deliver between 800 and 1,000 hours of teaching in a year. That might equate to around 1,000 lessons. Whilst each of these 1,000 lessons is unique, it is also relatively similar in many ways, to all the others. The structurally repetitive nature of teaching  provides a wonderful opportunity – more than in many professions – for iteration.

The English word ‘iteration’ derives from the latin ‘itemum’ – meaning ‘again’. Doing something again and again is the foundation of skill development.

However, I type on my computer keyboard for a couple of hours everyday and I’m not getting any better. I still make the same number of mistakes. This is because repetition doesn’t guarantee iteration.

Iteration is enabled when we do something repetitively and we have a specific focus on improvement towards a goal and we learn from the previous trial.

As a classroom educator, iteration is a choice. The alternative is stagnation or, worse, decay.

Obligation or opportunity

Is a one-hour commute to work an obligation or an opportunity? What about coaching a school sport team? What about supervising students in the playground? What about a visit to the dentist? What about writing student reports or marking papers? What about parent meetings or annual performance reviews? Obligation or opportunity?

There are some people who are brilliant at acknowledging an obligation and immediately seeing the latent opportunities. ‘A one-hour commute is a great chance to listen to my favourite podcasts or to call a friend.’ ‘Supervising students in the playground gives me a chance to develop my relationships with them in a situation where they are more open and relaxed.’

And there are others who practise seeing only the obligation.

Every obligation has opportunity hidden inside. Sometimes we need to go looking a little harder to find it. But when we do, the opportunity starts to make the obligation feel less obligatory.

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]

Who’s the client?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And ultimately, does it even matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one-percenters add up

There is a very unusual type of statistic kept in professional Australian Rules Football called a ‘one-percenter‘. A one-percenter is a statistic that recognises an action by a player that entails just a little more effort or courage than normal.

An example of a one-percenter is when a player chases the ball-carrying opposition player over an extended distance. Even if the player is unable to catch or tackle the ball-carrier, the added pressure applied because of the chase is deemed valuable. These one-percenters, in themselves, often have very little apparent impact on the game, in fact they can easily go unnoticed, but collectively they can change the result.

The best educators tend to make an artform of one-percenters. The next chance you have to see an outstanding teacher in action, try to see beyond their content expertise and refined pedagogy and you might observe things like:

  • their ability to subtly shift the energy in the room;
  • an almost imperceptible nod of gratitude to a child who has again helped another student;
  • a well-timed, self-deprecating joke to defuse anxiety;
  • an extraordinary level of organisation, readiness, adaptability and withitness;
  • an enhanced ability to ‘think like a student’, to empathise, and to inspire;
  • an absolute present-mindedness, the sense that there is nothing more important than this lesson, this child, this moment.

In football and in teaching, it’s true that, sometimes, it’s the ‘big’ moments that matter – the great goals, the amazing lesson. But ultimately, the most respected and valued footballers and teachers are the ones who turn up authentically again and again, and really commit to the one-percenters.

Is that an interesting and important question?

There was a time, not long ago, when ‘knowing the correct answer’ was the pinnacle of education. Information was stored in encyclopaedias or in your head – and so there was a premium placed on memory recall.

The world has changed. Education is changing.

Our students’ future success will depend less on reciting what they know and more on asking what they don’t know.

Whilst creativity and innovation begin with a foundation of knowledge, their life-source is curiosity. The ability to solve interesting and important problems begins with the skill of asking interesting and important questions.

So it’s critical that educators consider how effectively their students are learning this skill? How often are they practising it? How much lesson time is dedicated to this skill? How is it being assessed and how is feedback being provided on this skill?

All, it would seem, very interesting and important questions.

____________________________________________

PS Here is a little sample of interesting questions students are exploring in a school I visited recently:

    • Why don’t you do the things you know you should be doing?
    • What don’t you know about ________?
    • If you weren’t scared, what would you do?
    • Is it possible that what you know about _______ is wrong?
    • What would happen if we ________?
    • Is it possible that there’s another way to ________?

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.

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.

A hand on my shoulder

At one of the most pivotal points in my schooling, when I was a 14 year old boy struggling through a low point in my life, there was a teacher who knew me and knew the challenges I was facing. At one point, about half way through a lesson, when the whole class was working busily, he must have sensed that I wasn’t at my best. He walked over, put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said to me: “It’s going to be okay.”

It was a tiny gesture of support, empathy, compassion, understanding, and connection. It was layered with wisdom, kindness and hope. It renewed my confidence, made me smile, and became etched in my memory.

This was not an ‘intervention’. It wasn’t a tool or a strategy or a ‘coaching’ technique. It’s just part of what great teachers do day in and day out as they lift up their students.

RPM

The rate of spin on a ball that a golfer hits off a tee affects the distance the ball travels. Lower spin rates mean greater distance. Professional golfers hit a ball off a tee with about 2680 RPM (revolutions per minute). I hit the ball off a tee with about 3300 RPM. But I’m getting better.

I enjoy going to the golf simulator which allows me to hit a real ball into a screen – surrounded by sensors that measure the direction and spin of the ball. The incredible level of accuracy and instantaneous nature of the feedback allow me to continuously tweak and improve my swing. I’m getting measurably better, hour by hour.

Imagine if we could apply similar technology to teaching. Imagine if we could harness cutting-edge human-awareness and biometric technology to measure student engagement and to parse classroom language in real time. Imagine if a teacher could slightly tweak their methodology and get instant feedback on the effect on student engagement and learning. Imagine if, for example, as teachers experiment with different ways to ask questions, they could get accurate, live data on average student RPM (responses per minute).

Imagine if even experienced teachers were getting measurably better, lesson by lesson.

Whilst there are ethical issues still to resolve, this future is coming.

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!

10 interesting facts about education

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

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

Teaching is a horrible job…

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

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

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

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

Teaching is a horrible job.

…if you don’t love it.

But if you do love it…

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

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

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

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

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

What do your meetings cost?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Behind every face

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

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

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

You might be wrong

Here’s a little quiz:

1. What’s your earliest memory?

2. Approximately how old were you at the time?

My guess is that your answer to both of those questions is wrong.

There is now a significant body of evidence that we are forming memories in our mother’s womb from about 30 weeks after conception. Your first memories were laid down well before you were born. And, in fact, many of your most powerful, enduring, and important memories were formed in your first two years of life.

In your first months, you memorised a hugely complex set of sensory, cognitive and muscular interactions that enabled you to walk (a feat that even the most sophisticated robots in the world struggle with), and to memorise thousands of sequences of sounds to enable you to talk. You permanently memorised the incredibly subtle adjustments in facial expressions of adults around you that helped you interpret human emotions. You created memories that would help protect your life into your future – memories associated with danger, fear, and pain.

And these memories formed without any conscious effort or awareness. Psychologists refer to these unconscious recordings as implicit memories.

Implicit memories never stop being formed. In fact, our implicit memory store is, in a sense, far bigger and more influential than our explicit memory store – memories that we can consciously recall.

Sometimes I hear people say that they hardly remember anything they were taught at school. This, again, is entirely wrong.

Sure, at school, we learn (and forget) lists of capital cities or how to work out the area of a circle. But we also form indelible memories that will shape our life.

From our peers and our teachers we learn what kindness and unkindness feels like, we learn trust and forgiveness, we learn the value of truth and when to lie, we learn compassion and the impact of selfishness, we come to know failure and hope, we learn how power can be used to control, coerce or enliven others. And, if we’re lucky, we begin to learn love, and we ‘learn ourselves’.

None of these memories will ever be forgotten.

So if you thought of school mostly as a place where kids go to learn explicit skills and knowledge…sorry, you were wrong again.

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.

Emotion vs Emotion

You know when you’re angry and someone or something makes you laugh – and you no longer feel angry anymore? This is the psychological phenomenon known as reciprocal inhibition.

In essence, it is impossible for a human to feel two opposing emotions at the same time. For example, we can’t feel admiration and disgust at the same time; or compassion and hostility; or interest and boredom. In each of these cases, one emotion dominates and, in doing so, represses the other.

This is, in part, why Dr Kerry Howells‘ work on gratitude in education is so important. When we cultivate a deep sense of gratitude, it forces us out of our own heads. When we feel gratitude, we experience a world that is not ‘about me’ but rather, about the gifts we receive from others. And so – instead of being affected by our own fear or guilt or grudges or worries – gratitude opens our hearts and minds – it allows us to transcend ourselves.

Gratitude isn’t just a nice emotion we feel on a ‘good’ day – it’s a strategy that causes us to educate differently. And because we all have so much to be thankful for, gratitude is a choice…even on a ‘bad’ day.

…especially on a ‘bad’ day.

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.

Teaching from the middle

Having had the opportunity to interview, work with and meet some of the world’s best teachers, one of the most striking similarities is just how average they are – or to be more precise, how balanced they are.

Great teaching is not about leveraging extreme talent or skill. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Great teaching is about developing access to a broad spectrum of capacities, strengths, and character and prudently choosing the right point on the spectrum to mindfully guide in-the-moment decision making and behaviour.

In the same way that the best chefs add a little sweetness to sour ingredients to create a beautifully balanced dish, the best teachers balance the following:

  • confidence and humility;
  • planning and action;
  • assertiveness and letting go;
  • excitement and serenity (calmness);
  • fostering achievement and allowing failure;
  • providing support and nurturing independence.

The ancient Greek temple of Apollo bore the inscription ‘Meden Agan’ – meaning ‘Nothing in excess’. The Greeks knew that a virtuous life, a good and happy life was one characterised by moderation and balance. Great teachers know this too.

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 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.

 

Best practice is not

‘Best practice’ is a very common phrase in education and also one that doesn’t really make sense. Here are just a few of the problems with this concept:

  1. ‘Best practice’? Says who?
  2. ‘Best practice’? Do you mean there is no alternative that might sometimes, occasionally be better?
  3. Does ‘best practice’ mean that every teacher should be doing it? If so, does it just become normal practice? (ie. Is it ‘best practice’ to stop at a red traffic light?)
  4. ‘Best practice’ can encourage complacency. In an evolving field like education, if we rest on our ‘best practice’ laurels, how will we know when the practice has become obsolete?
  5. If we just keep doing the same ‘best practice’ we risk devaluing innovation. Why would I try something new or different in my classroom if there is a known ‘best’ way to do things. ‘Best-practice’ is an enemy of creativity.
  6. Just because a practice works for one teacher or one school, doesn’t mean it will work for others. The only feature shared by every single school is: uniqueness.

Whilst we should stop using the term ‘best practice’ (try ‘effective practice’ instead), it certainly does not mean we should be ignoring excellence demonstrated by our peers or examples of successful methodologies. Of course, we need to be constantly seeking to learn from others and to refine our practice. But we need to do so through a critical lens and with a view to innovation and adaptation rather than laziness or compliance.

 

Homemade

When you buy a cake from the shop and serve it to your guests, it tastes nice, they like it, and you’ve saved time and effort. But you’ve learned nothing about baking.

Many teachers lean heavily on materials and structures built and determined by others. It’s just easier that way.

But when you get the chance to see a lesson being taught by a teacher who has carefully designed, orchestrated, and crafted a student experience from the ground up – with their own stamp on every part if it – you see something different. Not only do you see a teacher who is more deeply invested in the lesson but you see a teacher who is really learning. The real-time student response provides rich and meaningful data that allows a teacher to not only refine their pedagogy, but also to become a better lesson architect.

Great teaching is as much about preparation and design as it is about delivery.

When you start baking for the first time, you make mistakes and you learn. But soon enough, you are able to bake a homemade cake that tastes better than anything you can buy in a shop.

 

 

7 steps to great teaching

It’s no wonder that many educators are ever-hopeful of a silver bullet – an overarching education theory that’s going to make things simpler and cleaner. It’s natural to go looking for something to simplify the complexity and noise of classroom teaching.

I was having a conversation about this with my friend and mentor, John Hendry, who was recently awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his services to education. I joked that, in the pursuit of being as professional and methodical as possible, it’s almost as if some teachers want a 7-step plan to becoming a great teacher.

This was John’s response:

“Let me tell you about the seven steps I always took…they were the last 7 steps before I got to any classroom door – when I would gather myself and acknowledge how grateful I was for the privilege of helping guide the lives of my students. 

You never know exactly what lies behind that door other than the guarantee that it will be different to anything you’ve experienced before and that it will be wonderful.”

Teaching isn’t a science, it’s a craft. And it’s that endless uniqueness and sense of wonder that are the canvas and paint for great teachers.

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.

How to destroy a culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three components of trust

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” 
― George MacDonald, Scottish author and poet

Every educator knows the importance of trust. Trust is the foundation upon which relationships are built – and relationships are the foundation of teaching and learning.

All good teachers have an intuitive sense of how to develop trust in the classroom, which is great. But the problem is, when we rely only on intuition, there’s a chance that we’re missing opportunities to develop and leverage trust more effectively.

Referencing decades of psychological research,  The Trust Project at Northwestern University, in Illinois has identified three dimensions of trust: competence, honesty, and benevolence.

Competence relates to the perception of a person being able to do a job – to teach the Year 8 Science curriculum, for example. Honesty relates to the perception that the teacher keeps their promises and is authentic. Benevolence relates to the belief that the teacher genuinely has the students’ best interests at heart.

When any one of these components is overemphasised at the expense of another, trust is  harmed. I’m sure we can all think of educators who are so desperate to prove their level of competence that they fail to be fully open and honest about their limitations.

There’s no shortcut to building real trust – it takes time. But it is a simple recipe:

  1. Be competent. Prepare, plan, work harder than your students.
  2. Be honest. Make promises and keep them. Be consistent. Be professional.
  3. Be benevolent. Care. And let students know you care. Keep an open heart.

And listen to your intuition. Not always, but often – it will guide you towards a constructive balance of the three components of trust.

Get outside the jar

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

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

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

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

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.

An innovation equation

With the growing emphasis on collaboration and creativity in education, teachers and students around the world are being encouraged to practise and embrace innovation as a foundational future-oriented skill. This is resulting in some wonderful developments in pedagogical approaches, learning environments, and even assessment.

When we truly open ourselves to a philosophy of creativity and innovation, we need to be prepared to accept two realities. One, there will be challenges and obstacles. Walking an unbeaten path is exciting but risky and will, unavoidably, result in us falling over occasionally. Two, innovation by nature is disruptive. And not everyone likes being disrupted.

When we choose to think differently, to ask hard questions, or to offer an alternative solution, there will always be critics who don’t share our vision. These people are often too invested in the ‘old way’ to be open to a ‘new way’  – even when it is clearly better.

On a recent podcast, Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, shared an equation that has helped him prepare for the inevitable response to an innovative idea:

SW2 + WC = MO

(Some will love it, some won’t + who cares? = move on)

Interestingly, many of the most important innovations  (light bulbs, aeroplanes, vaccines, taxis, personal computers, etc) began with an individual or small group being ridiculed for their idea but pursuing it anyway. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to convince detractors that an idea makes sense. Often though, it’s much more effective to rally the people who ‘get it’ and harness their energy to bring your idea to life. Some will love it, some won’t, who cares? move on.

Professional isn’t enough

‘Teaching’ is, really, a word we use to describe a vast collection of tasks and actions which can range from emotional counselling of students through to marketing the school at conferences. Obviously, planning and delivering lessons is part of ‘teaching’ along with: assessment; professional mentorship; student behaviour, wellbeing, performance and mistake management; and much more. It is a complex job with many ‘moving parts’. Some of the tasks are discreet, some are interrelated, some are short-term, others are infinite, some require collaboration, others require deep contemplation.

Unfortunately, in the busyness of an educator’s day, these seperate tasks and actions tend to blur into an overall ‘job’ that we call ‘teaching’. And when we fail to seperate tasks, it is impossible to ask ourselves the question: what would I have to do to perform this task at a world-class level? What would ‘truly remarkable’ look like as I perform this task?

And when we’re not asking those questions, we’re probably not asking the more important question: how do I do this task better and better each time?

Instead, for many teachers, even many good teachers, the standard they hold themselves to is: ‘good enough’. My student reports are good enough. My lesson plan is good enough. My marking and assessment are good enough. “Good enough’ is linked closely to the concept of ‘professionalism’ – minimum expected standards of behaviour and performance.

‘Good enough’ is fine and it’s safe. But ‘good enough’ is the enemy of ‘outstanding’. When we raise the standard of accountability from ‘good enough’ to ‘outstanding’ or ‘exceptional’, we’re raising the stakes. We struggle more, we fail more, we make more noise and get criticised more. But these are the educators who are remembered, who are driving the profession forward and who are really making a difference.

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.

Your why

I am yet to meet a quality educator anywhere in the world, who decided to become a teacher for the fame and fortune or because they thought it would be a cruisy way to earn a buck.

Despite the fact that we knew it would be hard work, with long hours, high levels of stress, and relatively low pay and prestige, we chose it anyway. We all had our own different reasons for choosing this work – but we had a reason – a why.

Unfortunately, it is easy for that reason, that why, to get clouded by the day to day stress and needs of the job. And before we know it, we can lose track of it altogether.

When that happens (and it does happen), it’s critical to take time out to reconnect with that deep purpose so that it can drive our goals, decisions and behaviour. Or perhaps it’s time to consider another a different job.

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.

Stand out…or not

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

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

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

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

Hard to get and hard to lose

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

Teaching jobs are hard to get and easy to keep.

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

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

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

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

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

Plan C

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

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

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

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

Ambulance rules

In pretty much every country around the world, there is a road rule that compels drivers to pull over or move out of the way of an approaching emergency ambulance. There are, usually, very strict penalties for those who fail to comply. But these penalties are almost completely redundant. Why? Well, has this thought ever crossed your mind: ‘Ah, there’s an ambulance coming up behind me with its lights flashing. I’d better pull aside because I fear I might get a $400 fine.’ No. You have never had that thought. You’re not afraid of the penalty. You pull over and follow the road rule because it’s a good rule! You want to follow the rule, regardless of the potential fine. It’s a rule that makes sense. And so we act autonomously, of our own volition to follow the rule.

This sense of volition, of adhering to a regulation, norm, parameter, or rule voluntarily – even when we don’t control the rule itself – is one of the fundamental components of intrinsic human motivation.

Nearly 50 years of research into student motivation has identified that a sense of autonomy is a universal psychological need that has a powerful impact on learning and social outcomes. Importantly, autonomy is not about independence or freedom. In fact, the most effective classroom environments are those that are highly structured and highly autonomous. In other words, great teachers set up tight parameters, and clear values and behavioural expectations. And the students endorse these boundaries with their inherent, ‘natural’ behaviours. They follow the rules because they like them and because they make sense…just like the ambulance rule.

Is it predominantly fear or volition that motivates people in your environment to follow the rules?

You are not perfect

As we develop experience in our profession, we are able to become more independent. Our experience serves as a reference to help guide decisions. We recognise familiar situations and know how to respond. And we draw on experience to adapt to novel situations.

This independence, however, can lead to an experienced educator going to work, surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of other humans, and enjoying close personal connections, but still feeling lonely, professionally. Once we reach a certain level of experience, a kind of self-imposed expectation can set in that causes us to feel that we should just be able to ‘get on with it’. It is surprisingly rare for experienced, skilled educators to seek help with fine-tuning their skills. Sure, there might be different teams or networks designed to encourage supportive collaboration, but day-to-day, many experienced educators feel reluctant to (or don’t know how to) ask for help.

But here’s the thing. High-quality teaching is very, very complex. There are so many different interconnected skills required – everything from advanced computer skills to relationship counselling and a thousand others in between. Despite what you might think, every educator you meet is better than you at one or more of those skills. And even if you have some super-star, legendary teacher at your school who you hope to be like some day, you are better than them at one or more of those skills.

Imagine what the profession might be like if we were all able to demonstrate just a little more vulnerability and growth orientation – to be a little more willing to ask for skill-based help, guidance, and advice from each other.

 

Breathe in

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

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

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

This is the goal of education.

Closed circuit

The purpose of closed-circuit television systems (CCTV) is for cameras to record information and send it to one specific location. CCTV is a secure, private system that is the opposite of broadcasting – in which the signal is openly transmitted and anyone can tune in.


You know those rare days, where everything goes right and you are at the top of your game. I had one of those days in 2010. My mother had come to visit the school I was teaching in and, on that day, I was teaching my favourite Year 12 Psychology class. I had done extra preparation for the lesson – I wanted it to go well – and the students were absolutely engaged throughout the lesson and swept-up in the content on ‘evolutionary theories of relationships’. At the end of the lesson, my students left the classroom buzzing and, although I was glad it went well and so happy that my mum had seen me at my best, I kind of wished that I had recorded the lesson. It really was one of my best ever lessons. But no one will ever know. And no other teacher will ever be able to learn from it. (They also won’t be able to learn from all the lessons that didn’t work so well.)

That’s because traditional classroom teaching is closed-circuit.

We are starting to get better, as a profession, at designing more open-circuits. Regular lesson observations, peer-mentoring and ‘walk-throughs’, for example, are commonplace in good schools these days. And some of the most innovative schools are creating safe, transparent, active forums and ‘open-source’ databases; not only encouraging the sharing of best practice, but building it into the heart of the teaching infrastructure.

If we can get it right, this broadcasting of ‘what works’ is a way for us to galvanise our collective resources. It may just be the spark that we need to help ignite an evolution in pedagogy.

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.

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.

 

What’s the best teaching style?

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your hook?

One thing that almost all great plays, brilliant speeches or addictive TV series like Mad Men (a current favourite!) have in common is a captivating, attention grabbing, opening ‘hook’. It’s sometimes an image or a scene or a phrase or a line delivered by an actor. This hook inadvertently sucks us in to the content and, often, our entire attentional capacity is so zoomed in that the performance in front of us becomes our reality.

Yet, so few school lessons begin in such a way. Not every lesson needs to be mind-blowing. And a teacher is not a performer on a stage. But every great lesson has a ‘hook’. The opening few minutes of a lesson are so critical in setting up deep learning and focussed attention. In the best classrooms, students quickly become completely immersed in their learning because whatever they are doing immediately feels like it matters and it makes sense. The ability to rapidly cultivate a sense of purpose, a ‘hook’, is right at the core of great teaching.

Our classrooms can be absolutely as captivating as video games and iPhones – but only when we deliberately and skilfully ‘hook in’ our students.

What’s the ‘hook’ in your next lesson or speech?

99.9% hidden

I was a classroom teacher in mainstream secondary schools for about 15 years. Each year, I taught for about 40 weeks; 200 days. For the sake of round numbers, let’s say I taught five lessons per day. That works out to be 15 years x 200 days x 5 lessons = 15,000 lessons.

It’s hard to be precise, but I reckon I had another adult in my teaching room on about 45 occasions. That works out at 0.3%. of the time. And to be honest, a majority of those adults were trainees observing my teaching. So the proportion of time in which I had a mentor or senior teacher or qualified person witnessing my practice was minuscule – probably less than 0.1%.

Can you think of another regulated, established profession, other than child psychology, in which 99.9% of a person’s work is unseen by another adult human?

Because teaching has tended to occur, literally, behind closed doors, the amount of substandard practice that has been allowed is matched only by the amount of brilliant teaching that has never been seen, shared, or learned from. Things must change.

One of the most exciting initiatives we have seen is compulsory, systematised pedagogical experimentation. All teachers are required to think deeply about their practice, experiment with innovations and in-class variables, and then record their findings in a shared database.

This kind of development, led and owned by teachers, is helping us inch closer to another level of transparency, dynamism, collegiality and shared practice. And to the the next level of teacher professionalism.